A regular question the British Red Cross gets asked on social media is about how to get into international aid work, so… welcome to my new monthly blog post where I’ll be interviewing our international delegates about how they got their job. This month, I’m road testing the format myself – let me know what you think and if you have any other questions you’d like answered in future posts.

Sarah taking photo of family in South Africa

© Ziv Koren/BRC

1. What does your job involve?

I write stories and take photos for the British Red Cross website, blog and publications about people affected by crises – whether it’s a natural disaster like a tsunami, a conflict or an issue such as hunger or HIV. We have such a huge range of overseas programmes, that I’m constantly being challenged to keep up to date on the latest international issues and developments. Most of the time I’m based in London, and I get information by interviewing our delegates while they’re overseas or when they pass through London. But I also travel to overseas projects supported by the British Red Cross, and this is the best part of my job as I get to meet people I would otherwise never get the opportunity to meet. I’ve heard so many stories from people in situations I could hardly imagine and I’m forever in awe of the bravery and dignity of people like Nazira, who lives in Kyrgyzstan. Despite being a victim of bride kidnapping, she has now regained her independence and found the courage to share her experience to help prevent other women going through the same thing.

2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?

While I was a student, I spent a month volunteering with a project in Mozambique that helped street children, who’d been orphaned during the country’s 16-year civil war. I was there in 1995, just three years after the end of the civil war, and seeing that level of poverty changed my whole understanding of the world. During that month I helped out at the drop-in centre – doing art classes with the kids, working in the kitchen, cleaning and bandaging wounds. The children didn’t have shoes and would often come in with awful cuts on their feet. But I remember their laughter and sense of fun, despite the sadness of all the atrocities of war they’d witnessed.

Sarah with two street children on the beach in Mozambique

Sarah, Luis and Pedro on a beach in Beira, Mozambique, 1995

3. What route did you take to your current job?

When I turned 30, after working in various jobs in theatre and TV, I decided I wanted to work for a humanitarian organisation. I realised I didn’t have the specific skills or experience needed for a lot of aid work roles, but I had good office skills so I applied for an administrator role in the communications department of the British Red Cross. Once I started in this role I pushed for an opportunity to start writing stories for our magazine and website.

At the same time, I applied for and was offered a place with the Red Cross’ logistics emergency response unit (ERU). Anyone can apply for this – whether you work for the Red Cross or not – but it’s not a full-time job and involves being on call for one month every year, during which time you could be deployed to a disaster anywhere in the world. Clearly if you’re working full-time, you need a supportive employer to commit to this, but it’s a great way of getting training in the distribution of emergency relief goods and potentially actual experience of aid work. Through the roster, I’ve helped distribute aid in the Maldives after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, in Indonesia after an earthquake and in Pakistan following severe floods.

After a year as a writer and administrator in the Red Cross’ communications department I moved to the international aid department where I was a programme support officer on the Indonesia tsunami recovery programme. In this role I learned a lot about the operational side of the Red Cross’ international work, but I really missed the creativity of the communications department and after a couple of detours (an internship in New York and volunteering in Malawi), I applied for the international writer role.

4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?

The first thing was working out what I wanted to do for a living. Then starting over at 30, when most of my friends were in well-paid, established careers wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I guess the challenge was keeping focused, believing I would get where I wanted and not giving up – especially when I was applying for lots of jobs and not even getting an interview.

5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?

Every time I travel with work I get to meet people whose lives are so different from mine and who have such interesting stories to tell. But my most memorable trip was to Sierra Leone to make a film about building peace following the devastating effects of civil war. Traditional drumming, song and dance play a massive role in Sierra Leone’s culture and every time we visited one of the villages deep in the jungle, people would greet us with the most amazing all-singing and dancing welcome. I remember interviewing Emanuel Tommy, secretary general of the Sierra Leone Red Cross, and he told me about an annual peace festival they organise. He said: “It’s a chance to sing with your former enemy, dance with your former enemy. It’s not easy, but it has happened.”


6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?

There are so many different roles within international aid work – disaster management, long-term development, health and social care – so it can be difficult to work out what area you want to specialise in. Try and talk to people working in different areas to get first-hand perspectives and advice. Once you’ve chosen an area to focus on concentrate on building up relevant skills and qualifications – any internships and volunteering, particularly overseas, will be really valuable. It’s a competitive sector and many people, even applying for entry-level jobs, have a relevant masters degree, so if you can afford it, I’d say it’s worth getting. But it’s certainly not the only route. Also, make sure you keep up to date with developments in the sector, especially when preparing for any interviews – Reuters AlertNet is a great source of news, as well as organisations such as the Overseas Development Institute and the Institute for Development Studies.