Although the term humanitarian activities might be deemed to emerge from compassion, it is mostly employed as a fix of rampant inequalities. Whereas humanitarian reaching out to one's neighbor is mostly based upon mutual trust and on knowing each other, humanitarian activities towards faraway, unknown people, might also be based upon a superiority feeling, and pride. Such activities do not necessarily aim at leveling of playing fields. Especially, strengthening one's economic positioning under the disguise of humanitarian activities is a divisive activity that sustains or even grows inequalities instead of providing a pathway of more equal distribution of resources and inclusion of all people in the global society.
In analogy to discussions taking place in the health-profession, engineering and ethics must engage in a dialogue between engineers and practitioners on the quality, validity and ethics of what is being proposed or done, avoiding the slipping of standards, poor practice, abuse or exploitation. For instance, there must be understanding of definitional differences in different contexts. Further, there is a need for debate over the objectives of engineering works, i.e. whether it is a means or an end, and about the applicability and appropriateness of the techniques and tools used, in an effort to assure the moral base of society.
Current pregnant issues in the world demand for new ideas. These new ideas, possibly modulated in 'the West' by 'the Rest', could contradict conventional and commonly adopted considerations of science and research in the western world. There are explicit needs for creating new knowledge from a desire of local relevance in all its aspects, rather than a regurgitation of hegemonic truths. There are pregnant questions and challenges from 'the Rest' towards accepted Western-centric norms and arguments.
It is time for tough questions to those in those in position of power. What do we want? Do we aspire equality? Do we want to 'live together' on mutual terms?
To assure enhanced opportunity, also for the disenfranchised, there is a need to aim for community, social cohesion and solidarity. There is no room for individualism showing off, propping up of egos, self‐promoting or self‐enhancing, harvesting on prejudices. Inequality is divisive; Without conscious efforts empathy and trust is felt only for those we view as equals, with those whom we mingle.
The current trends in the world, with a growing inequality and degradation of the environment, is bound to bring about a counter movement that deals with such inequalities. Material differences provide a framework round which social distinctions develop; People often use inequality in their stratification of society. Reducing inequality within professions is the best way of improving the quality of the professional environment. For instance, equality enhances real quality of life of engineers.
Leadership has to address underlying causes of current disparities in the world. Addressing the symptoms only, for instance by flying in engineering expertise into disenfranchised communities is not a sustainable approach. However, addressing the reduction of inequality is.
Flying in experts induces local engineers to regard those who fly in as role models. At the same time, the intervention deflates local engineers' self-confidence through shame of being dis-empowered to solve local challenges. On the other hand, the visiting engineers inflate with a self‐promoting, albeit insecure egotism, fueling a self-effacing aid industry. The unhealthy and fragility of the position of rising narcissism, for instance in considering Western engineering as exceptional, is witnessed by how it reacts badly to criticism. In general, in line with general psychology findings, it can be expected that western technologist will be driven to preserve their social status. They will be vigilant to threats that may jeopardize their social esteem or status.
A catalyzing thought leadership is needed to overcome these disparities in the engineering community through Social Innovation and active leveling of disparities between groups of engineers, world wide. This thought leadership must emerge from the inside, based upon lived through values, and norms. Its priority is to address inequality and build trust, leading to co-operation (rather than competition) between engineers, also in disenfranchised communities. This is a social capital building exercise based upon just economical behaviour where contributions and benefits are equally distributed, and on fruitful connections, both socially and politically.
We must crack the nut of the paradox of signals for a need to fly in expertise and the damage such intervention does. It is the underlying inequality that fuels this conundrum and keeps it in its tracks. In the mean time, humanitarian activities are bound to grow inequality, deflate local capacity, and inflate narcissism in the West.
This is the reason why it is often unhelpful to help and helpful to foster.