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Happy 40th Anniversary to RedR UK! A Q&A with Peter Guthrie

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This year RedR UK is turning 40 years old. Instead of throwing a big party and celebrating like we usually do, because of COVID-19, we are creating a blog content series that celebrates RedR UK’s 40 years of existence and showcases moments that have been imperative to the growth, success and reputation of the organisation.

First up is a Q&A with Peter Guthrie, founding father of RedR UK. What better way to look back on the 40 years than starting at the very beginning?! 

1. Peter, what inspired you to set up RedR UK back in 1980, 40 years ago?

It all started when I was asked by Oxfam (I had previously spent a year on VSO in Nigeria) to go to Malaysia to work as an engineer in the camps there for the Vietnamese Boat People. The refugees were living in very poor conditions, and press attention had raised the international effort to bring about improvements. I was seconded from my employer for three months and on my return, Oxfam were unable to find a replacement. I realised that there would be many engineers willing and able to undertake such work and so my wife, Lorna and I started RedR UK with some colleagues, which was joined very quickly by many engineers around the UK and beyond.    

2. How long were you with the organisation and can you tell us a bit more about RedR UK’s History and journey?

I have been “with” RedR ever since! Initially as Chairman, I have been in several roles but am currently a Vice-President and we have the immense privilege of having HRH The Princess Royal as RedR UK’s President who has played a key role in the growth and development of the organisation. RedR UK at its inception was able to carefully select and send out engineers and specialists to disaster areas to strengthen the response of operational agencies in humanitarian crises around the world. RedR UK had a long involvement in Malaysia, and provided members to disasters in many countries including Malawi, Ethiopia, Somalia, Cambodia, Uganda, Sudan, Bosnia and Bangladesh. 

The underpinning principle of RedR UK was that it should never be an operational agency, in its own right, but a means by which agencies in the field could improve their response with the inclusion of technically qualified and experienced people for short term inputs. 

RedR UK had 400 volunteers in the first three months and the engineering profession has been a strong and consistent supporter of RedR UK throughout. We’ve moved away from providing experts for assignments and moved into training to become one of the world’s foremost providers of training for emergencies, with staff around the world where the need is greatest. There is, however, still a shortage of skills in disaster response and this is an area of opportunity for RedR UK’s future. 

3. What were RedR UK’s biggest achievements and biggest challenges over the past 40 years/ during your time with the organisation?

The biggest achievement was probably surviving the first twenty years with a tiny budget and limited staff resources. The first donation of £1,000 from Oxfam was probably the most important contribution ever received! Many people have given their time, unstintingly, over many years to make RedR UK the organisation it is. A RedR member was kidnapped while on assignment in Africa early in its history and while the engineer was eventually released unharmed it highlighted the dangers of working in extreme environments. 

4. Do you think RedR UK achieved what it set out to do?

RedRUK  did achieve its initial aims but the world has changed and RedR UK has changed with it. To have the reputation we have for training, is remarkable and the organisation now needs to ensure it remains relevant and responsive to the world’s needs. 

5. What are you most proud of at RedR UK?

The people who have made it what it is. The staff who show such dedication, the members who give their time so freely, and the network of supporters who keep the organisation solvent. One more abstract achievement has been that, although RedR UK is much broader than engineering (quite rightly), in a small way RedR UK has demonstrated that engineers have a human face and save lives in disasters. 

6. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the organisation?

The challenges now are significant as the world faces new threats and changing attitudes at a time of unprecedented need with over 70 million displaced people around the world. RedR UK needs now to embrace this new order at a time of uncertainty. 

This image shows my time in Malaysia working with the Vietnamese Boat People and this photo was taken at the Kuantan Camp, one of two I worked in in 1979/80. The other guy, proudly holding his drawing, is an architect who drew up great plans for the camp layout, the new clinic, and other buildings. We worked together very well despite his non-existent English and my execrable French!

Peter Guthrie

Founder of RedR UK

Peter Guthrie

A Q&A with the Founder of RedR UK, Peter Guthrie

Keep your eyes peeled for the next in the series of celebrating RedR UK's 40th Anniversary.