The best job in the world: aid worker reflections

Aid, Conflict, Disasters, Humanitarian

What kind of person chooses to spend their life at the centre of disasters and conflict zones? Tariq Riebl, a roving programme coordinator in Oxfam’s Humanitarian Department spoke to Catherine Meredith about his life as an aid worker. Come back tomorrow for the second instalment which focuses on Tariq’s current role managing Oxfam’s emergency response in Yemen.

How long have you been an aid worker for?

Nine years, including five and a half with Oxfam.

What do you like about your job?

It’s the best job in the world because I get to go out to some of the world’s most acute emergencies to help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, we have great teams and it’s very rewarding.

What’s the most difficult thing about your job?I get to go out to some of the world’s most acute emergencies to help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet

When we make a decision not to intervene because of a lack of capacity, then the beneficiary doesn’t have a role in that decision and doesn’t have a voice, and when you then see that the programme, being implemented by another agency, is below standard that’s the toughest thing.

I always find it hard to list things like insecurity and stress because that’s part of the job. If you asked a fire-fighter what makes your job tough and he said ‘the high temperatures in buildings that are on fire’ you would be like well that’s redundant. I feel we shouldn’t be citing things like that, we’re working in conflicts, in poor countries in complex situations.

If you weren’t an aid worker what would you do?

This is the best job I’ll ever do but I have other interests, some academic interests, think tank work, political risk analysis that I wouldn’t mind going back to. If you want to be good at this job you shouldn’t do it forever because you get burnt out. I wouldn’t want to do it if I wasn’t 100%.

What’s the biggest issue in emergency response?

I would say we are seeing emergencies expanding year by year. We are breaking records in terms of natural disasters and this is clearly due to climate change, at least in part. There are nearly 60 million displaced people, which is the largest number since World War Two and that number is not going to go down, it’s going to go up, there are not even any refugees from Yemen yet, because of the blockade, and there will be more conflicts.

…we are seeing emergencies expanding year by year

What we are lacking is really good emergency response capacity. We have a patchwork of NGOs and the Red Cross movement and we figure it out but it’s not a very coherent structure. You would think that as we’re talking about life-saving work there would be more progress on improving the mechanisms of emergency response. We can put a man on the moon, but the world can’t respond well to disasters.

On the public health side it’s disappointing that Ebola has been going for 40 years and we still didn’t have a vaccine, we didn’t have a treatment, we didn’t even have a rapid test and meanwhile we have fifty different types of anti-depressants and all of them are multi-billion dollar block-buster drugs, but we can’t even stop malaria or Ebola, and we have polio resurging.  

Anything else you would like to say?

I feel like the competition between nation states is separating human beings. I think often we miss how similar people are, everyone wants to have a home and friends and family, wants to have a decent life with access to basic services and we emphasise differences but actually people are really similar.

We wave flags and we block people from entering countries and we stop sharing experiences and want to be in our own little corners. Places like New York and London are rich because of their diversity. People are drawn to those places because they are diverse, but we don’t seem to have learnt that lesson. With the refugee crisis people are saying ‘we don’t want these people,’ people who themselves are descended from refugees, who fled different wars many decades ago. They have chosen to forget that. 

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Supplies stacked up and ready to be sent to Yemen at Oxfam’s Bicester warehouse. Credit: Tegid Cartwright

Author: Tariq Riebl
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.