International Humanitarian Work

Lainie in South Sudan



Welcome to the Chockalife podcast. Today I’m talking to Lainie, who works for a medical humanitarian organization, an international one, so she travels all over the world. Welcome, Lainie, thank you for talking to us today.

Lainie:            Hi, Ingrid.

I wanted to talk to you because first of all, I’m one of those people that have always had this idealized sort of fantasy about what it must be like to be out in the field working in these incredible occupations and helping a lot of people. I’m one of those kind of crazy people that every time I see a disaster I wish I were there to help. It’s something that has always fascinated me. I’m interested to find out how you started out working for this medical organization.

Lainie:            As you know, I’m not a medical person. I’m currently working in human resources, and I’ve also done some work in finance for these organizations. When I started out I wasn’t originally working in this field at all, I was working as an administrator in small businesses.

I started traveling quite a bit probably about 10 years ago when I was working abroad, but I’d always done kind of volunteer work for community organizations, and that kind of thing, and always really enjoyed it.

I actually started out by working as a volunteer. I know there’s lots of government programs out there, and I worked as a volunteer in an Australian government program, actually originally in Cambodia. I was there for a year. That’s what really started my interest in working in this field.

I think you told me, you’re from Australia, was this organization similar to sort of the American Peace Corps?

Lainie:            Yeah, it is quite similar actually. It’s run by the government. It’s not quite as, dare I say, long and challenging as the Peace Corps. I mean you’re a volunteer but you travel quite independently in the community. We’re usually there for between six and 12 months. It’s a really great opportunity to get a feel for this kind of a position, an inside kind of a feel. Actually I met loads of Peace Corps people in the field there in Cambodia and other places as well, and they all said the same thing. It was really  a great introduction to this kind of work.

That’s the other thing. I know you’re not a medical professional, and that’s the other thing that sort of stymied me in my search when I looked at these kinds of organizations. Although I know that obviously they have to hire peripheral people, they can’t have all medical people. They have to have people in logistics and things. What exactly do you do for this international medical organization?

Lainie:            Basically when I’m in the field I manage the human resources for the staff that we hire in the field. That’s quite a lot. Globally we have around I think 4000, 5000 staff in all the countries that we’re working in. I manage the staff there, showing compliance with the local labor laws to make sure we’re doing things properly. We have regulations in place, systems in place, et cetera.

I’ve also worked on the finance side in the field, so managing the budget, managing the actual cash in the field and how we run that. There’s really a lot to do on the administrative side, which people don’t see but there is certainly a lot of admins for these kinds of of positions in the humanitarian world.

What would you say are your strengths that got you the job?

Lainie:            Good question. I’d say you have to be really flexible. You have to be able to kind of fit in to the context where you’re working, and adapt really quickly, and not be too vulnerable to stress. They’re very much kind of soft skills that got me into this, rather than my technical skills I would say. I know a lot of organizations do look for a technical background, but as well as that they need lots of people who have already done a lot of travel, who have already lived and worked in various contexts around the world. They really kind of look for the soft skills that enable you to adapt very quickly.

You’ve worked in places like Kenya, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar – you don’t think of them as having sort of a fully functioning office. You were in a very administrative position. Did it stay administrative when you were in these places? Did you end up doing things in the field that you didn’t expect?

Lainie:            It’s interesting, we are quite structured in terms of our administration of the project. You do kind of tend to just stick to your field of expertise, which is actually really needed because the less the context is functioning well the more you have to kind of come in with a framework that is already established. There are some countries that don’t have really a functioning labor law, for example, in which case you need to put some standards in place if you are managing a big team. Otherwise, it’s really impossible. We have our standard staff regulations, our standard contracts, et cetera. We do tend to keep things quite structured.

Having said that, I’m usually working in contexts where the project is already running.  I know it’s very different when come in the beginning and you’re setting up a project, maybe an emergency has just happened, et cetera. It is quite a different story. In general, yeah, it’s reasonably structured.

When I think of South Sudan I’m thinking of what you see on TV when you see a refugee camp and difficult living situations. Can you tell me a couple different examples of how you lived when you were out in the field in these countries?

Lainie:            Yeah, I mean it is like that in places like that. It’s quite funny to imagine a very kind of structured and organized approach without all the nice comfortable things around you, but it does actually work. You’re living in a kind of a hut with a grass roof or whatever. You have a very … it’s very simple. A single bed, a small table, you eat all together with the people that you live with. You have pit latrines. You have cold showers. It’s always hot, so it’s dusty or muddy if it’s rainy season. You have to deal with various levels of discomfort, let’s say, but within those levels of discomfort you still have to be able to do your job. I guess that’s one of the challenges as well, one of the interesting parts.

