Tag Archives: aid

Humanitarian Information – more than just numbers

It has been a long time since I have sat at my desk and cried over a story from one of the many humanitarian responses I am involved with. Today, it wasn’t words that constricted my throat and made my eyes burn. It was numbers.

I have both a communications and information management function in my role. In my quest to consolidate more and more useful information sets so we can make better decisions, be more assertive in addressing emerging needs and ultimately respond faster I started a review of countless industry reports, websites and data sets so I could paint a global picture of current humanitarian responses. As I saw the numbers add up from my clumsy excel formulas I found those numbers turn into the faces of children that I have seen. The numbers went from thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and finally, heartbreakingly into the millions.

I love numbers. I love data. I love how they inform decisions, make sense of chaos, provide a guide for the future. And if I am honest enough, they are a safe way of understanding a situation without emotional attachment. But these numbers, they just bought up past memories I’ve spent a year burying.

A conservative number I came up with was that 60 million people are, right now, facing a humanitarian crisis. An even more conservative number is that within these crises 36 million children are estimated to be affected. And when I say conservative I mean conservative, I know that there are more emergencies out there that I couldn’t find data for and I didn’t even look at fragile states or those children so vulnerable that at any moment their situation could turn into a crisis.

But with numbers, even ones as overwhelming at this, there is always hope that something more can be done. For each data set of those affected I also looked at data sets for how many have been assisted, how much money the international communities, either through their governments, private business or directly from their wallets have given to help these numbers on a page.

Right now if we look at the eight million affected by the devastating earthquake in Nepal we also see numbers humanitarian agencies on the ground, each aiming to assist hundreds of thousands of people, cargo planes desperately trying to land with tonnes of essential relief items and we see an outpouring of support from the international community.

As a humanitarian, especially one who believes information is critical, I am always going to look at the numerical gap between those in need and those assisted. I’m also going to want to shove that number under every nose I can find to try to get them to take notice. But today, I’m going to give myself a break. I’m going to indulge in the personal memory of one child’s face and allow myself to a small moment of celebration as I add his number into the assisted column and take solace in the knowledge that more than 1,000 of my colleagues are working around the clock to ensure that number in my spreadsheet grows each day.


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Filed under Humanitarian Information

“Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”

There are a few standard questions you get asked in the humanitarian world.  One of them is “Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”  I’ve never known how to answer this question.  I’d like to answer that I am fine to go anywhere.  But as a woman there are some rather unpleasant realities you have to face around personal safety that sadly places some destinations and some situations on the no-go list.  This week I met with two different friends who have both just returned from the field; one a seasoned humanitarian, the other just starting out.  One in their mid thirties and the other not even 25.  Aside from both being annoyingly intelligent, funny and lovely, they have two things in common that I know of, one is me and the other is Sudan.

I’ve never been to Sudan and in truth I’m not sure I want to go. I studied it and the Dafur genocide as part of a research assignment about the world’s obligations to prevent atrocities.  In 2011 we reported on South Sudan’s declaration of independence and subsequent signing of the Geneva Convention.  Last week I listened on two different nights to two very different but equally frightful accounts of life in Sudan.  Both nights my mind wandered as I listened to my friends talk about their experiences.

In 2008, after three years living, working and travelling overseas I returned to Australia with very little idea of what I was going to do with my life.  Since I had been teaching English as a second language I thought I might as well continue, at least until I worked some things out.  I started teaching at a local TAFE college.  All of my students were refugees.  I’d gone from teaching adorable cheeky South Korean kindergarten students to sing, dance, read, write and speak English to teaching grown women, mothers and daughters basic life skills in Australia.  My new students were a mix of Afghani, Iraqi and Sudanese.

In addition to the classroom teaching I also took on some extra volunteer work with one particular Sudanese family.  The mother had never held a pen before and was illiterate in her native language.  She didn’t understand money, time, or doctors.  The father had a scar that ran down the right hand side of his face, a damaged eye and a pronounced limp.  The eldest daughter kept running away from school, frighten every time she was asked to stand in a line.  The youngest children were shy and it took weeks before they would come out of their room when I was visiting.

