This article was originally published on The Sydney Morning Herald
Humanitarian aid fights its ‘outdated’ image
Delivering humanitarian aid has always been a complex undertaking, but while the way aid is delivered has changed, the public’s perception of who is doing the work hasn’t always kept up.
“Over 90 per cent of MSF’s project workforce comes from the very communities that we are serving [or are] nationals of the countries in which we work. People tend to have an outdated image of humanitarian work in their minds, one in which aid workers are exclusively foreigners flying in to assist,” says Isaac Chesters, financial and human resources manager of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics or disasters.
Staff who do travel for an international assignment are paid, fed and housed, but at salaries far lower than what they’d receive in Australia.
“While we’re not volunteers, we do our work not for financial gain but out of a desire to help those most vulnerable and in need of medical assistance,” says Chesters, who has worked for MSF in non-medical roles in Bangladesh and Africa, as well as its Sydney office.
It’s these non-medical roles which are often overlooked by those keen to undertake humanitarian work. In the case of MSF, the doctors and nurses that are often the front face of direct care are supported by highly skilled teams of non-medical professionals.
“Many people are unaware of the enormous logistical and administrative machinery that sits behind our medical activities,” Chesters says.
Technology is also playing an ever-increasing role for humanitarian organisations.
“Certain MSF offices around the world focus specifically on humanitarian innovation, including technological innovation, in the hope that we can continue to improve the efficacy and efficiency of our medical projects,” says Chesters.
While we’re not volunteers, we do our work not for financial gain but out of a desire to help those most vulnerable and in need of medical assistance,
Jez Hunghanfoo is the supporter engagement director at Amnesty International Australia. He’s has worked for years in not-for-profit environments, building expertise in community engagement, communications and marketing.
Hunghanfoo says robust communications, technologies and financial systems are all essential for all organisations undertaking humanitarian or charity work.
“You can’t undercook those,” he says.
While Hunghanfoo believes Amnesty’s staff are paid fairly, he emphasises that most people do the work are driven by a sense of purpose and the chance to make an impact. They know they can often make more money elsewhere.
“An IT manager might get double [in a corporate job],” he says. Despite the benefits of technology to organisations like Amnesty and MSF, technology is also bringing to the fore some of the more confronting aspects involved in the behind-the-scenes roles.
An employee working on Amnesty’s social media accounts will likely spend a lot of time communicating about the death penalty, which can mean hours spent trawling through images and sharing often heartbreaking stories. The organisation pays careful attention to ensure employees like this aren’t dealing with vicarious trauma.
“[We also work hard to] make sure we avoid the burnout that can come,” says Hunghanfoo.
Still, if the downsides are contained, the upsides of the industry can make working for humanitarian organisations an enriching professional experience.
Working on overseas assignments with MSF changed Chesters’ life and tested his limits both professionally and personally. He believes international assignments and office-based roles each have their pros and cons.
“When you’re on assignment, you’re at the pointy end of MSF’s humanitarian mission which is extremely rewarding. But witnessing humanitarian crises up close can take a toll. The image of a malnourished child on a hospital bed is certainly not leaving my mind anytime soon,” says Chesters.
We’re recruiting non-medical staff as well as medical!
MSF Australia is currently looking to recruit Australian and New Zealander mental health specialists, infection prevention and control managers, gynaecologists, anaesthetists, surgeons, paediatricians and midwives for international assignments.
Our projects need people to oversee all the administrative side of things, including recruitment, payroll, contracting and insurance in order for operations to run smoothly.
If you’re interested in public health and you’ve got the right skills, we’d love to hear from you.