Sacrificing to Serve

While fulfilling on many levels, it takes a very special breed of person to become an aid worker for relief organizations, dropped, into crisis zones at a moment’s notice.


Typical tool-kit to take to a disaster site

Executives are expected to board planes at the drop of a hat, to break off holidays, to leave wives and families behind to attend crucial business meetings around the globe. The stressed out nights in hotels before showtime the next day, the monotony of international airports, the loneliness of the long distance traveller – this is the expected downside to a high-pay, high pressure job.

But there are other jobs where the stress factor is tenfold, the separations longer, the ‘business’ to be attended to heartbreaking. Because the earth – or dictators, despots and crackpots – give no notice, the individuals drawn to such careers have to make life choices and commitments like few others.

This year alone there has been plenty to keep them occupied; the Haiti earthquake, the Chilean earthquake, floods in Colombia, Brazil and Peru, Cyclones in Madagascar and the Solomon Islands, the unrelenting violence of the Congo, of Somalia and Darfur … these are the place names of suffering on an unimaginable scale.

Currently there are hundreds of such organizations at work in the world; national bodies like AusAid in Australia to the United Nations’ World Food Programme to the plethora of NGO charities like Save the Children, Help the Aged and Oxfam.

Whether supplied with government cash or subsidized by handouts from the public through appeals, the sums of money involved are vast: some 25billion euros donated privately in the USA alone last year.

But while the perception of the typical aid worker is one of a driven, vocational person intent on changing the world through selfless acts, those at the sharp end say no-one should take their eyes off the fact that these agencies are businesses and only succeed when they are run as such. Peter Casier, 50, who trained as a graphics engineer and worked in IT in his native Belgium before deciding he didn’t want to look back on his life “And realized I had done nothing but survive,” exemplifies a spirit of both pragmatism and realism. He was 34 when he decided to change and, like the many frustrated people who cannot find an easy entry into the world  of professional aid working now, he too found it hard to get his first break. “You just have to keep knocking on all the doors,” said Peter, 50, and a father of two who has juggled family life and work in the field for the past 16 years. “You have to remember that aid agencies need press officers, accountants, engineers, mechanics – skilled people that make up the workforce,” he said. After first working for the International Red Cross on 850 euros a month, he now is a senior official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Over the years he has worked at the scene of some of mankind’s worst suffering including in Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan. He spoke with The Work Style magazine from Dominican Republic where he was busy setting up a logistics pipeline to get urgently needed aid to survivors of the Haiti earthquake. He said “I regularly get emails from people asking more information on how to join one of the humanitarian organizations, either full time, part-time or as a volunteer.”

“Let’s compare a humanitarian organization to something we all know. Say, a construction company. The activities in a construction company – like in any company – you can split in two parts: the internal support part and the external part. The latter deals with the external world within the specialty of that company. For instance, in a construction company, the external part would be the architects, engineers, construction workers: all people specialized in the core business of that company: ‘construction’. The internal support part has people working in accounting, budgeting, marketing, public relations, human resources, procurement, administration, ICT … These would all be people whose job it is to support those working in the external part. A humanitarian organization has both parts too. They have the ‘specialists’, doing the core external work. And there is a wide spectrum of specializations: from medical, social, micro-finance, education, to basic emergency support, arts, logistics, construction, environment etc. You name one aspect of life, and I bet you can find a humanitarian organization specializing in it. Most of the people working in this part of the organization either studied this stuff, or got into it, through experience. Most people forget the internal support part of each organization. They forget we need accountants too. And budget people, HR officers, auditors or even legal specialists …. These are all ‘generalists’. So, no, you do not have to be a doctor or a nurse to work in the humanitarian field. There is work for standard ‘generalists’ too. Even in the field offices.” But he did say the aid world now belongs to the university graduate. Although most minimum requirements are 18 years of age, having a high school diploma or GED, first-aid certifications as well as a valid driver’s license and passport, Peter said; “Few organizations I know would be willing to take on people who do not have a degree, whatever it might be in”, he said, unless it was local recruitment on the ground.

