What is self-recovery? – The challenge for humanitarian agencies

This was first published on CARE Insights in June 2018.

Last year CARE and Habitat for Humanity published a study of six agencies’ ‘support to shelter self-recovery’ programmes after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in late 2013. But what do we mean by self-recovery, and what does support to self-recovery look like?

The humanitarian sector, like many others, loves inventing new terminology. Increasingly post-disaster shelter programmes are being described as self-recovery, or support to self-recovery. However, as so often with new terms, it is not well defined and is differently understood by different actors, which makes it difficult to support it in practice.

In previous years the shelter sector has advocated the use of so-called ‘owner-driven reconstruction’ approaches, while more developmental actors have pursued policies of ‘self-help’ housing development. Is support to self-recovery just a re-branding; a result of short memories? Are we re-inventing the wheel?

Formal and informal support for post-disaster recovery

The term self-recovery developed from the hypothesis that the majority of disaster-affected people have to arrange, or rebuild, their own post-disaster housing, without any significant support from the formal humanitarian system. This system is complicated, and is made up of myriad governmental and non-governmental agencies and donors. The system is itself poorly defined, and it is very difficult to say where formal assistance ends and informal assistance starts.

It’s clear, for example, that remittances play a major part in many people’s post-disaster recovery, and are not part of the formal humanitarian system. It is likely many do in fact receive some form of external support, and perhaps the hypothesis that most rebuild without support is flawed. Debt, migration, unpaid labour, changes to gender roles and many other sources of money and capacity contribute to people’s recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Nonetheless, support to self-recovery is now a key approach in post-disaster shelter responses by humanitarian agencies (and governments).

Owner driven approaches

After a disaster large portions of the affected population may receive emergency items, such as plastic sheeting, blankets, etc. In most disasters, very few will receive a completed house from the responding agencies or other institutions. While it’s extremely hard to measure the amount of assistance people get from what sources, it’s reasonable to draw the conclusion that the provision of post-disaster housing by the humanitarian system is patchy, of inconsistent quality, and insufficient scale. In too many cases the number of houses built by external responders number in the 100s and 1000s while the numbers destroyed number in the 10,000s and 100,000s.

Even when agencies do build complete houses for affected people, the outcomes have often been less than hoped for, with houses left unoccupied, or sold, because they don’t meet people’s needs. It’s long been understood that owner-driven approaches tend to lead to better outcomes. But in practice such approaches have remained focused on achieving high quality products, and have not relinquished much control to affected people. They have rarely, if ever, actually been driven by affected people.

Affected people are often required to build to standard design, with careful control of construction quality. There are cases of this approach being extremely successful, but they do require high levels of oversight and organisational capacity, and sufficient resources to allow people to build to the required standards. Where this is not in place, the most vulnerable affected people may be unable to complete the buildings, and may become trapped in limbo, unable to complete a liveable home, and unable to access additional resources.

Control & agency

For CARE, the difference between owner-driven approaches as they have been applied in practice, and self-recovery approaches, is about the level of control exerted by external responders, and the level of agency affected people have to take decisions about their own recovery. Whether support to self-recovery is just re-branding what agencies already do, or actually something different, depends on whether humanitarian agencies and their donors actually change their approaches and expectations. 
Two definitions of (supporting) self-recovery that have previously been proposed are:

  1. Parrack et al (2014) describe self-recovery as “households rebuild or repair damaged or destroyed homes using their own assets.
  2. Maynard et al (2017) describe ‘supporting self-recovery’ as projects which “provide one or a combination of material, financial and technical assistance; during the relief and/or recovery phase; to enable affected households to repair, build or rebuild their own shelters themselves or through using the local building industry.”

The first definition, just of self-recovery itself, focuses on the disaster affected households and the use of their own assets, but does not explicitly include households being able to make decisions for themselves, or exercise agency.