Of all the academic research I have done and all the accounts I have heard from colleagues the story I remember most about Sudan is the one the father told me while standing in a supermarket car park. I was leaving the supermarket with my weekly shopping and he had a job collecting the trolleys.  We smiled at each other and I stopped to say hello.  He was always smiling and laughing.  As we were chatting in an awkward imperfect English he asked me why Australian’s don’t smile all the time.  He said, ‘Look at me.  I am smiling all the time.’  I laughed and asked him why he smiles all the time.   He pointed at the supermarket.  He said, ‘I smile all the time because everyone here gets to eat.’

I didn’t have strong opinions on refugees before that moment.  I didn’t know about humanitarian law, responsibility to protect ideologies, or Australia’s stance on foreign aid.  But his constant smile made me curious to learn more.  I am asked a lot by friends and family why I do what I do.  Why earn a third of what I could?  Why am I prepared to put my self and colleagues in potentially threatening situations all for what seems an overwhelming problem?

If you are or have ever wondered the same please watch this Ted Talks video.  I’ll let Bono answer for me.

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Filed under In the field

A first to remember

Everyone has a first time.  No not that first time, I mean the first time you know why you exist.  The first time you realised that what you think, feel and do matters.  Oh yeah, sorry I meant to start with a warning that this blog post may verge a little on the deep and reflective.

It all started with a relapse into my teenage years following my 36th 30th 26th birthday when I thought I’d check out the Dolly Magazine website.  I read a blog by Tiffany Dunk, editor of Dolly, about her recent to trip to India.  And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I got teary as I read it.  Didn’t help that I was reading it when I should have been paying attention in a meeting but I just couldn’t stop.  You see India was my first time.

It wasn’t my first time traveling and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had witnessed a less than savoury side of life.  But it was the start of knowing for absolute sure what I was going to be when I grew up.  Yep it was when I knew that I was going to be a humanitarian communicator.

Reading Tiffany’s blog was almost like a “This is Your Life” moment.  The chaos and colour, the heat and the food of India filled my mind.  And the memory of that horrible heart-wrenching pause I felt in a father’s response to the hopeful bright eyes of his daughter.  That moment where reality was cruelly allowed to suppress hope.

I don’t much like reality.  I like sci-fi, fantasy and the odd cartoon.  I like happy endings and yes I like rom-coms.  And here I was, one of seven people crammed into a tiny concrete box of a home, sweat running down my face, transfixed by a little girl looking at her HIV infected father in much the same way I use to, and probably still do, look at mine.   Seeing his hesitation and unease at his daughter’s gaze as she dreamed of a future affected me more than the filth of the city slums and the exhaustive poverty.

I would never again be able to say I’m not sure what to do with my life.  In the two and half years since I was in India I’ve worked toward this, and just for you guys, I’ve started documenting my journey to becoming a humanitarian communicator.  In four weeks time I will move into a new role as a communicator within our humanitarian team.  It is going to be a massive learning curve working with some incredible people.  I am excited, scared and sad to leave my current team of amazing communicators.  But it is time to grow up and stop changing the channel when a bit of reality comes through my TV.


Filed under Emergency Communications, Preparation

Making the list

I’m on a list.  Not just any list.  The list.  After two years of training courses, uni study and extra workload I’ve finally made it onto the list.  I’m on the emergency communications roster.  And I am petrified.

I think I am prepared.  I have my travel bag ready to go.  I have the right amount of white singlets, cargo pants and branded t-shirts.  I even have a media interview worthy travel make-up kit.  And of course I have just downloaded season two of Phineas and Ferb, the best cartoon ever.

Being prepared, one never knows when you'll need a white singlet

Being prepared, one never knows when you’ll need a white singlet

But no matter how prepared I think I might be there is the usual self-doubt that comes with going into an unknown situation. I’m nervous that I am on the verge of entering into the field I have wanted to work in since I was a kid.  I feel a tad guilty that wanting to work in emergencies in some way means I’m tempting fate.  And after studying terrorism and writing a research paper on the targeting of aid workers in the field I’m also scared that my security training may not be enough.  In my darker moments, usually around 3am, I worry about what I will be like in twenty years.

I have a lot of friends and family members that are ex military, police, emergency services and of course humanitarian aid workers.  After a few drinks you hear some stories, usually told with bravado and laughter.  After a few more drinks you feel their silences and sit uncomfortably with them hoping that what you imagine is far worse than reality.  After even more drinks you put your arms around them while they cry.  Sometimes in the middle of an everyday conversation they just start recounting a gut wrenching experience and you just listen because what else can you do.

