Ben Webster explains how he got his role as disaster response programme manager at the British Red Cross:
1. What does your job involve?
I work in the disaster response team and we are responsible for monitoring all of the disasters going on around the world. We provide analysis on what the humanitarian needs are (as well as the resources available to respond within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement) and then make recommendations as to if and how the British Red Cross can best support the situation on the ground. There are so many disasters happening around the world, it is tempting to try and support all of them in one way or another. However, we have to recognise that with limited resources, we need to make them count – which is why our team provides analysis to try and work out where the British Red Cross can really ‘add value’ to the humanitarian response and ensure our resources are used for maximum effect.
2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?
Before I went to university, I took a gap year and spent four months volunteering in Ecuador with a charity called Latin Link. That opportunity opened my eyes to the wider world and how important it is that different countries share resources so that there is not such a stark contrast between rich and poor. In spite of their lack of material wealth the Ecuadorians were the most generous and hospitable people I had ever met. I went to university after that year determined to have a career that would allow me to meet and work alongside the incredible people that live beyond the shores of the UK.
3. What route did you take to your current job?
During my university holidays I started temping for an international relief and development agency called Tearfund. I covered administrative positions in their donor care and communications departments. After university, I temped as a logistics administrator in their disaster response team. After almost a year, a field logistics position opened up in their Darfur programme and I succeeded in my application for the job – my first field assignment!
It was an incredibly challenging year in Darfur, but an invaluable learning experience. It was extremely rewarding working with fantastic local and international staff who were all so committed to humanitarian work. Since then I’ve worked in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, in South Sudan, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Pakistan again after the 2010 floods and East Africa in 2011. Last year, I left Tearfund and started at the British Red Cross where I still travel occasionally, but the role is mostly based in the UK.
4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?
It seems to me that the greatest challenge for anyone wanting to get into humanitarian work is usually getting that first overseas assignment. It’s a bit of a catch 22: aid agencies prefer to take on experienced relief workers, but unless someone gives you the opportunity, you can’t get the experience required. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It certainly helped that the agency already knew me from several months of temping. They knew I had the desire, the skills and the right aptitudes for the job, if not extensive and directly relevant experience.
5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
I count it a real privilege that I’ve been able to travel to so many interesting places and meet so many incredible people with my work. There are many memorable experiences that range from hiking up mountains in Kashmir to helping unload helicopters filled with relief items for local villages affected by an earthquake, to being pulled out of a muddy swamp by a local village grandma in South Sudan! It never ceases to amaze me how resilient people can be in the face of calamity and disaster and I am always humbled by the people I meet. There is only so much I can offer as a foreign aid worker – maybe help try get some projects running, provide some solidarity and so on. But it is always the local people; volunteers, teachers, nurses, village elders, youth and even children, who dust themselves off after the earthquake/flood/cyclone etc and set to work rebuilding their community. This is what I enjoy most about my work – seeing what humanity can do. Red Cross volunteers are certainly the most inspiring part of the Red Cross Movement from my experience.
6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?
Get some experience overseas. It’s hard getting that first break, but once you have some overseas experience, it will get easier. Start talking to various relief and development agencies – build up a network of people and do some volunteering. If an organisation can see you’re serious about working in this sector and are willing to back that up by volunteering, then it will be easier to get that first break. Qualifications and courses are good to demonstrate you have the theory, but they will never replace the experience of working in development or humanitarian contexts.
Read about the Red Cross’ current emergency response work