The second definition, of support to self-recovery, focuses on the programmes that humanitarian agencies deliver, but similarly does not mention agency of affected people. It is hard to distinguish between this definition and the established owner-driven reconstruction approaches already discussed.

Self-recovery = recovery with agency

Both definitions focus on the output of a shelter, or house, being built. But is the objective of the shelter sector to provide physical shelters, or is it to contribute through processes of sheltering to making sure vulnerable people are safe, can realise their rights, and have a chance to realise some, if not all, of their aspirations? Seeing the shelter as the ultimate goal, and not as a means to an end, has limited the meaningful adoption of owner-driven approaches, and threatens to co-opt the term self-recovery into another agency-driven, agency-owned thing. Recent research and thinking, including our new study of projects aiming to support self-recovery in after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, has highlighted the importance of affected people’s own choices and decision-making in making self-recovery a meaningful concept.

For CARE, self-recovery means recovery which is in accordance with the choices and decisions of the individuals and groups who are recovering. Self-recovery is recovery with agency.

The role of humanitarian agencies

The role of organisations like CARE is then to support that self-recovery, so that it is not just recovery with agency, but recovery with (1) agency, with (2) resources, and with (3) the best possible enabling environment. Shelter self-recovery is the aspect of this process which is specifically concerned with people’s ability to achieve post-disaster shelter in accordance with their choices. Projects which aim to support shelter self-recovery must therefore maximise the agency of the people they aim to support, ensure they have sufficient resources (money, materials, knowledge and information) and engage in the enabling environment to overcome any barriers preventing their recovery.

A range of interventions and support

Projects may therefore provide material, financial and/or technical assistance as in definition 2 above, but could also provide legal assistance, governance interventions, livelihoods interventions, or other assistance or interventions in the wider enabling environment (such as lobbying to change land and property laws or practice) which allow people and communities to achieve the results they desire as much as possible on their own terms.

To do this, any assistance must be provided with as few restrictions and limitations as possible so it, when pooled with individuals’ and communities’ own resources, ensures sufficient capacity to achieve a recovery in the way those individuals and communities choose for themselves.  Unconditional, unrestricted cash must be a key component of this in practice.

For CARE, having been investigating the promotion of safer buildings after disasters, and support to self-recovery, for several years now, it is becoming increasingly apparent that if we are to make significant changes to the way disaster-affected people are enabled to rebuild after disasters we, and our donors, need to relinquish control over timescales, over location, and over the end product. We need to get better at listening, better at analysis, and better at adapting what we do to what we hear.

Relinquishing control – but not responsibility

The key challenge for CARE, and other shelter actors, is relinquishing control over the recovery and rebuilding process to the affected people and communities, without transferring all the risk and all the responsibility for the outcomes of our programming onto those very same communities.

Self-recovery cannot mean we, or other actors (including governments), absolve ourselves of responsibility for what happens to people affected by disasters. The poorest and most vulnerable must not be, cannot be, expected to achieve a safe, dignified and adequate recovery entirely by themselves. We must still offer serious and substantial assistance. But we must learn how to do that on their terms, not on ours.

If we can do that, then perhaps supporting self-recovery might be something truly different, and not just a rehashing of old ideas.

Linking Aid to Migration: A worrying direction of travel

This blog was written with contributions from Inge Brees, Celine Mias and Chiara Cestaro, and was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018.

Aid, including humanitarian aid, is increasingly being related to, and justified by, a goal to limit migration from poor and fragile countries to wealthier countries [1]. This is a problematic approach for several reasons, so how should humanitarian and development NGOs respond?

EU Trust Funds, though funded by official development assistance, were not established with a vision to reduce poverty or meet humanitarian needs or human rights, but to stem migration flows to the EU. “Addressing the root causes of migration” is a key theme of the UK Aid Strategy, and also features heavily in the 2016 Bilateral Development Review. Similar rhetoric, if not policy, is evident amongst other donor governments in Europe, North America and Australia.

root causes migration

Above: Extract from DFID’s 2016 Bilateral Development Review

While many of the approaches and priorities resulting from funding instruments like the EU Trust Funds can be welcomed (such as a focus on sustainable livelihoods, reducing conflict, addressing climate change, etc), there are some fundamental concerns about the focus on migration; not least the painting of migration as inherently undesirable and harmful.

