Catherine Lengyel is an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reporting delegate in Haiti:
Whenever I tell someone that I work for the Red Cross, their eyes light up. They are usually intrigued and slightly envious. Inevitably, they ask me if I’m a doctor. And just as inevitably, their eyes dim and their interest fades when I tell them that I am a reporting delegate. ‘What’s that?’ they ask politely.
It’s an uphill battle to revive their interest.
I try to explain that, as reporting delegates, we are ‘the necessary annoyance’ in any emergency operation. We are the ones whom ‘operational colleagues’ flee – too busy with their relief, health, shelter, logistics or water and sanitation activities to want to deal with the tedium of reports. But, as one of my fellow ‘reporters’ put it: “Without us, the others don’t exist!”
Indeed, we are the ones who tell the world how things are going, what the needs are, and what the Red Cross is actually doing about it all. We have to take raw data, bullet points or even mumbled comments gathered ‘on the run’, and turn all of this into something that is easy to comprehend and, hopefully, interesting. It often means taking a jumble of statistics and information, and massaging it into shape. Graphics help, as do tables, and the aim is to end up with some well-written narrative to give a sense of ‘what it really is like out there’.
In fact, the job is much more interesting than it initially sounds. For one thing, we get a sense of the operation as a whole, not just a narrow perspective on a sector by sector basis. This means that we can be useful to the emergency operations in other ways as well: as a sounding board for the head of operations, as a source of ideas to colleagues, or even as a means of identifying overlap or confusion (something that inevitably happens in the early days of an emergency). For example, having just been in Haiti, I have been able to highlight some ‘gaps’ to colleagues – such as how many people will actually be receiving ‘debris clearing kits’, an incredibly important element of our distributions to people who have lost everything and want to clear their land of rubble to begin rebuilding.
During the long days of drafting and crafting the final reports, there are some welcome moments of humour as well. Gems from my time in Haiti include the message from a non-native English health team (they shall remain nameless!) underlining the need for additional beds and ‘mistresses’. It was with some relief that I finally figured out they meant ‘matresses’. And then there was the water and sanitation team that provoked much hilarity in the office, when they wrote about ‘the needs of latrines’. There must be a limit to how ‘inclusive’ we should be, we jested.
In addition to all of this, I do get to go to the field, and see what is going on. I try to use these opportunities to talk to colleagues and better understand why, for instance, we can’t distribute a sufficient number of tents (Answer: because the spontaneous settlements in Port-au-Prince are so tightly packed that there is not enough space – and if we did start erecting tents, we would end up displacing the already disposessed).
I also try to talk to the people, because we are, after all, here to help them and it is important to understand first-hand what they are experiencing. I remember going out on a ‘cash distribution’ during the food crisis in Niger. This was quite a controversial concept at the time – giving people cash rather than food – and there were many ‘naysayers’ amongst the aid community, who predicted that the people would not spend the money wisely.
But, that day at the market in Tanout, not only did the women tell me that they were buying foodstuffs and live chickens, some of them also said that their villages were pooling a percentage of the money received for communal projects, such as a well or an ambulance cart. It was one of those wonderfully vindicating moments that revives one’s faith in humanity, and confirms that what we are doing is useful.
I can only hope that you’ve kept reading this far, and that I’ve managed to turn your look of polite disinterest into a glimmer of intrigue at the work of ‘necessary annoyances’ such as myself. Happy to tell you more anytime…. OK, just kidding!