Helois Ellien works in Paris for the French Red Cross managing its emergency response unit (ERU). He answers five questions about life as an aid worker.
1. What does your job involve?
We are a general emergency desk, capable of working with different Red Cross partners and responding to complex disasters and ongoing crises that may not make the news. This involves using specific logistics expertise to support emergency relief operations, as well as transferring our skills to partners in the field. We have also started to work on environmental issues; logistics efficiency, green activities, environmental impact assessments etc.
Before joining the ERU desk in Paris, I had not worked with volunteers at a national level and I started to organise and manage the teams with my previous non-governmental organisation (NGO) experience and the idea of professionalising the rosters quickly to be more effective and enhance the French Red Cross’ ability to respond to disasters. This has been my main motivation; taking up the challenge of leading the change. I hope it will work. The following months are going to be crucial.
2. What route did you take to your current job?
Mainly the route of humility and gaining experience. I spent four years working abroad for a French NGO called Solidarités International, followed by two short missions with the French Red Cross before gaining my current role. I believe managing a team from HQ requires experience of the challenges, issues and problems the team might be exposed to in the field. During the time I was on long-term missions, I tried to accumulate different experiences, even if – in retrospect – I think sometimes I have hurried too much to live new experiences and begin new missions and new challenges. The path you’re passing through is very important, especially if sometimes you have to pave it yourself.
3. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?
Definitely learning about consensus, and a certain form of diplomacy, which is not my strong point! I have a ‘Mediterranean’ disposition, probably coming from my Corsican origins. I have to be careful with this in developing my career. After all, the humanitarian sector is like others – if you don’t pay attention, you can quickly find frictions, especially because we work in a multicultural domain where it’s important to respect people’s differences.
4. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
It’s common to say that the first experience is the most memorable and this was the case for me. My first professional humanitarian mission was to Angola from July 2003 to August 2004 with Solidarités International. I had absolutely no knowledge of Portuguese, no experience in food distribution, more than 100 people to manage and I was only 25! I was freaking out for real. But step by step, with the support of my colleagues, I learned Portuguese, met the people and organised monthly food and non-food distributions for an average of 35,000 beneficiaries per month.
But there are other memorable moments such as the day we found 50,000 displaced people who had just set up their camp in the middle of the desert in Darfur. Also, my experience in Lebanon where I fell in love with the country and the people who had suffered so hard for more than 50 years. And of course, the Red Cross response to the Haiti earthquake where French ERUs were very involved and did a great job.
5. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?
This is a very tough question indeed. When I started this job ten years ago, I remember that people with ten years’ experience were amazed by this new ‘arrogant wannabe’ generation. I’ve tried to keep that in mind and be humble in my work. Unfortunately, and paradoxically, I sometimes have exactly the same reaction with the new generation of humanitarian workers. Humanitarian work has changed a lot between the 90s and the new millennium. Access to funds, management of projects, management of budgets, donors’ demands and such are many factors that changed our work – in a good way sometimes because we became more professional. But sometimes I regret the changes when I meet people who consider their role only as managers of projects, logical framework, budget lines etc, with no idea of what is the human reality of our work, our duty. I think we could strike a better balance.
Coming back to the question, I would say that a new aid worker should always question what he/she does in order to make things change: his/her own commitment and the system he/she is working in. The humanitarian sector is still young and needs constant questioning. I would sum up quoting my mentor, Pierre Desproges who used to say: “The only certainty I have, is that I doubt.”*
*“La seule certitude que j’ai, c’est d’être dans le doute.”
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