Are engineers people? : an investigation into the approach of civil engineers to development in South Africa.
Engineers have throughout history performed an important role in the technical advancement of mankind. The record of development in the less developed countries of the world, however, has been less than successful. These countries are littered with monuments to failed development programmes that have incurred immense financial, economic and social costs. Among the primary causes of failure are the inadequate attention to the details of the social and political dimensions of development, and a tendency by engineers to presume that their common sense view of the world is sufficient. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that frequently engineers have found themselves to be in the position of sole arbiters of development projects. For most of the latter half of the twentieth century engineers have been constrained by the complexities of their technology to confine themselves to providing technical solutions to the needs of society. In the 1980s however society, at least in the First World, started to become increasingly concerned with environmental degradation and perceptions of diminishing resources. These concerns and the economic and financial costs of failed development, have led to concerted efforts to reexamine the processes of development. Successful development is driven by social and political understanding and commitment combined with innovative and appropriate technology. These require knowledge of the historical context of each society, an understanding of the concept of community, and an ability to recognise the requirement for interdisciplinary relationships. In South Africa in the 1990s there is strong political commitment towards the elimination of poverty and to development in rural areas. This has been translated into action through the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Much of the responsibility for its implementation falls on civil engineers. It is important therefore that engineers gain a better understanding of development theory, and of the complexities and diversity of development action. This study briefly examines development theory and the role of engineers as development practitioners, and considers two examples of rural development. The study concludes that engineers perform a pivotal role, and that a co-ordinated multidisciplinary approach with improved capacity, responsibility and accountability in local government are key ingredients for a successful development programme.