The trend appears to be one of larger percentage of development and humanitarian funding being spent in migration-producing countries and regions, with the primary purpose to address the internal political challenge of migration, rather than necessarily helping the people most in need [2].This causes both a shift in the geographical allocation of development funding, but also on the selection of its beneficiaries. Funding from EU Trust Funds is partly disbursed based on the assumption that those who migrate are mostly young men, not the poorest people or women. Above all, the discrepancy with commitments to ‘leaving no one behind’ in the Sustainable Development Goalsand the World Humanitarian Summit is stark. 

Furthermore, donors are increasingly explicitly linking development and migration agendas in choosing how to allocate funding; potentially leading to situations where if there is no cooperation on readmission and return, then there will be no more development funding [3].

Myths vs reality

There are some demonstrable fallacies that underpin some of the thinking around using aid to discourage or limit migration [4]. Some of the main ones are:

  • That there is a refugee or migration ‘crisis’. While the number of refugees recorded is increasing year on year (UNHCR, 2017), it is not the case that unprecedented numbers are reaching Europe, and it remains the case that the great majority of refugees are hosted in neighbouring or nearby countries. Overall global levels of international migration have not increased significantly as a proportion of global population. The vast majority of migrants entering Europe do so using formal, regular channels (and thus controlled by the authorities). The idea that Europe, or the USA, or Australia, are unable to cope with the numbers of migrants, including refugees, is false. This myth is repeatedly used to justify wealthy countries not taking their fair share of the responsibility (and opportunity) represented by refugees and migrants.

“Countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee populations. Western societies, by contrast, receive a comparatively low number of refugees, and current numbers are anything but unprecedented. Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.”

  • That development reduces migration. It has been demonstrated by a number of studies that development increases migration until countries significantly higher levels of income and prosperity [5]. Effective development assistance is likely to increase migration in the short and medium terms. The concern is that this myth is used to justify spending of aid money not on effective development assistance, but instead on approaches which deter or limit migration without effectively or sustainably increasing prosperity (such as encampment, exploitative labour arrangements, increased border security, etc).
  • That migration is inherently bad, or harmful. This is implicit in much of the policy to use aid to deter migration. Terms such as ‘mass migration’ and ‘illegal migration’, and the conflation of migration and terrorism, are frequent in the discourse, including in the UK Aid Strategy (in section 3.7 it states that ‘illegal migration’ is one of the ‘drivers of violent conflict which threaten stability and development’). The UK Aid Strategy does not however provide any justification for implying migration is bad; clearly assuming it goes without saying. Well, it doesn’t. There is in fact strong evidence that migrants, including refugees, are in the long term an economic benefit to host countries, where policies allow them to contribute, work, and pay taxes (European Commission, 2016OECD, 2017). It is well established that the flows of remittances from migrants, which are larger than the global aid budget, are highly effective drivers of development and highly important in times of crisis [6]. Furthermore, the discourse that migration is bad obscures the fact that limits on the migration of poor people are a significant symptom of global inequality, which CARE and other development actors seek to eliminate. There is no doubt that coping with inward migration can be difficult and politically sensitive, and can be expensive in the short term, but it is equally clear that migration is not an automatic ill, and that migration itself contributes to international development. The assumption that it is bad must be challenged.

What does this mean for humanitarian & development NGOs?

