Construction can be a force for good around the world through providing jobs; so balance benefits of labour saving technology with providing opportunity for local people, says Musa Chunge.
What do we build, how do we build it and who are we building for? These three critical questions must be addressed as we tackle infrastructure problems in the developing world. With many UK contractors and consultants operating internationally these questions will arise, and must be addressed.
" In Cambodia, Egypt, Liberia, Malawi, Peru and Togo, over 60% of young adults were unemployed or relied on low-quality jobs with irregular incomes and little hope for material independence"
The answer to the first question, what, is easy: everything. Developing countries suffer from inadequate (if existing) infrastructure: unsuitable transportation networks, poor access to water, insufficient energy grids, deficient healthcare systems and limited education and emergency facilities. The needs are evident and distressing. The client/authority/owner/investor carries the largest proportion of the responsibility associated with what we build; they must select appropriate projects using limited resources to relieve current needs and accommodate future targets.
The second question, how, is not as straightforward. Technological advancement in construction leads to leaner projects and faster building times. Satellite-guided pavers make light work of high-quality road construction. Off-site manufacture and modular construction streamline the building process by reducing site work and creating space for automation, thereby cutting down on labour and associated costs. These are all welcome improvements in wealthy economies, like the UK, where labour is expensive and infrastructure is struggling to keep up with growing demand. But is the state-of-the-art template the wisest approach for low-income countries?
As a researcher at the University of Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) I worked on technology to monitor the quality and performance of built entities. I often mulled over the appropriateness of CSIC’s and my own work for less developed countries like Kenya, my home. I found it helpful to distinguish between construction technology geared toward eliminating the labour requirement, technology that targets health and safety concerns, and technology focused on improving the quality of construction. The distinction between these branches is rarely neat, with many advances achieving multiple goals in some capacity. Much of the research at CSIC falls into the third category which, along with the second branch, is easy to push for; safety and quality-enhancing technologies can help mitigate the risks faced by workers and the unwelcome socio-economic costs of defective infrastructure. However, a more cautious approach is required when calling for the application of labour-eliminating technology in less developed economies.
"With the massive need for infrastructure in developing countries, labour-driven construction could help stem the immediate unemployment problem while simultaneously addressing long-term development targets."
This takes us to the third question: who are we building for? In its 2013 report on global employment trends for youth, the International Labour Organisation revealed some staggering statistics across many developing countries. In Cambodia, Egypt, Liberia, Malawi, Peru and Togo, over 60% of young adults were unemployed or relied on low-quality jobs with irregular incomes and little hope for material independence (1). Most developing nations are not faring much better. Infrastructure is a crucial aspect of the struggle against poverty and joblessness, but it is a slow remedy, effectual only after it has actually been built. However, if the construction process is capitalised upon, it can be a catalyst for job creation and skill development; a helping hand to the unemployed. With the massive need for infrastructure in developing countries, labour-driven construction could help stem the immediate unemployment problem while simultaneously addressing long-term development targets.
One concerning aspect of applied labour is that many developing nations may not have strong legislation to protect worker rights and enforce acceptable health and safety standards. Even in a wealthy state like Qatar, which is applying a labour-heavy approach as it builds for the 2022 World Cup, reports have highlighted weak legislation and poor worker treatment contributing to many hundreds of fatalities among migrant workers since 2012; the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has claimed the event could cost the lives of at least 4000 migrant workers before kick-off unless conditions change (2). It could be even worse in poorer nations. Regardless of legislation and governmental responsibility, contractors must have a vision that goes beyond profits. They must be dedicated to caring for their workers, monitoring subcontractors and addressing the welfare of their labour.
Other considerations tied in with the notion of labour-driven construction include project financing (how do we create viable business models with labour driven strategies?); effective training (how do we equip the labour force to minimise future redundancy?); and urban versus rural appropriateness (do rural areas benefit more from slower, more labour-intensive methods?), among others. But job creation must have a place at the table when decisions are made. Construction and technology must be applied thoughtfully, not blindly. Create jobs. Generate incomes where there were none before. Build hope.
Musa Chunge is of Kenyan-Irish descent born and raised in Nairobi. He recently completed his MPhil research with the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge. Now he works in the UK as an engineer looking at the front end of construction technology.
(1) The International Labour Organization, Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013: A generation at risk, 8 May, 2013. The 2014 Global employment trend report suggests that employment statistics for the youth have worsened in many nations.