Professionals’ Failure in Safeguarding Public Interests is Conclusively Disastrous
Posted on September 19th, 2016

By Dr. Chandana Jayalath

A layman walking on the road could not be held blamable for failing to act to save a car crash victim but a medical doctor would be capable. It may be wrong if he failed to help in this situation based on the premise that professionals are capable of acting on informed decisions in the situations where the general public cannot. People rely on them because of the relevant education, training and expertise. A professional owes a moral duty to those held by the population in general and in society as they are trained to produce certain outcomes which in essence should take a moral precedence over the other functions of any society.

A professional conduct means the adherence to a standard of behavior befitting a professional while engaged in a professional capacity. A professional misconduct means a behavior that falls short of the foregoing. Meanwhile the professional institutes have introduced Articles of Association and By‐laws to represent the standard of professional conduct to which their members must adhere. Any member whose conduct is contrary to their code of conduct is generally liable to reprimand, suspension or expulsion from allied professional membership. By-laws mandate that the members shall maintain a high professional standard, be of good fame, integrity and character. They are expected to deliver their services in a manner neither derogatory to their professional character nor likely to lessen the confidence of the public. Also it is incumbent upon the professional to provide his client with the guidance necessary to make an accurate and informed decision.

The essence of professional conduct is that they embody more than the narrow pursuit of the interests of the client or the professional himself. The notion of professional standards indicates the existence of wider obligations, one aspect of which is the recognition of the impact which an activity has on the public. On examination, all professions that justify such a description share, as one of their aims, the safeguarding of the public interest. Thus, the element of public interest in any profession is pretty obvious though now recognized as involving many ethical issues, such as lack of listening to the general public in the case of development projects.

The general public is a source of traditional knowledge which is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained by people interacting with the natural environment for years. These sophisticated sets of understandings are a part and parcel of a cultural complexity that basically encompasses how people would prefer to live by. I must say, this aspect has been disgustingly ignored in the present day context of construction, and I doubt, whether the Construction Industry Development Act is strong enough to make this a reality. There can be several trends that pose a challenge to traditional practices evolving; politically and commercially. Nevertheless, public hearing help ensure that the common needs of masses are listened to and met. Indeed, the people who are going to be affected due to any upcoming development project should be fully informed and closely consulted for resettlement and compensation options. They must be contacted nicely and humanely without any sphere of influence. It is natural that people affected by resettlement are apprehensive that they will lose their livelihoods and communities, or be ill-prepared for complex negotiations over entitlements. Participation in planning and managing resettlement helps reduce any fear or obscurity and gives an opportunity to participate in key decisions that will affect their lives. Resettlement implemented without consultation leads to inappropriate strategies and eventual impoverishment. I would say, consultation is fundamental in good governance. Without consultation, the people affected may oppose the project, causing social disruption, substantial delay in achieving targets or even abandonment, and cost increases. Negative public and media images of the project and of the implementation agency may develop. With consultation, initial opposition to a project may be transformed into constructive participation fostered by holding public meetings and identifying focus groups.

The conventional starting point for a debate on public interest issues would be to examine the relevant rules of professional conduct, in the first instance. Yet these rules and procedures cannot be regarded as definitive of the public interest whereas the tasks of the professional bodies must be to identify and reflect in their rules of conduct and procedures what the public interest demands of that profession. If the professional bodies fall behind in this role, they risk becoming irrelevant in that the public will itself become the driving force. However, agony expressed through court actions is an advanced position only when the public is aware of its own rights at the outset.

Further, the annual global fatalities from natural disasters over the past decade were recorded to be average 106,000 and estimated average annual losses have been US$165bn. In the past, efforts had been focused more on reactive measures after a disaster. The question is why the experts could not foresee in advance such catastrophes with the latest technology in support? Was there any lapse on the part of the professionals? Have they been forcefully trapped into by politicians? Questions remain unanswered. Disaster losses in Sri Lanka too have increased substantially. The country has been prone to natural disasters caused by floods, cyclones, landslides, drought and coastal erosion and more frustratingly, the vulnerability to low-frequency, high impact events. Creating the political and social will to manage disaster risks therefore continues to be a great challenge. This altogether inspired the topicality of disaster risk reduction, and more importantly, the effective use of building technology in the function of disaster mitigation.