Migration is unquestionably important. Even if it wasn’t, as limiting migration is currently a key theme of several major donors’ strategies, it is not easy to simply refuse to engage with it, or to avoid all funding with aspects of this agenda. It is however all too easy to just go along with it without question. There are some key things that humanitarian and development agencies must avoid if they are to navigate this highly political area without compromising on their principles and harming the very people they exist to help. They must not:

  • Fall into the trap of using the myths outlined above when analysing or designing projects. If these myths form part of the programme rationale, principled agencies should think twice about taking part without challenging the design and objectives.
  • Engage in refoulement (the forcible return of refugees), or involuntary returns of migrants in any situation. This should include situations where people are given a ‘Hobson’s choice’ where they have no real alternative but to accept, or where their situation is made so unpleasant that return becomes the only viable option, or where the information they are given to encourage a decision to return is biased, untrue or incomplete.
  • Engage in projects (or activities within wider projects) which offer humanitarian assistance or other aid to people which is contingent on them surrendering or limiting their rights, or making agreements which limit their future choices and may not be in their own best interests. For example, this could include programming in which people are offered assistance in exchange for agreeing to return to their place of origin (offering aid in exchange for return to often desperate people cannot be classified as voluntary returns).
  • Engage in projects where participants or beneficiaries are selected based on whether they are ‘potential migrants’, or report on indicators related to the number of migrants stopped due to programming (this is one of the 19 indicators of the EU Africa Trust Fund), or the number of potential migrants reached with programming.
  • Engage in projects with implicit or explicit migration-related objectives unless it’s clear that the activities are in their own right beneficial to the people they seek to help. Projects which aim to make migration safer, or offer sustainable and beneficial alternatives to migration without discouraging or preventing migration, may be justifiable. Nonetheless, great care should be taken to analyse and understand the potential consequences of involvement in such projects.
  • Engage in projects which support reintegration of returnees in their countries or locations of origin unless that return is voluntary and safe, and returnees have adequate protection (including from sufficient access by NGOs). It is critical to ensure that involvement in such projects is not used to provide legitimacy for involuntary or unsafe returns, such as in this case:
Luke de Noronha tweet

Above: Screenshot of Luke de Noronha’s tweet

  • Place consideration of migrants’ or programme participants’ legal status above consideration of what is in their best interests and what their choices are.

At a time when the US is separating children from their parents and locking them up, Australia is interning migrants on remote islands, the UK is deporting long-standing permanent residents and Europe is funding abusive Libyan coastguards to prevent people from travelling over the Mediterranean it is vital that humanitarian agencies take a clear stand and do not become complicit in increasingly outrageous abuses at home or abroad.


[1] Apodaca, 2017Clemens and Postel, 2017LOC, 2011
[2] Bermeo & Leblang, 2018Funk et al, 2017
[3] CNN 2018Adepoju et al, 2017Koenig, 2017
[4] De Haas, 2017Davitti and La Chimia, 2017
[5] Clemens, 2014De Haas, 2007Lanati and Thiele, 2017
[6] CARE, 2016IOM, 2016World Bank, 2016

Do we have a humanitarian innovation problem

This blog was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018

In recent years, innovation has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between the humanitarian and development needs of the world and the capacity we have to meet them. But is the focus on innovation distracting us from the task of actually making a difference, at the necessary scale?

Funding for programmes increasingly requires innovation to be a clear and central part of the project design. There is a proliferation of organisations focusing on innovation in the humanitarian and development sectors, such as the Global Innovation Fund, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures. The list goes on. At the World Humanitarian Summit, ‘Transformation through Innovation’ was one of the four main themes; a ringing endorsement for innovation as one of the main ways to transform our ailing humanitarian sector.

Innovation has come of age. It is studied and analysed. Treatises and strategies are written. INGOs and UN organisations are investing in innovation departments and experts. But yet we still have an ever growing gap between humanitarian needs and resources, we are facing increases in inequality and increases in global conflict after many years of increasing peace, and we hurtle towards the precipice of catastrophic climate change on our chariot of economic growth. Will innovation lead to ways to steer humanity through these threats?

