Charlie Dawson is a British Red Cross delegate on loan to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). She has been working as a protection delegate for the ICRC since 2009. The ICRC works worldwide to provide humanitarian help for people affected by conflict and armed violence and to promote the laws that protect victims of war.
1. What does your job involve?
My job is very varied. Part of my time is spent networking: meeting with civilian authorities, the military and armed groups to understand the situation in the area and discuss situations of concern for the civilian population; meeting with victims of the conflict and understanding whether there have been potential violations of international humanitarian law and if they agree, addressing situations with the armed group or force concerned; visiting detention facilities and looking at the humanitarian conditions and treatment of detainees and making recommendations for improvements to the authorities; working with children who have been separated from their families by the conflict – some of whom have been taken by or involved with armed groups – to find their families and reunite them.
A typical day in the field could include talking to people about their situation, assessing their needs and whether the protection department can help in some way, as well as gathering information to share with other departments about a community’s need for food or clean water or healthcare. Also, presentations to armed groups about international humanitarian law.
2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?
It is really easy to say that you choose this line of work because you want to help people, and I think this element is there for all of us who work in the humanitarian sphere. But for me, this career was never presented as an option in my careers centre at school or university and I spent a long time not knowing what I wanted to do. But when I fell into the world of humanitarian aid I found it was a place that offered the things I was looking for in a career: the possibility of working in an environment where the outcome of what I do is important for people, not for the profit level of a company; the possibility of travel, meeting people and experiencing places and cultures that I find fascinating and incredibly enriching; and the possibility of working in a challenging environment where part of your job is the job itself and part of it is to transfer knowledge and skills so that people can help themselves. It can be a tough job, but the sense of personal achievement can be enormous too.
3. What route did you take to your current job?
I studied French at university and then did a Masters in contemporary European studies. But I still didn’t have a clear idea for a career when I finished, so I studied for a second Masters – in international relations. After seven years of university I worked out I wanted to work in aid! But the competition was very tough and I worked in the private sector for a couple of years while I sent application after application before finally deciding that if I was going to get anywhere in aid I needed to take the plunge and go for it. I started at the British Red Cross head office in the retail department as a temp and was incredibly lucky that a job came open in the international department and I got it. I spent two years there working on the west and central Africa desk and then went for my first field mission with the Irish Red Cross in Niger. This was followed by a short stint with a non-governmental organisation in Haiti, but I missed the values and ethos of the Red Cross. I came back to the British Red Cross when I applied to be an ICRC delegate and have now done ICRC missions in the Philippines and two in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?
Apart from working out what I wanted to do… I think the biggest challenge is probably about family. When I decided to work in the field it meant leaving my fiancé, my parents, my sisters and my friends in the UK. I have lived overseas before so many aspects didn’t worry me at all, but moving half way across the world and missing out on being with my family and seeing my nephews and nieces grow up – I love my job and the things I get to do, but the cost can be quite high in terms of personal life and that is an ongoing challenge.
5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
There have been so many incredible experiences that it is difficult to choose! The strength and resilience of the people I have met has always inspired me; the children who have witnessed atrocities, been child soldiers or girls used as ‘wives’ during the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia who just want the opportunity to have an education and contribute to their community; the Touareg and Fulani communities in Niger who live a marginal existence on the edge of the Sahara desert, eking out a living off the land and when times are lean they prepare berries that are so bitter it takes days of soaking and boiling before they finally have something that is bearable to eat; the families who flee conflict and find themselves in impossible situations with no access to their fields and no home; the moments of joy when children are reunited with their families having been separated by conflict; and one that perhaps sticks out in my mind as a protection delegate – meeting with two detainees during my last field trip of a mission and casually mentioning that my replacement would be visiting them the next time. When they started crying I realised that even if there is sometimes nothing much that a protection delegate can do to improve the situation in detention (i.e. if the humanitarian conditions are acceptable), just having someone neutral to listen is incredibly meaningful and valuable to people deprived of their liberty.
6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?
I would say that working in aid is incredibly varied and rewarding and the opportunities are there to be found but you have to go after them and carve out the career you want. There are a number of websites dedicated to aid workers such as Aid Workers Network, which has sections for first time aid workers as well as all sorts of other resources. IRIN and Reliefweb are good sources of information, focussing on the humanitarian situation around the world and the latter also has a good job section too.