Humanitarian aid workers

Red Cross aid workers have gone further than just watching disasters unfold on TV, they have put themselves in the frontline to assist some of the most vulnerable people.

“Fears Syrian war set to spread”, “Tsunami strikes Samoa”, “Suicide bomber kills nine in Pakistan”, “Deadly day in Iraq”, “Papua New Guinea battered by king tides”.

These are the headlines we see and hear every day; the constant stream of humanitarian crises hitting far too many countries. A lot of these are natural disasters with very little warning, while many are new or ongoing conflicts, that aren’t looking to cease any time soon. However, no matter the circumstances these countries need our help.

Thanks to New Zealand Red Cross’ aid worker programme and the wider International Red Cross and Crescent Movement vulnerable people around the world are receiving the assistance they most desperately need.

From its humble beginnings in 1960, when physiotherapist Barbara Tomlinson travelled to Morocco to assist people affected by food poisoning, due to tainted cooking oil, New Zealand Red Cross’ aid programme now has a pool of over 130 trained aid workers. Approximately half of these aid workers are ready to go when needed. New Zealand Red Cross remains the fourth largest distributor of aid workers to Red Cross international operations within contflict zones.

“Red Cross is specifically approached as it is the largest and perhaps most reputable humanitarian organisation internationally,” says Aaron Davy, the New Zealand Red Cross international operations coordinator.

For aid worker Barbara Turnbull, it was a lifelong desire to join Red Cross that motivated her to join the programme, and has now seen her complete five assignments overseas.

As a New Zealand registered nurse with theatre and ward management experience, Barbara has worked in extreme environments that are a far cry from anything she has experienced in New Zealand.

“Generally the hospitals are not of a standard we enjoy in New Zealand and the standard of care the patient receives is similarly not as high [therefore] a big part of our job was to train local staff,” explains Barbara.

The aid programme works not only to provide immediate help to the sick and wounded, but also ensures vulnerable communities have the right skills and means to look after themselves once the aid has gone.

Nurses and health professionals currently make up the majority of aid workers deployed overseas, however other specialists including security, logistics, IT and water/sanitation personnel are also needed.

When it comes to unforeseen disasters such as the tsunami that hit Samoa in 2009, New Zealand Red Cross aid workers become invaluable to the local Red Cross in helping with disaster response. Essential items such as water containers, food and shelter are distributed by New Zealand Red Cross to provide much needed assistance to those affected by natural disasters.

To ensure the standard of the work being performed by these aid workers is kept high, all successful applicants to the programme must complete training here in New Zealand. The prerequisite training for any aid worker with Red Cross is the International Mobilisation and Preparation for Action (IMPACT) course.

Newly trained aid worker Erin O’Connor completed the IMPACT course in May 2012 and has done further humanitarian study to ensure she is ready when a spot comes up overseas. “I am doing study myself to improve my knowledge in relation to disaster management and international aid work,” explains Erin.

“It has always been my goal to do some aid work using my nursing skills and help people who are so much worse off than we are here in New Zealand,” she says.

Erin will be deployed overseas once a suitable mission is available. This can depend on factors such as demand, availability and suitability of the aid worker. The length of time Erin will spend overseas is also dependent on the type of mission.

“A typical mission is usually about six months,” explains Aaron. “But we are commonly seeing shorter three month missions, as well as those that extend out to beyond 12 months”.

As the humanitarian need grows around the world New Zealand Red Cross’ aid programme grows in response, therefore they are always looking to increase the number of applicants to the programme.

“More and more there is a growing professionalism around what it means to be a humanitarian,” explains Aaron.  “The days of sending over less skilled 'volunteers' have long gone.”

So what is the best advice for anyone considering applying for the aid programme? “Go ahead and do it!” says Barbara. “You won’t regret doing it but you may regret not doing it.”