© Michael Kemsley

Michael Kemsley tells us about the British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and why you need a thick skin.

1. What does your job involve?

Being a member of the ERU, I must be ready to respond to a global disaster at any given moment. When an emergency occurs, I work as part of a team to build latrines, showers and drainage systems so that people have access to basic hygiene facilities in the midst of a disaster zone.

I also work on other short-term missions and have just returned from nine months working in South Sudan co-ordinating medical professionals for Medicins Sans Frontiers.

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

Growing up in the 80s, it was impossible to ignore the news reports on Ethiopia – I remember feeling helpless. As the years went by, I became disenchanted with the career route I had chosen in television.

So I packed it all in to go travelling, which is when my outlook changed. I could no longer ignore the disparity in the world, and decided that whatever my next career move – it would have a positive impact on other people’s lives.

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

With my decision made, choosing a career path proved difficult. After a few temp jobs, I went back to university and studied international development with NGO management. As part of the course, I set up a charity in Tanzania, which gave me real experience.
Back in the UK, I managed to get a job with the British Red Cross working on volunteer strategy and policy. I was then accepted onto the ERU and was sent to Namibia, Haiti, Pakistan and Tunisia to respond to disasters. I found it harder and harder to go back to my desk job so decided to look for longer term overseas missions.

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

The hardest thing was working out exactly what I wanted to do for a living – and then once I had decided – trying to get my foot on the ladder! I think I applied for more than 30 jobs before I was offered a role at the Red Cross. At times it was tough but it took a lot of persistence and a very thick skin.

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

The sheer scale of what we achieved in Pakistan after the 2010 floods was phenomenal. A group of us worked like a well-oiled machine to distribute over 100 tonnes of food and household basics every morning. It was inspiring to be part of such a dedicated team.

But it’s the personal stories that really stick with you. In South Sudan I met Josephine, a ten-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with sleeping sickness – a tropical disease which can be fatal. She needed treatment, which she refused as it involved a very painful procedure. After talking to her for a couple of hours, she agreed to it and handled it with such bravery – a week later she was released from hospital healthy and happy!

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

Unfortunately there is no easy way into aid work. Even after running a charity in Tanzania, it still took persistence to break into the sector. 

If I had my time again, I would study a practical vocation – something like engineering, so that I had a specific skill to offer. My colleague is a water and sanitation engineer – it took him years of study and work experience but he now works on interesting projects. My top tip would be experience, both in the UK and overseas – that is key.