It is hard not to feel that this focus on innovation in humanitarian and international development is getting in the way of implementing known solutions to the injustice, inequality and resulting poverty and vulnerability that ultimately cause suffering and disasters in the world. Is innovation just the latest distraction from the lack of political will and funding to actually make a difference at the necessary scale?

Is innovation always a good thing?

Good innovation can achieve great things, and make huge leaps forward. Whether we are talking the development of the vaccine, the many mobile technologies making our work better, or the onset of humanitarian cash programming at scale, we can do more, and do it better, with innovation.

But do we really want all innovation? Do we want the type of innovation that’s just about expanding market share and consuming more? Like increasingly ridiculous haircare products, or yogurts? Do we want the type of innovation that’s all about disruption, whatever the cost? Do we want innovation for innovation’s sake, even when we don’t understand the consequences properly?

Innovation isn’t an inherent good. Innovation can certainly do harm, whether as the result of genetically modified grains limiting diversity and sustainability of crops or impoverishing farmers, newly introduced plants wreaking havoc, data breaches from insecure online systems, or over-ambitious deliberately innovative projects that just don’t deliver their aims.

It was supposed to be innovation, but now we’re being told it was experimentation– Papa Omotayo, a Lagos-based architect

Does innovation always live up to its ambitions?

Often, innovation just doesn’t live up to its grand aims. In the humanitarian shelter sector, the development of tens, if not hundreds, of innovative sheds has made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the fact that providing people with decent housing costs quite a lot of money, and the people who need help most don’t have that money. Having won prizes and much fanfare, the Better Shelter (more widely known as the ‘IKEA shelter’), a product of the IKEA foundation and UNHCR’s Innovation Service, has certainly not lived up to its ambition. This innovation, as so many innovations, appears to be more about hype and PR than about delivery.

Talking about humanitarian housing problems, perhaps it’s worth looking at the parallels with non-emergency housing. In the UK housing market, councils are looking for increasingly ‘innovative’ ways to deal with their shortage of social housing. Often an “unapologetically commercial approach, but with a social purpose”, this moves away from taxation paying for services, and towards a market-driven approach. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case councils have been forced by public policy to find convoluted ways to meet their obligations. And private sector investment carries risk as well as reward.

Is innovation just passing the funding buck?

In the humanitarian world, the talk is increasingly of innovation around the role of the private sector and new funding models. In a world where there aren’t enough resources, this will be welcome if it leads to more – but it can’t be allowed to lead to a re-arranging of the deckchairs in a zero sum game.

For example, much is made of the possibilities presented by risk-based financing (insurance for disasters), but the premiums for this have to be paid by existing donors. More predictable financing perhaps, for some emergencies, but can it revolutionise humanitarian response? Can we trust private insurance to replace public safety nets and international solidarity? If innovation is used as an excuse by those holding the power to avoid their responsibilities (‘Well, you just have to innovate’) it will be counter-productive.

Innovation can deliver impressive results

There are much heralded success stories of innovation, many in the areas of mobile technology, medicine and energy. MPesa, Frontline SMS, and Ushahidi are all examples of powerful mobile tools developed in East Africa to meet particular needs of East Africa. Private sector startups are driving decentralised energy access in poor, rural areas of the world. There are some enormous successes in the health sector which have capitalised on developments of new drugs and treatments.

The humanitarian sector itself, for all the criticism of red tape and unwillingness to change, is remarkably innovative. Whether developing better materialsbetter approaches, or better technology, it has done some pretty impressive things to better meet people’s needs. In the midst of emergencies, the innovation that is delivered, under pressure, to get essential items and services to people in need is not often adequately recognised.

Humanitarian innovation in action

For example, in Zimbabwe in 2015/16 there was a major drought, and severe food shortages. Building on the now well-established humanitarian innovation of providing unconditional cash at scale, DFID funded CARE International and World Vision to distribute cash. However, there was a major liquidity crisis in Zimbabwe. How do you distribute cash to buy food when there’s no cash? The programme responded by putting more emphasis on e-transactions rather than cashing out, working closely with two mobile operators and traders to set up the necessary systems.

