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Old hands, new hope

By Sue White

Skilled humanitarian workers have much to gain as well as give, writes Sue White.

When Damien Brown entered medical school, he knew what he wanted to end up doing.

"Medicine was a means to an end for me to get to different places, and to do something I felt was helpful and productive," says the doctor and author of Band-Aid for a Broken Leg (Allen & Unwin), an account of Brown's life working in Africa with aid organisation Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).

Having dedicated his career thus far to humanitarian work, Brown wrote a book because he wanted to change the perception of the field.

"Every time I came home everyone assumed [it had only been] a tragic, awful event," he says. "[But] there were so many fantastic and uplifting moments. I wanted to share the stories and resilience of local people, rather than just rehash stereotypes or the negative.

"In Angola, one of my first patients was a guy brought in on an ox-drawn cart. He had very deep wounds and told us he'd been attacked by a leopard; he'd been crawling for two days to get to hospital."

Brown says he's not alone entering medicine with humanitarian work in mind. However, while many medical practitioners end up doing a stint of volunteering at some stage in their career, it doesn't always happen straight away. "But by the end of med school a lot of people are married, have big loans or their career priorities have changed," he says.

The program co-ordinator of international volunteers with the Australian Red Cross, Aarathi Krishnan, says there are two different streams of workers used by most humanitarian organisations: aid workers and international volunteers.

"Aid workers are usually sent in response to a crisis or disaster overseas. They hit the ground running, [so] we need them to be highly skilled and already have international experience," Krishnan says, noting that the organisation sends about 160 paid aid workers overseas each year through a program supported by AusAID.

While competition is tough for paid work as an international aid worker, a quick look at volunteer website Australian Volunteers International shows there is plenty of scope for volunteers with skills other than medical experience.

"The vast majority of work in humanitarian settings is logistical," Brown says. "It's getting things where they need to be; [organisations] need people with finance and administrative backgrounds, human resources or project management backgrounds."

Still, the skilled volunteers who are often snapped up for international positions are just that: experienced. At the Red Cross, Krishnan says, most of its internationally deployed volunteers have five years' experience or more in their field of expertise.

"If you are walking in to an organisation to help strengthen it, you are expected to transfer skills, train and mentor others, so professional technical experience is valued," she says.

The nature of mid-career volunteering means people also need to be in a financial situation to temporarily live with no income, or survive on the small stipend paid to some volunteers. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons why skilled workers are drawn to an often unpaid humanitarian work stint.

"Some people volunteer to build on their professional skills," Krishnan says. "[In international volunteer work] you become resilient; many volunteers come back and confirm that they do want to transition into the development sector."

According to Brown, the biggest impediment to being useful in a humanitarian role may not be your skill set, but available time.

"It takes time to get to know a local culture," he says. "If you just go for a month you just start to scratch the surface. Once you are in the field you realise the scale of needs and the scope of the problems is far greater than you've imagined.

"On one hand it's frustrating, as you think, 'I'll never be able to solve these problems.' But on the other hand it's satisfying, as on an individual level you can have an impact by being there for someone in a moment of need."

Having spent the past few years being based in the Northern Territory, including [paid] work in Aboriginal communities in East Arnhem Land, Brown points out that there's plenty of good to be done in Australia.

"Everyone thinks you have to look to Africa to make a difference," he says. "But I think the needs in our own backyard are just as great. There are a lot of organisations, like indigenous literacy groups [needing volunteers] ... and if you don't have time to work, donate to a reputable organisation instead."

Where to start:
- The Australian Red Cross has a three-day training course (international humanitarian action training) for those considering becoming an aid worker. See

Published: 27 October 2012

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