Does that mean that you have a typical office with access to the internet, or how primitive is it?

Lainie:            In most cases now we have access to the internet, whether it’s via a satellite clone or whether we have a public connection in place. It’s really essential for our operations. It’s pretty rare that we don’t have access to internet, unless it’s really the start of a project in the middle of nowhere and they’re kind of trying to set things up, but even then they will have some access. So certain things, yes, it’s a given, but things like a nice fan to keep you cool or a comfortable office chair you might just do without.

In my mind, in my fantasy, you are actually out there with the doctors, with the medical personnel, right out there in the field with them wherever you need to be, whether it be one of these camps or … Because at first when you started talking I imagined you were back in the city, in whatever the main city would be in these countries, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Lainie:            It really depends on the kind of position that you take. There are positions available in the country and then there are positions available in the capital city, which are more managed area coordination positions. I’ve done both, but to be honest I really enjoyed being in the field because to me that was something that was really an amazing experience. I mean yes, I was in my office, I was doing my administrative work, but I could walk or take a car five minutes down the road, be in the hospital, see what was happening with the patients, my colleagues would explain the various cases. You really had contact with the people and what was happening. To me I really enjoyed that aspect of the job.

Speaking to that, I would imagine that this is a job where you become such a tight close-knit almost family when you are out in places like that. Tell me a little bit about that kind of experience, the social experience.

Lainie:            Yeah, I mean it’s quite interesting if you have a field-based position most of the time the team are living all together. You work together, you come home, you eat together, you have a drink together, you discuss together. Pretty often you talk about work, so you have to understand that work is pretty 24/7. The stress levels can be high as well, but at the same time it’s a difficult context, you do really make great friends. You do really establish connections with people.

There’s some people that I have worked with that we keep in contact, and we make an effort to get together and see each other often. It’s really an amazing connection, because it’s not something that you can explain to other people when you come back, what happened in that country, how it was for you, how difficult it was, challenging, et cetera. It does really make amazing bonds between people, yeah.

Also, curious, your humanitarian medical organization is one of the bigger ones and they’re often conflict zones or near conflict zones. Have you ever been in danger? I mean of course it’s not like you’re in a European city when you’re out in the field, but can you tell me a story of something that was unexpected or difficult that happened to you when you were out in the field?

Lainie:            Okay, I haven’t actually worked in let’s say a conflict zone itself in my first experience. That’s something really particular to the organization. Yeah, I mean for me I’m very confident in the way that they manage safety and security. I’ve always felt like they take precautions and considerations depending on the context, et cetera, but that does not mean that the rules you have to follow are really strict. There are certain hours that you have to be back in your compound, you can’t move around, you can’t go and look in the town when you’re new. It can really, really restrictive in what you do.

I guess the part where you always feel a little bit at risk is also because if you work in administration you’re dealing with finance and you’re dealing money, and to me that automatically means that you do carry some risk in what you do. I’ve been fortunate, I haven’t actually been a part of any major security incidents in these places.

Tell me what was the most difficult or challenging part about working out in the field?

Lainie:            I guess there’s two factors to that. One of them is just the work, the volume of the work, the fact that you don’t have really any life outside of the work. You overwork, and because there are things to be done and there are needs, and those things are quite urgent, you work a lot. You don’t take a lot of time off, and it can be stressful and you can get really, really tired. That’s one aspect that’s challenging.

I guess the other aspect is that you’re away. With kind of the balance that you have to think about in terms of your family, your friends, you’re always coming and going, you miss important things that happen to other people in your life. Yeah, that’s also I guess a challenge in this kind of work.

Do you feel like … and I have talked to many other people that have these kinds of intense experiences, work experiences where they’re isolated in the same sort of manner. It makes it difficult to go and do a normal job afterwards. Would you say?

Lainie:            I have seen a lot of people that find it difficult, yes. On the other hand you kind of have to weigh your work-life balance. It’s really about priority, and people have different priorities in different stages of their lives. Maybe when you’re a bit younger you want to be out doing these kinds of things and you’re enjoying it, and it’s fantastic for the experience. Maybe later on you want to think about being in one place. You want to think about your personal life or just your time off outside of work, your health as well. There’s lots of factors. So yes, it can be challenging I think to settle into a regular job, but it really depends on where your priorities are at the time.

How long have you been doing this?

Lainie:            I would say on and off for about five years.

Now you are working at the headquarters in Geneva. How are you finding that?

Lainie:            This is the interesting part, because yes, I mean it’s a step removed maybe from what we’re doing in the field. I don’t directly see the activities and what we are implementing. I kind of miss that, really having the day-to-day interaction with people, also being in the different countries in which we work. This is a very interesting experience and challenging experience, but at the same time it’s nice to have a more global picture of the organization and how it functions, similarities and differences between different contexts.

