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The low down Working with aid agencies

Your career

As southern Mozambique struggles in the wake of last week's twin cyclones, international aid agencies are doing their utmost to provide for thousands of individuals displaced by devastating floods.

Mitigating the effects of a natural or human-induced disaster requires a rapid response from aid agencies and invariably calls upon the skills of civil engineers. RedR, the engineers' disaster relief organisation, selects and trains volunteers to work with humanitarian relief agencies worldwide. Since it started in 1979, RedR members have undertaken more than 500 assignments with more than 50 agencies in over 40 countries.

'Between 60 and 70 per cent of the requests we receive from aid agencies are for help with establishing and maintaining water and sanitation,' says Jerome Oberreit, RedR's register and placement manager. 'After this comes shelter construction and then support, such as logistics,' he adds.

A number of UK-based firms, including Mott MacDonald and Ove Arup, act as patrons to RedR and regularly release staff for assignments with aid agencies. Oberreit says he cannot stress enough how much an employer gains from their employees' experiences in terms of staff development.

'They're generally given a great deal of responsibility and gain experience in teamworking, problem solving, and learn to work under the stress of an insecure environment,' he adds.

Nicola Adams, a 25-year-old civil engineer with Arup and a RedR member, gained a great deal from the four months she spent in Albania last year with Oxfam.

'I was part of an international team of about 12 engineers working in water supply treatment,' she explains. 'We each had to maintain the drinking and washing water supply to a couple of refugee camps, which meant supervising local contractors, negotiating with NATO to borrow plant, and lots of travelling and talking.'

If longer-term development work appeals more than disaster relief, there are opportunities for construction industry professionals with organisations like VSO and WaterAid.

VSO sends between eight and 10 civil engineers abroad every year, supervising the construction of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges.

Mark Hatcher, who now designs water retaining structures for Mott MacDonald, embarked on a two and a half year posting with VSO to Papua New Guinea in October 1995, an experience he found extremely rewarding.

'I was a design engineer with the local government,' he says, 'training counterpart nationals in engineering design skills and computer literacy, and overseeing rural infrastructure projects, like water supply and the construction of footbridges and wharfs.'

WaterAid provides financial support and technical advice to communities in Africa and Asia that want to solve their own water and sanitation problems. Of the 23 expatriates employed by the organisation, about a quarter are civil engineers. As their main role is to act as advisers, relevant technical experience is as much a prerequisite as flexibility and diplomacy.

'WaterAid staff are on professional salaries, in the development work sense,' explains engineering adviser Ray Heslop. VSO workers on the other hand are paid, by the organisation's own admission, 'a modest income'.

Nevertheless Hatcher regards his time with VSO as a continuum of his professional development and urges potential applicants to gain some work experience before accepting a posting, rather than trying to go straight from college.

Visit the RedR, VSO and WaterAid websites:

www.redr.org

www.vso.org.uk

www.wateraid.org.uk

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