Disaster risk management is not an area new to Sri Lanka however; the approach to it still seems primeval. In post disaster resettlement, one of the key success factors is the recognition of the beneficiary’s life style and the general habits forming integral part of their social cohesion. Generally the residents make most of the decisions in low-income housing. The process of producing housing is more important than the actual end product, since it builds people’s capacities and empowers them. In 1976, the first Habitat Conference in Vancouver considered the people’s participation as the central element of future housing policies and strategies. But housing agencies struggled to implement it, facing the dilemma of determining: whose participation in whose decisions and whose actions? There is ample evidence now that participation and the establishment of partnerships between various stakeholders can be effective in solving deficiencies in housing and related services, whilst at the same time building the social and human assets of those involved. Yet, many humanitarian agencies involved in reconstruction are still struggling with this dilemma. They tend to work in a ‘supply mode’ when providing relief, which makes it hard to shift to a ‘support mode’, when they get to reconstruction. As a result, participation can be seen in reconstruction programs, not in the design stage.

In some countries, the traditionally elitist role of the architect who mainly works for wealthy clients is changing. The Dutch architect Johan van Lengen, working with the people of Mexico and later Brasil, described these reoriented professionals as ‘barefoot architects’ (1982); others, like Rod Hackney in the UK (1988) call them ‘community architects’. I personally believe we need a change in our local approaches by recognizing the discourse on shared responsibility and disaster resilience as an articulation of a new social contract. Unfortunately, one half of the contract is missing in the discourse; the rights and benefits that citizens would receive. The need to include the rights-based discourse is evident in the contention over core risk management dilemmas such as the protection of citizen and property holders’ rights, the legitimacy and accountability of government agencies and government decisions, and the uneven distribution of impacts, impositions and benefits of disaster risk and risk management activities. The absence of rights discourse in Sri Lanka disaster management has the potential to seriously undermine the legitimacy of the new disaster resilience social contract.

It is one thing to require engineers, for example to safeguard the public interest, but the difficulties of deciding on appropriate action in the face of a preventable disaster have already been indispensable. Even more difficult is to define how an engineer or architect should act in the public interest in circumstances short of impending disaster. Yet, it must be noted that rights go along with responsibilities and the rights are given to undertake responsibilities. Not all of these rights come about due to the professional status itself. There are rights that individuals have, regardless of professional status, including the right to privacy, the right to participate in activities of one’s own choosing outside of work, the right to reasonably object to workplace policies without fear of retribution, and the right to due process. Of many rights, the right of professional conscience plays a key role in the identity of a professional. Conscience is a private, constant, ethically attuned part of the human character operating as an internal sanction that comes into play through critical reflection about a certain action or inaction. The most fundamental right is the right of professional conscience that involves the right to exercise professional judgment taking a holistic view. Basic to engineers in their professional practice, the right to be responsible and to the right to secure the best interest of the society safeguard the societal respect toward the profession.

In addition to problems of interpretation, none of the codes of conduct descends to any detail as to the steps which are to be expected of an engineer, architect or similar disciplinarian when complying with his duty to the public. The point, which has now been made repeatedly, is that the relevant standards and the conduct expected from must be determined by the profession itself through its ethical conduct machinery. More frustratingly, the need for confidentiality has, in the past, prevented decisions being made available as a source of guidance; generally only the decision itself was published and not the reasons. Changes in the highway direction and alignment is a classic example where politics played and are still playing a major role in final decision though they must have been made purely on technical grounds. In 1986, the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Right to Development, which states that “every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.” The heart of the problem is that people displaced by development projects are generally seen as a necessary sacrifice on the road to development. The dominant perspective is thus the positive aspects of development projects, the public interests, outweigh the negative ones, the displacement or sacrifice of a few.