It’s kind of nice to have both perspectives. I’m glad that I have had time in the field, certainly I would love to be back in the field again at some point, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to do both.

Tell me about what you most love about being in the field or an experience that really shows what it is like to be working for this organization.

Lainie:            For me, it’s about working hard for something that you believe in. Really seeing that you do have an impact in what you do. Yeah, to me that’s really something important when you agree with the principles of the organization that you work for, when you really see a need somewhere and you really see that you can do something about that.

Certainly not all the needs, there will always be multiple, a multitude of needs and we can never address them all, but there is something rewarding in saying, “Okay, here we are doing something that really has an impact on the lives of some people.” To me that’s the great thing at the end of the day.

What would you say to people who want to work in this type of situation? What kind of advice would you give them to prepare for what’s going to happen out in the field?

Lainie:            Okay, I would say just keep an open mind, be flexible. It’s never going to be as you imagined it. Each time I go to a different country it’s never as I imagined it was going to be. The challenges are always something different that what I thought they were going to be. There are always work challenges and also personal challenges. Be open to learn things for yourself, about yourself, and be open to other people. Yeah, to me that’s the most important thing, not to come in with too many expectations but to keep an open mind.

In terms of preparation for people who want to get into the field, I would say travel as much as you can, experience different contexts, do various volunteer work. It can be in your community, it can be abroad, it can be really a multitude of things, but really kind of get a feel if this is the kind of work that you would be interested in. Then think as well, because the humanitarian sector is quite large. There are certain contexts that you might be interested in working and there are others that you might not. I think it’s quite important to be a little bit targeted, I’d say.

I’m sorry. What was that, a little bit…?

Lainie:            Targeted in what you want to do.

Because each of these obviously have … each of these different humanitarian organizations has a different flavor I’m sure. I’m wondering, there are several large medical humanitarian organizations, would you say that most of them are multicultural in that … have you worked with a lot of people from different countries on staff?

Lainie:            Yes, in general the teams are very mixed, are very varied, are very interesting in the kinds of people that you meet and the backgrounds of the kinds of people that you meet as well. You find people coming from all kinds of different lifestyles, and this is fascinating as well, at all different points in their lives. You have people who are semi-retired who decide to work in the humanitarian sector and have had a whole other career doing something else. For me it’s really interesting from this point of view.

Could you tell me a story, maybe when you first started with this organization and you were sent out in the field, something that stuck out, that happened to you that gave you that a-ha moment, “Now I’m really in this. I’m in a different world. I’m in a humanitarian organization.” Is there something you can tell me like that?

Lainie:            Yeah, my first days as a volunteer in Cambodia were probably quite memorable. I could probably recount that. My first placement in this organization in Cambodia was based in a town on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, which was at the time quite remote and very much known for people trafficking, prostitution, drugs, et cetera; a lot of very poor communities living on the border. It took I think 10 hours to get there by bus over land.

It was really the last post in Cambodia at the time, and I was the first volunteer to be placed there for this volunteer program, so it was quite interesting. I took a bus ride with my Cambodian counterpart for 10 hours, and he recounted plenty of stories about when he was a soldier with the Khmer Rouge, what had happened in that whole period, and when he’d escaped to the refugee camps, et cetera.

This was really my introduction. I mean I had read books before I got there, but this was really my introduction to real-life Cambodia and what had happened to people there. I had sort of, for 12 hours, really in detail his story recounted, and then I arrived in this town in the middle of nowhere. He took me to his house, and his wife had made me a delicious welcome dinner of chicken feet soup, very spicy, followed by durian. I don’t know if you know durian fruit.

The stinky fruit.

Lainie:            Yeah, yeah, it’s quite smelly. These were all really strange things to me, who had not lived or worked in this side of the world before, so I had my dinner…

Were you a good soldier and you ate it all without…

Lainie:            I did, and I suffered because I don’t like so much spicy food and I don’t like at all chicken feet. The durian I could handle. So I had my dinner and I went home alone. I was staying in this kind of guest house quite far on in this town in Cambodia. I tried very hard to take lessons in Khmer, but I think for the first month all I ate was fried rice and pork because it was the only thing I could say in Khmer. I went every day to restaurants by myself, for dinner, to order food. I would try some other things and people wouldn’t understand what I was saying and in the end I’d have fried rice and pork every day.

This was really … I mean it was a big test for me to be in this town, in the middle of nowhere without any kind of colleagues that I could discuss with in English or whatever. It was really, really challenging to find my place in the organization and what I needed to do, and how I could add value. Because this is also the point when you start out in the sector, you feel like you’re the one learning and not really adding anything.