But then it became clear that due to the liquidity crisis, grain importers couldn’t bring sufficient food into the country for people to buy. Realising the problem, DFID worked with Crown Agents and the grain importers to establish the grain import facility. Through the facility, commercial grain traders were able to import 55,000 metric tonnes of maize to sell on the open market, enough to meet over 1.6 million people’s food requirements for three months. The cost to DFID was £200,000, in addition to the cash transfers. It would have cost more than $50m to import and distribute food aid directly.

This innovation was possible because the organisations involved, including the donor, were open to trying new things, and driven by a mutual desire to make things work. Where this culture of openness is not there, innovation is stifled, and important programming is not delivered.

Do the achievements match the hype?

These examples are good ones. Innovative products and systems are enabling big improvements in many areas. But is innovation the panacea it claims to be?

Initiatives like USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures seek to support ‘breakthrough solutions to the world’s most intractable development challenges – interventions that could change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’. Canada’s Grand Challenges fund seeks ‘Bold Ideas with Big Impact®’. The EU seeks ‘affordable high-tech for humanitarian aid’ as part of its Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation framework. The World Humanitarian Summit seeks ‘transformation through innovation’. The UK’s research funding seeks to address ‘global challenges’.

Some of these initiatives will, hopefully, lead to great improvements in disaster risk reduction, in health, in energy, and in other areas; but the degree of realism between the funding offered and the scale of the challenges varies dramatically.

The rhetoric doesn’t match the achievements. We have better technologies. We have better information management. We have much potential. Innovation is good. It helps, and it will improve things. But are we going to see these breakthrough innovations to ‘change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’? Do we honestly expect that the complexity of inequality, poverty and disasters can be solved by some lightbulb moments? Do we understand the consequences of this drive for innovation?

Who – and what – is really driving the cult of innovation?

Seeing all this investment, and these initiatives, it’s hard not to conclude that this is the rich North trying to have its cake and eat it. The UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund is ‘tackling global challenges in the national interest’ and deliberately funding a leading role for UK research. It sounds suspiciously like spending ODA money on a UK-led research agenda. By focusing on the cult of innovation, as many have called it, the global North is seeking a miracle cure for the disease it itself is the cause of.

Set against this, social and economic policy globally is not visibly moving forwards. There is little innovation apparent in finding ways to distribute wealth and power more equitably.

Across the public sector, social services are cut, replaced by ‘innovative’ cheaper, and worse, alternatives. Broadly good examples of successfully working with social safety nets in Turkey, Ethiopia and Kenya are set against much wider regressive migration policies, and backpedalling on international commitments. While funding innovative products and technologies to seek miracle solutions to the world’s problems, there has been almost complete failure to find political solutions to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, to deal in an even slightly morally justifiable manner with the relatively insignificant numbers of refugees seeking safety in Europe and a continuation of the systematic extraction of wealth from poor countries. (In 2015, $203bn was taken from the African continent by repatriation of profits, by illegally removing funds, or by other means).

Innovation is welcome – but it is not a panacea

We should grasp good innovation gratefully, with both hands, when it comes along. We should be able to identify it, welcome it, nurture it and make it work. Like the cash programme in Zimbabwe highlighted above, we should be open to finding the right ways to get the right help to people in whatever particular situation they are in.

But let’s stop pretending that we can innovate our way out of every problem. Most of the problems we deal with are really, really hard. Their solutions are nearly always political, and cost money. Let’s continue to listen, to learn, to research – so we can better understand these really hard problems, and better find solutions.

But no amount of innovation funding will make up for an unjust global taxation system, over-consumption, the denial of people’s rights, or the looming climate disaster we all face. We can’t innovate ourselves out of having to do the right thing. The system can’t innovate its way out of structural failings it is unwilling to address.