It is tempting to concede therefore that, beyond a few high-profile cases where professionals have stepped out of line to warn of impending issues, the professional institutions too have taken conveniently a passive role in relation to the public interest duty owed by their members. To do more, without a clear and pressing need, will entail further bureaucracy and public expense. Yet such an attitude does not reflect the views of few individual members who have consistently shown concern over the public interest, without fear. It has also been convenient to conduct the ‘ethical’ debate at such a high philosophical level so as to avoid any contact with the reality of any professional practice, be it engineering or otherwise. Thus, engineers, geologists and environmentalists in this country seem to have not been so content to join in the debate about coal power versus renewable energy sources, for instance. Their apparent and constant silence is undeniably a grave mistake that may lead to a national devastation that is not far away. These circumstances do inspire the importance of establishing a coherent duty on their members to act in the public interest at all times, without fail and without fear of political threat. However, no such duty can be supposed to exist without enforcement and the existence of appropriate sanctions.

The recent disaster literature highlighted the inadequate engagement in the mitigation of such events. Further highlighted was that the construction industry has not been sufficiently involved in disaster planning and management. It is therefore necessary to enhance the construction industry with the requisite capacity and capability to enable proper planning and designing which will in turn help respond effectively to disasters, save lives, rehabilitate vital infrastructure and reinstate economic activities. Until very recently Sri Lanka did not have an integrated institutional framework for disaster response, and a pro-active policy to tackle the trend of increasing disasters. Over the past decade efforts have been made to establish a legal framework in the country for disaster risk management (DRM). The 2003 floods and landslides disaster and the 2004 tsunami have brought to light the urgent need for a systematic approach to DRM.

The Disaster Management Act enacted 2010 provides the legal base and a high level National Council for Disaster Management to oversee all activities in this area. A separate Ministry for Disaster Management has been created and the Disaster Management Centre has been established as per the Act, as the lead agency in the country for Disaster Management. Building codes applicable in disaster prone countries provide good material for standardizing the future building construction. Many of the post-tsunami initiatives paved the way for improvements that transcended the immediate recovery and, in my view; Sri Lanka is more resilient than it was before the tsunami. I strongly believe if people are to be less vulnerable to disasters in the future, they not only need more resilient houses, but also to become more resilient themselves. The process of participation helps empower them, build their capabilities and social networks, all of which are key components of vulnerability reduction.

As justice must be seen to be done, so must the professionals duty owed to the public be seen to be fulfilled. The Sri Lankan professional institutions, largely as a consequence of their ‘individual’ nature operating as a mafia within themselves have fallen behind the foregoing aspirations in the safeguarding of public interests. Also on the other hand, it has not yet been publicly recognized that parties should seek redress through the respective professional institutions in Sri Lanka (since it ‘has an obligation to the public to ensure that its members are competent and capable’ and that the institute, if it is to promote the said sciences, technologies, disciplines and expertise ‘has a concomitant duty to investigate allegations of members’ inappropriate conduct in a fair and independent manner’). Overarching principles of practice flow from the foregoing values.

Raising concerns and ‘speaking’ where needed signifies one’s professional attire. Aptly identified as whistle blowing, it is a form of disclosure of information to an employer or, where appropriate, a regulator, professional institute, police or the media about a public threat. Whistle blowing is a selfless act. Professionals have a duty to protect the interests of the public and compelled to ‘blow the whistle’ on acts that harm these values. They have the professional right to disclose wrongdoing within their organizations and expect to see appropriate action taken. In this case, the whistle may be blown if the professional finds that the matter is sufficiently important and there is great imminent danger of harm to the general public if the activity continues. In other words, professionals’ failure in safeguarding public interests is conclusively disastrous.


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