I listen to a lot stories.  All my life people, including strangers, just seem to tell me their stories.  Usually the ones they won’t tell anyone else.  There is something rather magical about listening to or telling a story.  I’ve often thought that if there is such as thing as a calling or God given gifts mine is to listen and tell stories.  As petrified as I sometimes get around my current and future work I know it is worth it.

So armed with cartoons, my reSILLYence tactics, and the ongoing therapy that is writing a blog I will spend this Christmas and New Years on call, ready and willing to listen and tell stories.

Sometimes you have to step up the reSILLYense

Sometimes you have to step up the reSILLYense


Filed under Emergency Communications, In the field, Preparation

Car accidents, bombs and Christmas cards

Uh oh!  That was my single thought as the dark coloured Toyota drove straight into the side of my car and pushed me onto the other side of the road.  My thoughts rapidly advanced when my eyes focused on the two lanes of on coming traffic and I somehow managed to steer my half caved in car to the edge of the road.  I think I even managed a head check.

Only a few days earlier I had played a dying car crash victim for a training course and the whole life imitating art really scared the crap out of me.  Noticing the car just before it hit, hearing the screech of his tyres and the smash of metal and feeling the loss of control do not count among my favourite life moments.  Though I am very grateful for the kindness of my family and friends (special shout out to DA, MS, JC, SS, BP, RH, BW, & SC) and for the comfort chocolate I justifiably consumed afterwards.

The accident happened on a Friday.  Fridays are my day to pulled together our internal Global Emergency Monitor, which is a summary of all the current and breaking emergencies around the world.  Between the ongoing nightmare in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the food crises in West and East Africa, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Haiti and Syria I selfishly didn’t feel like doing this report.  I sat at my desk and took a moment to look at the picture of one of my sponsor children.  She is eight years old and she lives in Gaza.  A Google search told me her village is situated right in the middle of the bombing.

I don’t know enough to talk about the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  I am not smart enough to really understand my car insurance policy let alone the history of this troubled area.  I am not even sure if I should be happy or concerned that Palestine has just been acknowledged as a state by the U.N.

I do know that the eyes of a young girl stare out at me from a photo that has travelled half way across the world to my letterbox.  And they make me care more than I thought possible.  Her hand written ‘I love you’ with a smiley face in bright pink texta makes me pay more attention to the news and to our government policies on aid, development, and foreign affairs.

I’ve had a lot of stupid thoughts over my life.  When I was a kid I thought I could re-jig the toilet flush to sound like a car engine so it wouldn’t scare me as much at night.    As a teenager I thought stuffing my bra with tissues, money and my house key was a practical solution to increasing their size and not having to carry a hang bag.  As a sometimes-mature adult I continue to have stupid thoughts.  I often think the packaging on the Lindt chocolate wrapper would make an awesome wedding dress.  As I am writing this though my thoughts are only of a little girl in Gaza.  Will she receive the Christmas card and stickers I just sent?  Will she ever know that a stranger on the other side of the world has spent the past two weeks searching the Internet to try to understand why she is living under the threat of bombs?


Writing Christmas cards to my sponsor children

Writing Christmas cards to my sponsor children





Filed under Preparation

I’d rather pick my nose than worry about picking my battles

Champagne, disappointment, and dilemmas: I’m starting to realise my life unfolds like a trilogy.  Like most trilogies, with the exception of Empire Strikes Back, the middle one is usually disappointing.  I don’t like disappointment; it seems a rather stupid emotion with no productive outcome insight.

Every time I am disappointed I get the inevitable lecture about picking my battles.  I am a humanitarian not a military strategist.  I think every battle I fight is worth fighting, I wouldn’t be fighting it if I didn’t it.  Losing a battle, no matter how painful it can be, doesn’t in any way mean it wasn’t worth the effort.  People are worth effort.  And even in defeat, knowing that someone stood beside you in the fight is often enough to make a difference.

When facing defeat I turn to a few select people for guidance.  I like to call them my sanity pillars.  These are people whose intelligence, integrity and humour help bring me back to what it is all about.  One of my sanity pillars is moving to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks.  After his farewell filled with cocktails and travel stories I started thinking about my visit to Ethiopia earlier this year.  I don’t even have to read over my notes to remember the people I met and the stories I heard.  I see their faces and hear their voices each night before I go to sleep.

