Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – How can Engineers contribute to eradicate poverty?

No Poverty – SDG 1

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There has never been such a discourse that the poverty is nothing to do with Engineering. In my view, like any other profession, be it Economist, Social Scientist, or Development worker, Engineers in all disciplines contribute in eradicating poverty. How do Engineers contribute to eradicate poverty and how can we better do that in the future in the context of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1 – ‘No poverty’. 3. Singleton (2003) proposed four key characteristics of sound Engineering solutions to poverty alleviation: 1. Sustainable Engineering, that take into account use of natural resources for optimum solutions, 2. Life-cycle engineering that takes into account the operational and maintenance cost of the engineering solutions proposed, 3. Empowered engineering will take into account the capabilities of the local community, and 4. Appropriate engineering that considers various options to meet the engineering needs that facilitates knowledge transfer, creates jobs, creates ownership and may reduce cost. d

Increasing access to basic community services and infrastructure in health, education, water, sanitation, and livelihood are key to eradicate poverty, which is the job of Engineers. They are utmost priority in geographical areas, where there is a limited access to these services, mostly in rural and estate sector in Sri Lankan context. However, given the increasing urban population in Sri Lanka, there is also an imminent risk of increasing urban poverty, particularly those who are most vulnerable to various shocks such as recent flooding and landslides. There is also regional disparities of poverty between districts and within a district. For example, in Batticaloa district, there are many dispersed pockets within a divisional area with high number of poor households, which is far remote from the largely populated urban area.

SDG 1 sets five key targets and two additional targets for resource mobilisation and policy:

  • Global extreme poverty line is less than US$1.25 (Around 200 LKR) a day
  • Reduce national level poverty by half
  • Enforce social protection systems
  • Provide equal rights to economic resources, access to basic services, ownership and control over land and their property
  • Build resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters

The resource mobilisation target is to ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries. The policy related target is to create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

The achievement of eradicating poverty is measured by many indicators including the following key indicators:

  • Proportion of total government spending on essential services (education, health and social protection)
  • Proportion of government recurrent and capital spending to sectors benefit the poor and vulnerable groups
  • Proportion of resources allocated by the government directly to poverty reduction programs

The current status of achieving SDG 1 in Sri Lanka was reported in the recent review by the Government of Sri Lanka. It reported that the proportion of the population under the national poverty line is 4.1% in 2016 (3,624/= per capital expenditure). The proportion of the population under the international poverty line is less than 1% (International poverty line is 1.90 US$ per day). Although poverty has declined to a greater extent at the national level, there is still a demographic disparity between provinces and districts. According to poverty indicators published in 2016 by Department of Census and Statistics by the Government of Sri Lanka, poverty head count index is more than 10% in some of the districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces such as Mulaitivu (12.7%), Killinochchi (18.2%), Batticaloa (11.3%) and Trincomalee (10.0%). Poverty headcount index is the common indicator use to measure poverty. But it does not take into account the depth and the severity of poverty among the poor. In order to devise appropriate poverty reduction programs, the level of poverty among the poor needs to be well-understood.

It was reported that 34% of the population covered in one of the social protection programs (45% of the elderly population, which is of 60 years of age). Sri Lanka has many social assistance and social insurance programs under the social protection system. However, appropriate targeting for effective social protection programs has been a challenge. Several studies recommended that there is a central system to coordinate different social protection programs – for example at minimum, a system to minimize overlaps between large scale programs such as Samurdhi and payments for elderly, people with disability and patients with kidney disease. Such a coordinated mechanism can increase effectiveness and provide more acute targeting for the most poor and vulnerable families.

Yet, more challenges to come, since the unemployment rate among the youth has continued to increase over the past years. There is not much research based evidences to understand the impact of increasing unemployment among youth on household income, and if it significantly push the proportion of households just above poverty line – that are on the margin towards the households below poverty line. New innovative engineering solutions for example in designing infrastructure or introducing sustainable new technology can be proven to be contributing largely in poverty reduction strategies. A holistic approach by appropriately coordinating with other key disciplines with good engineering practices at local level is required to contribute to the achievement of social and economic goals of the communities. The purposive social ends of engineering is to ‘enhance the welfare, health, and safety of all whilst paying due regard to the environment and sustainability of the resources’ (Bowen 2016 quoting UK Royal Academy of Engineering).

In the developed countries, there are many initiatives to bridge the gap between Young Engineers and their communities through service learning and community outreach programs such as the programs by Engineers Without Boarders (EWB). At the undergraduate level courses, many universities have introduced new modules to engage engineering students with their own communities or with outside communities that offers an opportunity to learn from the community of their problems and to innovate community based solutions. This approach is lacking in the Sri Lankan universities, where most of our initiatives are industry driven. Undergraduate Engineering students are sent to industrial training during their four years of study period, but have limited engagement to expose themselves in communities that provide an opportunity to understand the needs of the community. An introduction of a community outreach programs or volunteering in communities during their period of undergraduate studies through small scale innovative projects will enhance their understanding in real community problems. Most importantly, they will start to feel the real struggle of marginalised communities that I believe will inspire them to innovate new solutions with advanced technologies that they learn in classrooms. Interestingly, most of the students enter into state universities come from rural communities who have gone through many struggles in their life. Yet, do they go back to their own societies to reflect back on the problems that they have encountered and to provide a solution so that their future generation will see less of similar struggles. The community engagement is not only needed in the rural areas, but also in the urban sector, as there are many more emerging issues that require brave engineered solutions. Let’s learn from our own struggle to fight against poverty to teach the younger generation so that they spend their valuable time productively to innovate a new world that never existed before.

“Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.” ? Theodore Von Karman

Next month, we will continue with the snapshot of SDG 2: No Hunger. All SDGs are well connected, and thus require a holistic view to address real development challenges. There is a closer link between SDGs 1 and 2, since the food security is impacted by the poverty status of households. We will explore SDG 2 in the next issue of digital SLEN. Until then, let us reflect on SDG1-No Poverty and their implication to Engineering profession. Your comments on how we as Engineers can contribute to achieve SDGs can be posted in the following IESL Facebook page .

Further reading:

  • RICHARD, W. (2016). ENGINEERING ETHICS: Challenges and Opportunities. SPRINGER.
  • Wall, K. (2010). Engineering: issues, challenges and opportunities for development. UNESCO.
  • Singleton, D. (2003). Poverty alleviation: the role of the engineer. Arup Journal38(1), 3-9.

Eng. Saja A.A. Majeed, Lecturer, Faculty of Engineering, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka. PhD Scholar, Science and Engineering Faculty, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.