Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Engineers working in conflict zones are living more dangerously

The sad news of kidnapped engineer Chris McManus's death in Nigeria is a stark reminder of just how dangerous engineering in conflict zones can be. Working for a humanitarian organisation that was founded to send engineers to help in major natural disasters, I know only too well that the risks facing people like Chris are on the rise – in places like Nigeria,but also in many other parts of Africa, Asia and further afield.

In fact, threats to expatriates and locals working in difficult and dangerous locations – whether commercial engineers or aid workers, doctors or security contractors – are now more common than in any period I can remember in the past 30 years.

Just a quick survey of people I know, who have worked in all manner of conflict zones in recent years, throws up more than a couple of examples. One, an engineer on contract in Albania recalls having an AK-47 thrust into his face while trying to find a location to install water tanks. Another reports driving through the middle of a firefight in Burundi after he and an engineer friend found themselves in an impromptu battle for the control of a road. A third spent time last year negotiating a colleague's release after he was abducted in Somalia.

And further examples abound – just take the British and American engineers who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan – or the British engineers who went to Chechnya to repair telecommunications in the late nineties, only to be kidnapped and later beheaded.

So why are engineers – whether commercial or humanitarian – at particular and increasing risk? The reasons are many. In the case of somewhere like northern Nigeria, where Chris McManus was working, skilled expatriates – in fact westerners in general – are both a potentially lucrative source of income for rebels and political groups in need of cash, and an effective PR tool. There is no better way for a group like Boko Haram to get their message across than via regular coverage of their cause in powerful global media. Politically, too, the sense of alienation from the West in many poverty-stricken regions is growing fast. And then there's the increased proliferation of weapons.

But there are more practical reasons, too. Contractors like Kenneth Bigley and his two US colleagues who were killed in Iraq in 2004 while working on reconstruction projects, are a prime example of skilled workers who are brought into post-conflict regions to help rebuild.

The very nature of reconstructing towns, bridges and infrastructure often means engineers are required to travel, sometimes to very insecure areas. And, they are almost always in a hands-on role, working out in remote locations usually with limited if any communications coverage. More so than perhaps other professions, and by the very nature of their work, they are put in harms way.

It's a stark fact that for humanitarian workers operating in hostile environments – and it's undoubtedly the same for expatriate staff across the board – the most dangerous place to be is on the road. When you're travelling you are incredibly vulnerable.

So what's the answer? There is no silver bullet. Though threats will always remain, the mitigation of security risks is absolutely critical. Effective hostile environment and security training is just one of the many precautions we insist on before sending engineers, or any of our staff, to dangerous locations.

Or, there's not going at all. But with high wages for those willing to put up with the security risk in Nigeria, Iraq or Afghanistan, it seems unlikely the steady flow of skilled staff to conflict zones will stop anytime soon.

One thing is certain: with the increasing incidence of legal action – namely expatriate workers suing their companies and organisations when they experience traumatic events such as kidnap – companies, charities and contractors simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

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