When I think of fighting battles I think often of these people, specifically the women I met.  This trip was investigating and gathering stories about food insecurity and the impact this has on communities.  Many people in the north of Ethiopia face food insecurity.  The land is dry and rocky, the heat extreme and the water scarce.

Many people leave their villages in search of food and a better life for their families.

Many people see no alternative but to leave the area and hope the streets of Addis Ababa will be more generous.  They rarely are.  Too many end up begging on the streets, scourging for food scraps, in abusive labour or worse.  The women I spoke with had lived on these streets and eventually returned to their villages.  They weren’t proud of their deeds in Addis but they were defiant in their fight for their family’s survival.  One woman stared at me with a set jaw and steely glance and said the abuse she suffered in Addis, the defeat and hopelessness she felt, makes her fight now for all children.  She is now a volunteer community worker in her village, training, educating and protecting child’s rights.

My weekly battles aren’t always so meaningful.  This week I won the battle with a stubborn Champagne cork.  I lost the battle of self-control and ordered a pizza.  I won the fight against my credit card debt.  I lost the fight against keeping my mouth shut.  This week though someone who thought no one cared thanked me, I felt the appreciation of another who didn’t think they could face something on their own and I received the warmth of a hug from someone who saw it all unfold.

Great things, small or big, can come out of defeats.  If we pick our battles too carefully, if we pick only those we think we will win, what are we at risk of losing?


Filed under In the field, Leadership

Why would I want to share that? The art of interviewing

It started with a story.  A story told by a man that you know has seen and felt too much.  He’s pretty open about it and if not for the occasional lost look and catch in the throat I’m not sure if people would notice.  I know some didn’t.  It could be because he is someone I greatly admire or because his past is my future but I felt every word he did and didn’t say.  As he recounted his experiences in war zones and humanitarian catastrophes I flipped between wanting to ask him to stop and wanting to sit beside him and hold his hand.  I did neither.  It was a training session and we all needed to be trained.

This training session was on the art of the interview.  More specifically the art of interviewing within the humanitarian or development context which loosely translates as how to interview a stranger who has limited or no experience with foreigners about predominantly personal and upsetting topics.  We all have our different styles for this.  I tend to pull funny faces at children to make them laugh – only when culturally

She looked curious so I gave her my hand. She responded with a smile…just before she bit into my finger.

appropriate of course.  I ask general questions about a woman’s clothes and hair and share embarrassing stories about myself.  And then in the moments where we are laughing or smiling quietly at each other they, for some reason tell me their story.

I’m not sure if I would be as trusting with my vulnerability.  As an exercise in the training we were asked to role-play an interview where the interviewer has to ask their subject about the saddest day in their life.  With the exception of one person no one told that story.  They still told a sad tale but not the saddest.  Even I, as an observer and support facilitator, mentally self selected a sad story but knew it wasn’t my saddest moment.  Why would I want to share that?  Why would I want to go to that place again?

I think the only funny thing about telling this joke was my facial expression.

When I tell a story I want people to think I’m smart and funny.  Ok funny might be pushing it, so lets downgrade that to interesting.  Most of all I like to pretend I am tough.  I like jumping about in the boxing ring throwing punches at stuffed bags.  I like to drink, wine mostly but will take to shots if I sense a challenge coming my way.  I hold people’s stares, I cross my arms, I do a lot of things to try to convince the world I am tough.  I don’t think anyone really believes me, but generally they seem to indulge the pretense.  But we all know the truth.  Things get to me, I get sad, I cry and yes I even occasionally hug my favourite childhood teddy bear for comfort.

During the training one of my staff members looked directly at me and asked if I considered them not doing their job properly if they didn’t push someone to tell their saddest story because you could see it causing distress.  I instantly felt my inner marketer, communicator and humanitarian fighting it out.  I babbled out an answer in the pressure of that moment.  I don’t recall what I said.  But I do know I have backed away from questions that I probably should have asked and I have switched off my recorder when the conversation got too painful and I was asked to do so.  Somewhere in the midst of gathering a story there is a place where your inner communicator and conscious sit at peace with each other.  Some call it compromise, some call it decency, and some call it integrity.  I just think of it as being human.  And being human is very important for a humanitarian.


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Filed under Emergency Communications, Training