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Aid agencies' missing link

The Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief, civil engineering's own humanitarian aid agency, was born 21 years ago. Jackie Whitelaw and Andrew Mylius explain why it was - and more than ever is - needed and chart its development since the early days.

Twenty one years ago, plus a week or two, 28 year old Scott Wilson engineer Peter Guthrie stood up at an ICE appropriate technology conference and launched into a statement promoting the idea of a register of engineers for disaster relief.

It was a speech unrelated to the content of the conference.

But it earned him and his cohorts - Guthrie's wife Lorna, 21, and fellow SW engineer Steve Warren, 22 - a feature in New Civil Engineer explaining the need for civil engineers to assist international disaster relief agencies (NCE 24 April 1980).

That was the start of RedR.

Letters and support flooded in, Scott Wilson gave the twentysomethings office space and let them get on with it. And now the organisation is an integral part of the humanitarian aid community worldwide.

The initial idea of supplying engineers on secondment from their regular employers at short notice for assignments up to three months long with front line relief agencies is still at the heart of RedR. Since 1979 RedR members have undertaken over 900 assignments with more than 100 agencies in 70 countries.

There are currently 1,600 volunteers on the register. And RedR now has branches in Australia and New Zealand, offices in India, East Africa and Canada on the horizon and an international secretariat in Geneva.

But Guthrie, now professor of sustainability at Cambridge University and a Scott Wilson director, believes that it is only in the last six or seven years that many of the aid agencies have realised how many lives can be saved by getting engineers in to help as quickly as possible.

'Oxfam and Save the Children were always the exceptions, ' he says 'but most of the others thought about tents and blankets without considering things like sanitation.'

The engineering establishment also took a bit of convincing as to the validity of the concept.

'You have to remember how young we were, ' Guthrie says.

'We got an appointment to see the then ICE president to put our case for Institution support but were refused entry to his office because Steve was wearing trainers.'

ICE came on board eventually and after several years with a base at the Scott Wilson offices, RedR moved to a new roost at the Institution, with other desks crammed into the Institution of Mechanical Engineers down the road.

Since then the aid community too has been converted to the value of having engineers on the team - by the effectiveness and hardwork of the volunteers over the years.

Guthrie had a very clear idea of exactly what sort of aid agency RedR needed to be thanks to his own experiences helping refugees.

He was working with the boat people in Malaysia for Oxfam in 1979 when the idea for RedR was formulated. It was monsoon season, refugees were lying on the beach, and Guthrie was the only engineer. When his time there was up it was obvious, he says, that what was needed was another engineer to take his place. But there was no organisation to go to in order to find one.

Oxfam had a register of people from various professions willing to fly off at a moment's notice to counter disaster emergencies. But that list was overstretched and short on engineers.

RedR was born and its first secretary was Jack Muggeridge, then 72. Muggeridge died recently (NCE 24 April), but he is likely to hold the record forever as the organisation's oldest ever volunteer.

The current director is 42 year old Bobby Lambert. His background involves an Irish engineering degree, a masters in public health from Imperial College, work with aid agencies in Africa and some teaching in the school of development studies at the University of East Anglia. He joined RedR initially to develop the training side of the organisation and became director five years ago.

As you would expect, he says, the organisation has refined and developed significantly over the last 21 years.

The training side of RedR in particular has become a major revenue earner for the agency as well as contributing greatly to getting it accepted by the humanitarian aid community.

'We started by focusing on the technical side but actually engineers adapt to cope with available technology pretty quickly, ' Lambert says. 'The big gaps were in the other stuff - how aid agencies work, how to look after yourself and so on.'

RedR now runs a five day course on the essentials of humanitarian practice that teaches just that (see p VI). And there are a variety of other courses including an increasingly vital one on personal security.

The courses have helped swell the agency's coffers. Total revenue last year was £800,000 compared to £250,000 when Lambert started as director. Budget for the coming year is £1.4M with the increase largely accounted for by training income, although grants and donations from patrons and individual donors are always the gratefully received core of RedR's revenue (see funding page box below).

'We are very proud of our training, ' Lambert says. 'It is one of the standard bearers in the humanitarian world.'

The volunteers are the heart of RedR. When the organisation started it was envisaged they would consist of engineers in the widest sense of the word. And that has come to include logistics experts, hydrologists and project managers as well as civils technical specialists.

Hydrologists and project managers are in short supply and RedR needs more now.

In terms of personality, a volunteer needs to be 'mellow, able to get things done and not too perfectionist, ' says Lambert.

'They have to function in the field dealing with bad situations and people who have been through and may have done terrible things. It's messy, awful, and you probably have to deal with the French and the Americans as well.'

That last is a serious point, he says. 'There can often be more conflict between the people working together than with the local authorities because you are all cooped up together in poor conditions.'

When RedR is recruiting it has to ask: 'Is this the sort of person we could share a tent with?'

In terms of age, the bulk of volunteers are between 25 and 35 or 50 plus. Those in the middle tend to be bringing up families or on the career ladder so are less inclined to disappear for a three month RedR stint. But Lambert maintains that work in the field with RedR is as a good a management training course you are ever likely to go on and hopes more mid career people will see working it in that light.

Volunteers are usually paid by the front line agencies they end up working for but in the current skills shortage employers keen to retain staff are becoming more sympathetic about continuing to pay salaries while the volunteers are away.

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