Sharon Reader talks us through her role as a beneficiary communications delegate for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) after returning from nine months in Sierra Leone.
1. What does your job involve?
My job is to improve the way the Red Cross communicates with people before, during and after an emergency. This has ranged from running a radio show on cholera prevention, to setting up an emergency text message system to reach people with warnings of hurricanes, fires or floods.
In the chaos of a major disaster, information on what’s happening and where to go for help can be just as important as handing out food and water. As human beings we want to know what’s going on – especially during a crisis.
2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?
Three years after graduating from university I quit my job as a press officer for the NHS and went backpacking around India, south-east Asia and Australia. It was an experience that really opened my eyes. The majority of the world’s population live in poverty, with no state support at all. Being able to work with communities to help them tackle disease, prepare for disasters and speak up about what matters to them is hugely rewarding.
3. What route did you take to your current job?
I started working for the Red Cross in Scotland as a communications officer, which introduced me to the organisation’s work globally. I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to do, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.
While in that role, I responded to an advert on the Red Cross website looking for specialist support officers for the emergency response unit (ERU). This involved providing finance, admin and HR support to a team of hygiene promotion and sanitation engineers who were on-call to respond to major disasters overseas. Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, I was sent to Port au Prince for one month. It was a terrifying but amazing experience working alongside 300 other Red Cross workers from all over the world.
I knew I wanted to continue working overseas and applied for a beneficiary communications role, helping with the Haiti recovery operation. I stayed in Haiti for two years and have just returned from nine months in Sierra Leone.
4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?
Generally humanitarian agencies will only recruit people with previous aid work experience. I understand why this is – in the aftermath of a major emergency they need people who can hit the ground running – however it does make it very difficult to get that first job. I applied for lots of low paid roles at several organisations without success. I was even prepared to take out a bank loan to support myself during a year long unpaid internship with a major UK charity – but didn’t even get an interview! It felt hopeless at times, but schemes like the Red Cross ERU are a great way to gain experience and break into the sector.
5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
Definitely the feedback we get from communities. I remember being in Haiti just after a big storm and asking a group of people how they’d coped. One man pulled out his phone and showed us the Red Cross text messages we’d sent just before the storm. He told us that because of the messages he had had time to collect his family and his valuables and get to safety before the storm hit.
We’ve now launched the same system in Sierra Leone and hope to get it up and running in more countries over the next couple of years.
6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?
Experience is key. There are plenty of overseas volunteering opportunities and if you have relevant skills such as construction, medical or finance, you should be able to find something suitable – check out reliefweb for opportunities.
If packing up your life and moving overseas seems a bit extreme, you could try getting some experience with the Red Cross in the UK. The British Red Cross has teams of volunteers country-wide who are on stand-by to support the emergency services during a crisis – this can be anything from helping a family after a house fire to running rest centres and providing first aid after major disasters, such as the London bombings or the 2007 floods.
Visit the Red Cross website for information on applying for jobs overseas.