Another aid worker who knows that only too well is Alessandra Magri, 38, an Italian-born emergency response officer with CAFOD, the official overseas development and relief agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Like Peter Casier, she had a Damascene moment in her job as a university-educated business analyst in 2001 when she, too, wanted to look back on a life more fulfilled and helpful to others. Since ‘getting her foot in the door’ she has worked in Eritrea, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and South Africa. Africa is her speciality and she often spearheads relief efforts by getting to a place first to determine what is needed; food, shelter, medicines, and to prioritize them. “You don’t come into aid work to get rich,” she said. “And you have to make trade-offs with your personal life. But I have no regrets. You’re not just a missionary in this job but it helps to have a missionary’s zeal. You can find yourself working 14 to 16 hours a day in the field. I got in through working for an NGO for a year: I know it is harder now but all I can say to people who want to do it is to keep knocking on those doors. Sooner or later one will open.”

Lowly field officers can expect to earn around 1.700 to 2.700 euros a month, but there are benefits like housing and education allowances for children. Higher-ranked jobs obviously pay more; CAFOD is currently looking for a Darfur-based water and sanitation engineer on 30.000 euros a year and recently advertised for a security officer in the region on a salary of nearly 43.000 euros a year. Very senior field officers with these aid groups can rise up to somewhere around 60.000 to 85.000 euros a year while the homebased directors and CEOs often draw salaries approaching the private sector of senior management.

Experts say that people should be prepared to learn additional skills to help boost their chances – knowledge in areas like public health, water sanitation and logistics. Others recommend signing up to work as a volunteer for a disaster-relief agency or a non-governmental organization, such as The Salvation Army, Project HOPE, FEMA or UNICEF. Dr. Unni Krishnan, a veteran worker with the Plan agency which operates to help children in 48 countries, “No words or pictures can truly describe the level of devastation and real misery that exists in Haiti” he said. “Haiti is a land of children. Nearly 60% of its people are under 19.”


Kosovo Refugees, these boys carry their family’s bread rations in Kukes, Albania

The points of view of professionals
By Agostino Miozzo, with the contribution of Giovanni De Siervo and Valeria Silvestri

What is the relationship between humanitarian/relief organizations and NGOs during the working phase? When the Department of Civil Protection operates in an international emergency, such as last January in Haiti, the Italian Department of Civil Protection can decide to provide emergency relief by cooperating with NGOs as implementing partners of its assistance programs. A partnership based on a clear attribution of roles and responsibilities is a very important element of such a policy, as a necessary prerequisite to achieve a good synergy and save human lives.
How does the chain of command work and how is the system run? It is of the utmost importance that a definite chain of command be envisaged and established before an emergency occurs and within an overall emergency planning strategy. It goes without saying that an efficient chain of command cannot lack of a clear distribution of responsibilities, of an ultimate body formally responsible of the whole performance and of welldefined procedures established in advance.
What can companies do to make an actual contribution to humanitarian/relief organizations and more generally speaking to natural disasters? Quite a number of companies have already established partnerships with major humanitarian organizations to conduct operations in developing countries. One of the most relevant models is the assistance that TNT offers to the United Nations World Food Programme in the form of active support during emergencies  as well as knowledge and skills transfer projects. The companies can make available their stocks on site, transportation means, human resources, or put any other resources and capacities at the disposal of relief organizations.
When it comes to corporate social responsibility programs, how can companies introduce programs which are relevant to humanitarian/relief organizations? The companies can apply their technologies and skills in offering products able to improve the delivery of assistance in peacetime. Companies can, through corporate social responsibility programs, implement actions aimed at raising funds to be devoted to humanitarian and relief organizations. Furthermore, corporate social responsibility programs can focus on the postemergency phase and support the long-term sustainability of relief programs.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Summer 2010