Humanitarian Science and Technology

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Humanitarian was first applied to organizations such as the International Red Cross/Crescent, founded in 1864 by the Swiss philanthropist Jean-Henri Dunant (1828–1910), in response to his experience with wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino, Italy, in 1859. From the beginning the term was thus allied with an ethical vision for the use of science and technology (initially in the form of medicine) to benefit human beings who may have previously been harmed by technology (at first in the form of military weapons).


Humanitarianism is an ethical vision closely associated with the creation of the social sciences. During the nineteenth century, modern natural science began to explore social phenomena, in part to deal with the challenges presented by new human powers over the natural world. Industrial technologies created urban centers that needed better management for the benefit of the human beings who lived in them, not as members of some political or religious or ethnic group but simply as human beings, who could also be scientifically studied as such. Public health and public engineering is for the benefit of all, although the "all" was in the first instance understood within a national context.

Humanitarianism thus aims to extend compassion beyond traditional family or village limits, especially through the utilization of science broadly construed. Although this may appear to have been simply a secular version of Christian missionary work—especially since humanitarian organizations often attracted voluntary contributions from believers—the increasing number of middle-class persons involved in providing relief for the victims of warfare and the improvement of urban slums constituted a historically unique social movement (Morehead 1999).

The larger background is that the early-1800s gave science and technology major roles in the construction, organization, and maintenance of both nation-state and colonial empire. First in England and France and later in the United States, centers of raw materials extraction and industrial production also created an exploited working class. Witnessing the living conditions of these people, humanitarian scientists and engineers often responded to alleviate such situations as best they could through technical improvements. After 1830 in Lille, France, humanitarian physicians studied and denounced the deplorable conditions of working class people in order to improve their health and living conditions (Gerard 1999). In 1838 German-born naturalist Robert Schomburgk sought to use his knowledge to reduce the enforced slavery of Indians in British Guiana by establishing a political boundary in harmony with their natural territory (Riviere 1998). Indeed in the 1800s humanitarian science, by emphasizing the unity of all peoples as human beings in the eyes of science, was a significant contributor to abolitionist movements throughout the world.

Across the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century, international conflicts and natural disasters affecting large populations further spurred efforts to utilize science, technology, and medicine to ameliorate the conditions of wounded and displaced peoples. The Franco-Prussian War (1870–1971), the Ohio and Mississippi River floods (1884), the Spanish-American War (1898), the San Francisco earthquake (1906), and World War I (1914–1918) all provided major tests for the International Red Cross and related humanitarian agencies. The continued involvement of scientists and engineers in humanitarianism was reflected in scientist and inventor Alfred Nobel's creation of the Nobel Prizes at his death in 1896; the first Peace Prize was awarded to Dunant in 1901.

The twentieth century witnessed the further institutionalization of humanitarian activities related to science and technology in labor movements, public health work (including family planning), and immigrant settlement and education (which often emphasized technical education). Finally in response to the horrible uses of science in World War II (1939–1945), especially in the death camps of Nazi Germany, humanitarianism led to adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which stipulates "the right freely … to share in scientific advancement and its benefits" (Article 27).

Some argue that all science and technology are inherently humanitarian in their basic orientation, which was the view of both early modern scientists and proponents of the Enlightenment. Over the course of the modern period, however, it became increasingly recognized not just by socialists that special efforts are often needed to protect science and technology from dehumanizing distortions caused by economic or political interests. Efforts to liberate the benefits of science and technology from pernicious influences have taken place in national and international regulatory agencies, which may in many instances be styled humanitarian. Especially during the last half of the century humanitarian science and technology were further encouraged by four interrelated phenomena: the consumer movement, the environmental movement, the alternative technology movement, and public interest science.

Engineers especially also have been major contributors to international development work. For instance, the idea for the U.S. Peace Corps originated in 1960 with civil engineer Maurice Albertson, who was also intimately involved in its creation.

However, by the last quarter of the century, disaster and refugee relief had taken on characteristics that exceeded the capacities of many traditional humanitarian organizations. The end of the Cold War (1989) and the subsequent rise of genocide and terrorism as an international threat promoted humanitarian missions by the armed forces, which relied heavily on engineering skills. Increasingly humanitarian action involved scientific and technological developments in psychological counseling, high-tech monitoring (of military movements or weather), and the use of specially designed equipment (mobile power plants, water purification systems, and more). But a further response was the creation of new kinds of not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations oriented toward humanitarian action as part of an emerging international civil society. The failures and inadequacies of post-Cold War ideology of humanitarianism have also been subject to extensive criticism (see, for example, Rieff 2002).