You’re not teaching people things…

Lainie:            Yeah, exactly.

You’re just trying to get your feet under you.

Lainie:            Exactly. I had gone there as part of the training, an advisor, and I was supposed to be training some of the staff, and really I was really learning for the first six months. I think that was the most sort of challenging period for me was that moment when I suddenly realized that, “Okay, yeah, I’m living in town, I’m surviving, I’m managing, I have a few friends and my job was okay – I can do this.” I think a lot of people I’ve spoken to, like Peace Corps volunteers, they have that kind of moment as well when you’re like, “Okay, I’m surviving. I’m more than surviving, it’s all okay.” That was a big moment for me, in fact.

And you didn’t have to eat fried rice and pork anymore (laughs)?

Lainie:            No, that helped when I could manage to order something else, so yeah that was particularly challenging. I mean it’s not the same when you’re working for an organization and you travel with a team and you live with the team. It’s certainly not the same experience. I can definitely recommend that people do experience these kinds of volunteer work from the beginning, because it’s really teaches you certain things about yourself and it’s a great experience.

Right, and then of course … and then when you moved to the medical humanitarian organization, they I’m sure had a training program and maybe even a cultural immersion program or something. How did they get you get started in your new position?

Lainie:            In fact it’s a little bit different with these kinds of organizations, because you don’t stay so long in the country. You study a little bit about the context and the very basics of cultural integration, but for example you might not necessarily have time to learn the language, you might not necessarily really go into detail. It’s up to you yourself to do a little bit of research about where you’re going, what to do, what not to do, et cetera.

You will get some briefings obviously when you arrive in the country from various staff, but it’s certainly … I mean you are a little bit, let’s say sheltered, from that, in the way you are living and the way that it’s structured, because you’re really there to do a job. You’re there with an objective in mind, and it’s not to be necessarily perfectly integrated in the culture. Of course you have to know how to not offend people, how to find your way, but your main objective is really the medical objective, to get the job done, to treat patients. You’re there for that.

Right. How long would you stay in each country then?

Lainie:            It depends on the country, it depends on the job, but in general around six months.

Do they like to move people in and out of the countries rather than have them stay too long in one country?

Lainie:            Yeah, there is some argument in that. It depends on the position that you take. If you’re in a more managerial position in a capital city they probably prefer that people stay a bit longer in terms of consistency, et cetera, but if you’re in the field one part of it is really exhaustion and being in those kinds of conditions. Most people wouldn’t be able to stand it for a year, let’s say, living in those kinds of conditions, working those kinds of hours. Most people really need to take a break at the end of it.

So it’s a little bit for that reason, as well, they kind of like to take people out and give them a break, send them somewhere else, and then also the reason of coming in and being a little bit objective, looking at things with outside eyes. You might see things differently, you might have a different approach in how you implement those. Yeah, there’s various reasons for that.

Yeah, I would think that being in one place for too long, sometimes you might be… you might get a little bit maybe cynical or it might seem a little hopeless, because a lot of these places problems just don’t stop and the amount of patients coming in is never ending it seems like. They probably want to move people while they still have a very upbeat attitude about what they have accomplished. I don’t know, do you think that’s a little bit of it? 

Lainie:            Yeah, that’s part of it. I mean it’s also when you stay in a place for too long you don’t necessarily see things in the same way. You don’t necessarily see the same problems, or you see some things as just the way things are here rather than thinking, “Okay, how we can work around this issue?” There are a lot of reasons for that.

Do you know how long you’re going to be at the world headquarters? Are you planning to go back in the field? How much longer do you see yourself doing this?

Lainie:            In the sector, I plan to do it for a long time. I mean it’s been really a deliberate career choice now, so certainly I’m going to stick with it. In terms of how long I’m staying in the headquarters, it’s not completely visible for the moment but probably sometime during this year I will be heading back into the field again.

So obviously you feel like you made the right choice and you’re where you should be, and you’re doing the most good?

Lainie:            Yeah, sure, absolutely. It’s not all about … People don’t just do this work because they feel like they’re doing good and they’re helping the world. Also for themselves it’s really an amazing career path. I mean in terms of what you learn, what you gain for yourself, I can say there are certainly selfish reasons as well to say why I love to do what I do. I love the fact that we help people and we improve their lives, but I also love the fact that every day I’m learning something new, I’m going to different places, I’m been challenged. For me it’s the whole package.

That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. Thank you very much, Lainie. I appreciate you taking the time, and if we have any questions I’m sure Lainie would be happy to answer them.

Lainie:            More than happy, yes.

All right, thank you Lainie and good luck in all your future field positions.

Lainie:            You’re welcome. Thank you.


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