Project Coordinator, Peter Clausen: Life on assignment

13 Sep 2023

Peter Clausen completed an electrical apprenticeship after school, he then went on to study journalism and work for the ABC in North Queensland, before completing a Masters in Disaster Management. He started his MSF career working as a general logistician, then moved onto become a project coordinator, and progressed to head of program. He first worked on eight assignments, the first in Yemen in 2013, followed Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Tanzania, and most recently Ukraine in 2022 and again in 2023.

On his most recent assignment in southern Ukraine, he returned to the project he helped establish at the beginning of the conflict in 2022. He worked on providing six mobile clinics, including a hospital and trauma stabilisation centre, which also involved developing clean water solutions to reduce the risk of a waterborne disease outbreak. Following the Nova Kakhovka Dam destruction, he also worked on producing a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear) contingency plan.

Peter spoke to us about his career with MSF and explained what it's like to work overseas on assignment. 

Peter in Khost, Afghanistan

Peter (left) in Khost, Afghanistan with the hospital maintenance manager, field co assistant and logistics manager. These tricycles are used to deliver patients from their home to the hospital. On the day this photo was taken it was particularly quiet, so they decided to go to the market (after a security assessment) to buy plants to make the outdoor living area of the compound that the team lived in more pleasing. 

You grew up in Mount Isa, how did you first hear about MSF?

I first heard about MSF sitting in a university class in Townsville. I was at the end of my journalism degree and had no idea what to do with my life, after already completing an electrical apprenticeship, and a diploma in marine engineering.  A good friend of mine from Giru said ‘you should work for MSF’ ... so I Googled them and instantly fell in love with the logistician job description on the website. I applied to MSF a week later.


What motivated you to do humanitarian work?  

Initially I would say it was more the idea of the adventure and the challenge that motivated me to work for MSF, and that side did not disappoint. Then as I progressed in MSF and was more engaged with operations, I realised the huge impact MSF was having. When I returned home and carried out my more regular job, I found it hard to justify staying and my mind would always wander to my previous assignment and how satisfying it was.

I realised that I enjoyed the humanitarian work more than my “day job” and on top of that I was having a positive impact on the world and helping people that really needed it. Soon MSF became my career, and I never looked back.


You had a very varied career before you joined MSF, training as an electrician and then studying journalism and working for the ABC. What skills from your previous roles did you bring to MSF?

I had never envisaged working in the humanitarian sector growing up, or even in my early 20’s. I enjoyed technical environments and problem-solving, which led me to do electrical and engineering studies.  I also had an interest in global affairs, which led me to journalism, along with a love for travel. MSF saw potential in these two vastly different professions, which led to me finding a job that I absolutely loved, and that ticked all of the boxes.

I’m not even sure I realised that my career within the humanitarian section when I applied for MSF over ten years ago. It dawned on me during my second or third assignment how relevant my previous skills became. Some years later, when I decided that humanitarian work would be my main role, I decided to study a masters in disaster management at the University of Copenhagen, and this helped me to ‘professionalise’ my occupation.  


Peter in Sierra Leone

Peter (left) with his colleague, a water and sanitation manager, outside of a constructed Ebola Treatment Centre in Bo, Sierra Leone in 2014. 

We had no idea what to expect at the start of the Ebola epidemic, so we built one treatment centre and quickly realised it was not big enough. We then built another and realised that it was also not big enough. Then came the gold standard Ebola Treatment Centre which was big enough, just. 

Peter Clausen
Project Coordinator

What skills do you recommend learning before people apply to work with MSF?  

MSF is a very horizontal organisation in my experience, so it was a bit unusual at first having that kind of freedom to engage with team members and make decisions that had significant impacts on operations. It was amazing though, especially coming from a very top-down private sector.  

I would say the most important characteristics are being able to listen to everyone and to communicate well - short and simple. Management and leadership are fundamental skills to a successful MSF member and a happy workplace, especially in high- stress environments. However, you will always be building on these skills and learning more every day, especially when working with so many varied individuals.  

Honesty and transparency are critical in my opinion. I had no idea what I was doing on my first assignment, and I wasn’t afraid to voice that to the people around me. You have so many people in your team, that making a decision and getting the work done is never impossible, once you realise that you are working together to achieve the same outcome. There are always going to be problems that seem overwhelming and impossible to solve, but somehow, it’s always those moments that become the most memorable.


Looking back, what work experience was valuable for your first assignment with MSF?  

I had worked in quite a few remote locations, in first nations communities in North Queensland, and internationally as a marine engineer, where sometimes you just had to get the work done, even if you didn’t have all of the means or weren’t in a location to access them. That led to thinking outside of the box and focusing on strengths we had, rather than weaknesses.

I was also very interested in other people's opinions to find new ways of doing things in order to learn and grow myself. This still happens with every project I go on, largely due to the diversity in the teams you work with, which is amazing. 

Peter Clausen in Ukraine

Peter (middle) with two MSF drivers, on assignment in Novovorontsovka, Ukraine. They were carrying out a road assessment along the Dnipro River, which was within artillery range of the front line, to determine if it was safe for MSF teams to travel in and out of a hospital in a village that was under attack. 

How do you balance life at home with a young family and assignments with MSF?

I’ve tried other jobs over the time I’ve worked with MSF, to see if something suited me better or could keep me in Australia, including private sector engineering jobs, emergency response jobs with the Australian Government, and even other humanitarian organisations. The problem for me is that I miss the challenges and achievements that I experience with MSF. I have never found another job that invigorates me like MSF does. On every mission you have new people, new foods, new experiences, new challenges and it’s just so interesting and pleasing.  Of course, it’s hard being away from family, but I only do short assignments of up to six weeks a few times a year. I am also lucky that I met my wife on an MSF project, so she understands my own desire to continue this work, and also accepts the global good that we are part of by making small sacrifices to our personal lives.


Do you have any tips for someone applying to work for MSF in overseas projects?  

I genuinely can’t imagine a more rewarding job, or a more impressive organisation to work for. I would say that if you are really looking for the ultimate challenge or reward, where you will inherently grow and learn throughout your entire career, then give MSF a go. I would also say that you need to do at least two assignments, not just one, just to understand how different each project and context is.



Peter featured in a recruitment webinar where he talked about his career with MSF, watch the webinar on demand. To stay up-to-date with the latest recruitment needs we recommend registering for updates to receive a monthly email newsletter.