Humanitarian Worker or Adrenaline Junkie?

Unloading by Katherine Neumann

What’s your profession? Please describe it.

Filling in immigration cards upon arrival at airports – which is a common feature of this job – I am never sure of exactly how my position should be phrased; Aid worker, humanitarian, NGO officer, consultant… Officially Programme Development Manager, but aside from me (and hopefully my boss), who really knows what that means!?

I work for a non-governmental organization (NGO), and my job essentially consists of traveling from one disaster to another to assist in emergency relief activities; cyclones, earthquakes, wars, droughts and floods – each leave their own particular mark on the communities they decimate.

My role is to work closely with affected communities to determine what it is they need to recover and then to deliver the aid as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Where do you do this?

Anywhere and everywhere. This job calls me wherever there has been a natural disaster, conflict or other complex emergency and where the national government is unable to respond effectively. This means I end up in many developing countries in Asia and Africa, as well as countries in the Middle East. The list so far includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Travel is certainly one of the perks of this job!

Do you enjoy what you do?

This kind of work is not simply a job; it’s a lifestyle. You live it every waking moment. The work has a very real and direct impact on people whose lives have been irrecoverably damaged and there is so much to achieve within such a short time frame, that this is unavoidable. Aside from this, you often live where you work and with the people you work with, and truth be told, what else is there to do in an earthquake-ravaged backwater town in northern Pakistan!? So yes, I enjoy what I do. The minute I do not, there will be no choice but to leave it.

When you were young, what did you want to “be” when you grew up?

I was at a loss! Fashion designer, truck driver, interior designer, software engineer – they all had their phases, and looking back I know I would have been miserable in every one of the jobs which crossed my mind.

The idea of becoming an aid worker only came to me mid-way through university, and I haven’t looked back since.

Do you feel stuck doing what you are doing?

I can’t say that I do. This work does not promote long-term planning as you jump from one continent to the next with perhaps a day’s notice, packing up your life into your suitcase to start it anew in the next place. I know that the moment I don’t enjoy it anymore I will leave. What I do after will be something to think about then.

What are the most and least satisfying parts of your job?

The positives of this job are many; they need to be so to attract people to such an itinerant and challenging career path! The travel and adventure is at the top of my list, the opportunity of meeting and living with people I would never get the chance to otherwise, and the satisfaction of planning an effective emergency response add to the benefits.

The least satisfying and downright frustrating side of the job is the waste and inefficiency that seems sadly unavoidable in such a bureaucratic industry where politics and corruption and ineptitude are ingrained into the system.

How do you combine photography with your job?

Photography naturally compliments this kind of work. I am usually in locations which are only accessible to or visited by aid workers; I have remarkable access to people and communities; and I am witness to horrific scenes of destruction and chaos, all of which result in incredible opportunities for photojournalistic and travel photography.

Photography could also be seen as a means to supporting recovery efforts, by increasing awareness of the situation abroad and advocating on behalf of affected individuals or communities.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Next time someone tells you they do this kind of work, please don’t assume they are volunteers! It is the most common response I get back in the West when I tell people about my job, “Oh, so you do that as a volunteer….?”

There are, of course, volunteers and interns in this business, as there are in many, but the vast majority of aid workers are paid professionals, and it would be nice not to be considered as a 30-year-old, full-time volunteer of 6 years!