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New day, new challenge

Twenty five years old this week, disaster relief charity RedR is evolving to meet new humanitarian challenges, discovers Ruby Kitching.

In 1979-80 Peter Guthrie was in Malaysia, battling to provide basic amenities and infrastructure in camps set up to shelter Vietnamese 'boat people' - those fleeing the newly reunited Communist country via unofficial routes. While on assignment with Oxfam the 28-year-old civil engineer was struck by 'just how much engineers could do to improve the situation. I'm not a particularly tremendous engineer, but found I could make a huge difference'.

Guthrie also discovered that Oxfam was having trouble finding engineers to help it overcome obstacles such as the lack of water or sanitation in its operational theatres - disaster and conflict zones.

In April 1980, shortly after his return to the UK, Guthrie piped up at an appropriate technology conference held at the ICE to highlight the problem. He also offered a solution; charities should be able to draw on a pool of civil engineers willing to work in disaster zones around the world.

Guthrie's plan for a Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief - 'RedR' - were reported in NCE 25 years ago this week. Engineers would be seconded to work for aid agencies for three months at a time.

The article grabbed the attention of engineers and their employers.

Consultants Scott Wilson, Arup and Mott Macdonald lent support to the idea, giving it weight and momentum. RedR was born.

RedR engineers have weighed in behind every major catastrophe, and numerous less well documented disasters, since the organisation's inception.

It is represented on numerous fronts. This year, for example, while efforts to recover from the tsunami dominated the news headlines, RedR also focused on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Darfur, Sudan.

The organisation has widened its remit over the years. Its engineers have worked with a wide range of non governmental organisations (NGOs), enabling them to identify good and bad practice. This has led to the drafting of guidelines for a number of operations, and has been fed into the training of following generations of RedR personnel. Guidance ranges from the best way of digging pit latrines to understanding local customs.

Personnel from the aid agencies to which RedR engineers were seconded quickly became interested in acquiring RedR skills, and by 1986 the organisation was offering technical training courses on water supply and sanitation.

A suite of courses is now offered, including environmental health, security, AIDS awareness and the trademark five-day course in the 'essentials of humanitarian practice'.

Courses are run around the world, enabling people native to disaster stricken areas to receive training.

Indigenous people are eligible for financial aid to help meet the costs of attending the workshops.

An AIDS awareness workshop for workers was held in Nairobi, Kenya, last February, for example.

According to the attendees, this was the only event at which NGO personnel could share knowledge and learn about latest developments in AIDS prevention in a refugee camp environment.

RedR has also branched out into assessing training offered by the UK and other governments - this work has secured RedR funding from the UK Department for International Development.

'DFID likes what we're doing and wants us to do more. This allows us to set up an office in Nairobi and get resources there to make it a success, ' he says.

RedR has set up international offices to interface with key players in disaster relief. RedR Australia was created to serve United Nations agencies funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Other offices have been formed in response to prolonged regional challenges. RedR East Africa has long-running work with NGOs and charities tackling the refugee crises in Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan.

In 2003 RedR London merged with International Health Exchange (IHE), which recruits healthcare professionals to work in disaster areas. Health and sanitation are complimentary, and make RedR's skills useful to a wider range of organisations, points out chief executive Bobby Lambert.

Lambert also says that RedR is increasingly blurring the line between disaster relief and development. It is becoming more practical and sustainable to seed appropriate skills in developing countries than to parachute in foreign expertise.

Engineers are now joining to gain qualifications in development, not just to help in an emergency.

RedR launched an online register in December 2004. Since the Boxing Day tsunami 5,500 people have signed up, says Lambert. Many, he regrets, will probably never be deployed. Call up of RedR engineers peaked in the 1990s, and aid agencies now often call on the same engineers directly and repeatedly.

But this does not mean that demand for engineers has dried up, he emphasises.

Though it is working increasingly closely with government and receives grants for some of its work, Lambert stresses that RedR's strength is that it does not rely on government funding, allowing it to work independently and react quickly when help is needed.

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