Science and Engineering without Borders

Humanitarian science and technology may be related to what Carl Mitcham (2003) has termed idealistic activism among scientists and engineers, as illustrated by organizations such as International Pugwash (founded 1957) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (founded 1969). Among a diverse collection of related organizations seeking to build bridges between humanitarianism and scientific technology are the Responsible Care initiative of the American Chemistry Council and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES). Responsible Care, founded in 1988, is a voluntary program to improve environmental health and safety in the chemical and related industries, especially in developing countries. INES, founded at a 1991 international congress in Berlin, is an association of more than ninety organizations in fifty countries promoting the involvement of technical professionals in humanitarian and peace development activities.

In 1971, however, humanitarian science and engineering activism took a new turn with the formation of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders). MSF, which has become the largest non-governmental relief agency in the world, grew out of dissatisfaction with the inability of the Red Cross/Crescent to react independently of national government controls, and its tendency to remain within safe boundaries. The idealistic physicians of MSF pioneered new ways to bring medical science and technology to people in crisis and to speak out against human rights abuses. Since its founding, MSF has responded to needs resulting from earthquakes, hurricanes, war, and famine in Central America, Africa, Russia, the Balkans, and the Middle East (Tanguy 1999).

Inspired by MSF, other science and engineering organizations followed suit. Examples include Avaition sans Frontières (1980), providing air deployment for humanitarian projects, and ORBIS ophtalmologists (1982), providing preventive and surgical eye care to poor communities throughout the world. In the early-1990s, there also emerged independently a number of groups going under some form of the name Engineers without Borders: Ingénieurs Sans FrontièresIngénieurs Assistance Internationale (Belgium), Ingeniería sin fronteras (Spain), Ingenièrer unden Graenser (Denmark), Ingenjörer och Naturvetare utan Gräser-Sverige (Sweden), Ingegnería Senza Frontiere (Italy), and others. In 2003 these groups organized Engineers Without Borders—International as a network to promote "humanitarian engineering … for a better world." The process has also led to educational programs in humanitarian engineering, efforts that parallel others in public health and nutrition science, and policy programs that seek comprehensive, interdisciplinary understandings of humanitarian crises.

Undoubtedly one of the personal inspirations for engineering without borders efforts was the life and work of mechanical engineer Fred Cuny (1944–1995). Following relief work in Biafra (1969), Cuny sought to bring his engineering skills to bear in earthquake disasters in Central America (1971 and 1976), Sudan (1985), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Sarajevo (1993–1994), and Chechnya (where he was assassinated). Cuny's book Disasters and Development (1983) outlines what became known as the Cuny approach, an effort to respond to disasters not just by returning people to their predisaster state, but as opportunities to help them improve their lives beyond what otherwise might have been possible.

Defining the Field

Although subject to continuing debate, the basic dimensions of humanitarian science and technology may be summarized as follows. While advances in science and technology have benefited many persons, they have also often increased rich–poor divides, to which specific organizations have tried to respond. Among these, many emphasize science and engineering expertise. Humanitarian science and technology projects, typically operated on a not-for-profit basis, aim either to provide fundamental needs (such as food, water, shelter, and clothing) when these are missing or inadequate in the developing world, or higher-level needs for underserved communities in the developed world.

In contrast to corporations, which aim for relatively near-term profit, and governments, which fund in light of election cycles and constituent dependencies, humanitarian projects are of longer-term importance for society as a whole. Humanitarian science and engineering ideally engage local communities in direct participation in determining project needs and directions. Additionally they seek strategies, designs, and technologies that promote both the sustainability of natural systems and cultural traditions.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics;Globalism and Globalization;Humanization and Dehumanization;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Cuny, Frederick C. (1983). Disasters and Development, ed. Susan Abrams. New York: Oxford University Press. Highly influential.

Gerard, Alain. (1999). "Action Humanitaire et Pouvoir Politique: L'Engagement des Medicins Lilliois au XIX Siecle" [Humanitarian action and political power: the involvement of Lille physicians in the 19th century]. Revue du Nord 81(332): 817–835.

Mitcham, Carl. (2003). "Professional Idealism among Scientists and Engineers: A Neglected Tradition in STS Studies." Technology in Society 25(2): 249–262.

Morehead, Caroline. (1999). Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross. New York: Caroll and Graf. A broad and detailed historical narrative.

Rieff, David. (2002). A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster. A critical examination of contradictions in early-twenty-first-century humanitarianism.

Riviere, Peter. (1998). "From Science to Imperialism: Robert Schomburgk's Humanitarianism." Archives of Natural History 25(1): 1–8.

Tanguy, Joelle. (1999). "The Médecins Sans Frontières Experience." In A Framework for Survival: Health, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Assistance in Conflicts and Disasters, revised edition, ed. Kevin M. Cahill. New York: Routledge. The only general history that exists.

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Humanitarian Science and Technology

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