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"Knowledge that sticks"

A career grounded in humanitarian work is undoubtedly a challenging one. Many obstacles, from the inconvenient to the life-threatening, can hinder someone striving to create an effective humanitarian response and make a real, positive difference to people’s lives in crisis-stricken contexts. 

Jan van der Vliet is a seasoned civil engineer and friend of RedR; previously a course facilitator and trustee of RedR New Zealand.

Currently, he works in Vanuatu in the remote South Pacific. He is the Provincial Water Sector Advisor for the Department of Water Resources, seconded from Volunteer Service Abroad New Zealand, and in collaboration with Engineers Without Borders. Working here has its challenges. Recently, two back-to-back cyclones meant Jan spent four weeks travelling from island to island, assessing water supply systems and sanitation facilities. Everything takes place on a vast, open ocean via a very small boat. Sometimes, the landings are so rough the team has to swim with their equipment to shore. 

Here, he shares the hard-won insights from his long humanitarian engineering career. 

Cyclone response in Cambodia
Cyclone response in Cambodia

How did you get to know RedR? 

"At the start of my career in the late 70s and early 80s, I had two long-term assignments with SNV (Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers - Dutch Volunteer Service)  in Nepal and Zambia. Three RedR UK courses I attended prepared me further for my next assignments in African and South-East Asian contexts. They provided  me with further in-depth knowledge and practices in humanitarian work, the Sphere standards, and more specific knowledge on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and security." 

Jan went on to facilitate a number of RedR UK and New Zealnad water and sanitation courses. He became a RedR member and a trustee in our sister organisation, RedR New Zealand, now part of RedR Australia

Response in Vanuatu
Response in Vanuatu

Why does training matter? 

“Training simulations mean that if you're faced with that scenario for real, you're in a much stronger position on how you should behave and react. Security training that involves simulation and scenarios is very powerful, and it has to become quite personal. We want to see how people can get through certain things. Simulation of scenarios like landmines, car bombs, and kidnappings is helpful, because things like that do happen. They did in my case - in two different countries. Although each situation is different, experiencing it once means you’ll know how to react.” 

An assignment in Chechnya stands out as Jan’s most extreme demonstration of this. “We were attacked by mercenaries (one of the many security challenges we had there), who came into our compound and put pistols to our heads”, he recalls. He’d experienced this scenario in his security training. “I was standing next to someone who was a very experienced humanitarian, but who had never been in a scenario like this. He reacted very badly.”

He had good reason to be afraid. Just two days after Jan left Chechnya for home, several of his colleagues were killed by mercenaries. "Those are tough assignments”, says Jan. "Extreme situations, and not the norm". The experience of the training, as well as what Jan describes as a "sensible approach", enabled him to stay calm and increased his chances. 

RedR training creates more realistic expectations. "People often have idealistic visions of helping people," says Jan, "that don’t account for the realities of a context which can get very stressful, political, money-oriented, and even corrupt. Courses are an important opportunity for candidates to hear what humanitarian work is actually like. Psychology tests and other tools to help prepare candidates from a personal perspective might be helpful as well. There is only so much work you can do to select a person, and it's hard to find someone who ticks all the boxes. RedR is unique in its selection process for members, which produces a pool of people to tap into. RedR UK courses are highly appreciated for their quality. The training works. When you meet people trained by RedR UK you can tell – it sticks." 

On a project in Grozny, Chechnya.
On a project in Grozny, Chechnya.

I’m hoping to enter the sector. How can I get there? 

"Technical skills are good and important, but they are the easy part for the interviewer to access in a selection process. Successful candidates have to understand what humanitarian aid is all about. Don't expect the same standards and principles in a very different context. It is a very particular experience, and you have to be quite careful and informed." Training courses such as “So you think you want to be an aid worker?” and “Essentials of Humanitarian Practice” are a great place to start. 

"For those without technical engineering skills, there are many other potential roles in areas like management and programming. It’s important not to only offer your good intentions. Instead, understand what skills and capabilities are needed in the field and find something suitable for you. 

"It’s so important to get the right people into the field, and the right mentality is just as important as the technical ability. 10% of the requirement is the basic skill to do the job. Your attitude determines the rest. When I select people, that’s the point of view I’m primarily considering. I’ve seen people who can’t cope in the difficult circumstances we put them in. 

"People have to start from somewhere, and they have to be given an opportunity. A training course is a great place to start." 

Insights from humanitarian veteran Jan van der Vliet

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