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RedR UK: Past, Present, and Future

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Facilitated by former broadcaster and one of our Vice Presidents, Mike Wooldridge, our recent panel event brought together a number of esteemed supporters of RedR UK, among them our President HRH The Princess Royal, to thank our major donors.


With an opening statement from HRH The Princess Royal, the panellists discussed the history, current work, and future of RedR UK, humanitarianism as a sector, and the engineering industry.

President of RedR UK since 1988, The Princess has witnessed our organisation grow and evolve over the years. Her Royal Highness spoke of RedR’s mission to train and support aid workers and organisations, and of how the risks surrounding disasters, both natural and manmade, may be mitigated by effective training. During her tenure as President, she has, and continues to show, a deft understanding of RedR’s humanitarian purpose, particularly in the context of problem-solving. As Mike Wooldridge mentioned, problem-solving is “the essence of engineering”, and one of the factors that prompted RedR’s founding in 1980.

The Princess also thanked our major donors for their continued support for RedR’s work. As a registered charity we rely on donors to support our mission and have benefitted from the generosity of these donors over the last four decades.

To provide some insight into RedR’s history and origins in humanitarian response, our founder Peter Guthrie discussed the path that led to the creation of RedR UK:

“I had the good fortune of having the opportunity to go to Malaysia at the height of the Vietnamese Boat People Crisis in 1979, on a short-term mission. It was a lifechanging experience to see people who were in extremis, suffering greatly and living in very strained circumstances. It was evident that there was a huge amount an engineer could do to improve the quality of their lives with regard to sanitation, water supply, shelter, logistics and so on.

I came back after my assignment and Oxfam, who had sent me, could not find any other engineers to go; they simply did not have a register. In a way, RedR invented itself; it was a need that I knew could be met and within a few months there were 400 volunteers on the register to work in disaster relief worldwide.

We never wanted to become another operational agency, led by engineers, rather we wanted to make the humanitarian sector better qualified to deliver practical, often simple, solutions in areas of great need.”


Since 1980, RedR UK has evolved to focus increasingly on local capacity building and training, with the continued support of the engineering sector.  

Rachel Skinner, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and Executive Director of WSP, a long-term patron of RedR UK, is representative of the indissoluble link between our work and the world of engineering. The question was put to her: what drives the engineering sector to continue supporting the work of RedR UK?

“We have consistent evidence that the majority of people working in infrastructure and engineering join and remain in these sectors because they have a very personal need to feel they are making a difference in the world. Offering a chance to do so, whether indirectly through fundraising for RedR or more directly by supporting on-the-ground efforts, is hugely important and gives a very meaningful connection to everyone in the industry.”

As President of ICE, Rachel is particularly aware of these deeper motivations that drive many engineers, and has placed this at the forefront of her agenda as President, having identified the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions in the engineering sector.

“My year as ICE President is focused on a single theme called ‘Shaping Zero’ which is about the crucial importance of moving to a net zero carbon position as fast as possible if we’re going to limit the worst effects of climate change. My goal is to reach tens of thousands of civil engineers all over the world to deliver a very simple message: that we need to acknowledge and understand the links between engineering and the root cause of climate change.

Around 70% of the world carbon dioxide emissions are related to infrastructure, either because of the way we go about designing and building things, or because of the behaviours we enable by bringing that infrastructure into existence. Every single infrastructure asset old or new has had a carbon impact when it was built, and most of them continue to have an impact over many generations.”

Another of our Vice Presidents is Lieutenant-General Sir Tyrone Urch, Commander Home Command. Commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1984, and now Chief Royal Engineer, Sir Tyrone Urch is well positioned to know the value of military capacity and engineering in emergency response. COVID-19 has seen RedR respond for the first time to needs in the UK; a space the military has also helped to fill. With a foot on either side, Sir Tyrone Urch discussed the synergies between the two.

“The UK has been particularly active as of late with COVID-19 operations, nightingale hospitals, testing and vaccinations etc, and I think that all constitutes humanitarian support as well, although in the military we sometimes lose track of that particular aspect. If you run a ruler over RedR’s principles, I would say that the army mirrors many of them completely; professional, inclusive, impactful, and respectful, so I think it’s a very good match.”

Looking to the future, Peter Guthrie and RedR UK’s CEO, Jo de Serrano, shared some closing remarks on where they believe the organisation’s future lies. With a focus on capacity building and risk reduction, how will RedR UK adapt to changing needs in the humanitarian sector?

Peter Guthrie

“Charities will shift their focus because they should be responding to need, not remaining in some kind of dogmatic corner. Over the period that RedR has developed, there has been massive change every five or ten years; it has always been an evolving organisation. RedR’s focus on capacity-building is a great development, but I don’t think this is the end of the road.

With regard to the future, if you build capacity in the countries where you have vulnerabilities, then there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t establish cadres of people in those countries who are available to respond once they’ve been trained. If you train a lot of people in Nepal, for example, who have technical skills or are engineers, how are you going to mobilise them in the event of another earthquake or disaster? That is the next move for RedR’s ‘space’ in the humanitarian sector.”

Jo de Serrano, CEO RedR UK

“The connection between disaster response and long-term development is underway, although it’s not happening as fast as it should. Peacebuilding is another arm of this, so all three must work in tandem.

RedR is proud to work in all of those spheres, for example on the peacebuilding side with our work in South Sudan, while our work in Kenya for many years was in a development context. Going forward, we will continue to try and link these together and transfer learning from one to the other. It is quite a new concept, so it may take a while to fully implement.”