Innovation – the latest shiny gadget, the latest app, the new approach to doing more with less – is alluring but is not going to solve the world’s problems by itself. A focus on plaudits for quick-fixes and low-hanging fruit will not solve the world’s more intractable problems. Let’s not forget the importance of politics, public policy, decent levels of funding, and bringing existing solutions to scale.

Let’s not forget how much can be achieved with good, boring, existing policies and approaches. Innovation can be good, but boring can be good too.

Like all good things, perhaps innovation is best taken in moderation.

Gender Balance in Engineering

The February issue of the Structural Engineer includes a letter to the ‘Verulam’ letters section on ‘Gender Balance in Engineering’. I wrote a letter in reply, but it didn’t make it into the March edition, so instead I have reproduced it below, with thanks to Suzy Madigan, who checked it for me. The original letter is here:

Cliff Billington’s letter on gender balance in engineering is shocking, but is an opportunity to confront many of the tropes and prejudices that are such a barrier to positive change in the engineering professions. Sadly Cliff’s views are far from rare, and the fact that the editor considers them only “slightly controversial” and does not condemn them outright is indicative of how far our profession is from where it needs to be.

I have sat in meetings where more qualified women are ignored, while the views of less experienced men are listened to. I’ve seen women with considerable design flair and ambition sidelined to focus on business management and project administration while men with egos take the credit and glamour of being the star designer. Fantastically talented women leave the industry, or are unable to return after having children, because of endemic discrimination and inflexibility. I have had repeated conversations with men in the engineering sector where they categorically deny, like Cliff, there is any problem whatsoever. Yet I don’t know of a single woman who thinks all is well. Most shockingly, I have sat in an Institution Council meeting where a young female engineer was dismissed and belittled by an Institution President after highlighting how inspiring it can be to have senior female role-models in the profession. The Institution Council itself is a striking example of the abysmal gender balance in this profession. Two female presidents after 111 years is some progress. It is not enough.

There should be no need to explain why Cliff is wrong. There should be no need to point out the huge reservoir of talent that we miss out on by alienating and excluding women. There should be no need to demonstrate that engineering is short of women not because of women, but because of the multitude of unconscious and deliberate barriers the profession and its members, who are overwhelmingly men, put up to prevent positive change. There should be no need to explain how much more pleasant, engaging and just normal a workplace is that has both men and women – and conversely how weird a “code-drafting committee” without women actually is. There should be no need to justify gender equality. Sadly there is a need for all of this.

The editors “don’t think Cliff is pushing a case for deterring women from becoming engineers, rather than arguing that this should not be seen as problem.” Well, perhaps they should re-read his letter. It is exactly the insidious attitudes epitomised by this writer which deter women from joining or staying in professions which seem like an old boys’ club. Women shouldn’t have to feel like they have to spend their whole careers proving themselves to be just as capable as people with different sex organs.

Inaction is a deliberate choice, and maintains the status quo. It’s not just the job of women to change this. It’s time for the Institution, its (male) members, and their employers, to make more concerted and deliberate efforts for change. This should be top of the agenda of Council, and no longer something that it simply pays lip-service to. Those men who say “but I’m not sexist”, and “I’m not the problem”, but look on and do nothing to change things are part of the problem. Those employers who have lots of female graduates but no women directors are part of the problem. Those organisations and individuals which turn a blind eye to harassment in the workplace are part of the problem. The tired and sexist trope that the profession is a meritocracy must be retired. In fact the profession structurally advantages men at every level.

So let’s build on the positive call from John Nolan, Nick Russell, Ian Firth and Tim Ibell that prompted Cliff’s letter, and see more action from the Institution, from employers, and from both the womenand the men in this profession, and reap the benefits of gender equality in the next decade, not the next century. Cliff’s letter is a clarion call for change.