Perfectionists need not apply

The recent television images of starving babies struck down by the famine in Sudan has once more thrown the spotlight on the many aid agencies working to ease the plight of the victims. Front-line agencies such as the Red Cross have a relatively high profile, but working alongside them in the background is a unique […]

The recent television images of starving babies struck down by the famine in Sudan has once more thrown the spotlight on the many aid agencies working to ease the plight of the victims. Front-line agencies such as the Red Cross have a relatively high profile, but working alongside them in the background is a unique body of engineers who also bring their particular skills to disaster relief.

RedR Engineers for Disaster Relief is essentially a register of carefully selected engineers who, at short notice, go on secondment with relief agencies to help with the practicalities of emergencies. Their work varies from setting up emergency water supplies in Africa to monitoring supplies of chlorine cylinders in Iraq.

Members stay on the register throughout their career, which means they can find themselves enjoying a range of assignments as their experience and skills grow.

RedR is non-profit making and is funded by a variety of donors, government bodies and trusts. It was started by an engineer in 1979 to meet a skills shortage among relief agencies, which were having great difficulty in finding qualified volunteers to help with technical and engineering tasks in emergencies.

The register has grown to about 800 members, mainly from engineering disciplines, although the range of professions is being expanded and already includes environmental health officers, architects, mechanics and logisticians.

In the past 20 years RedR members have undertaken 450 assignments with more than 50 agencies in over 40 countries. It has members in locations as varied as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Montserrat.

Directing its operations is Bobby Lambert, a chartered engineer with 16 years’ experience in the aid sector. Since 1996 Lambert has been responsible for all the executive aspects of RedR.

Although often desk-bound, he is no less motivated than he was almost 20 years ago when he undertook his first voluntary assignment overseas with relief agency Concern.

At the time, Lambert had just graduated as an agricultural engineer from his native University College Dublin. Motivated by a blend of ‘youthful energy, idealism, adventure and a desire to make a contribution’, he spent two years in Tanzania working on small scale irrigation and the development of technology such as solar heaters and simple pumps.

On his return he took up a post in Ireland with the Department of Forestry and Fisheries. But it was not long before he set off again for Africa. ‘My skills seemed more useful there than at home,’ he says.

Lambert spent the next 10 years in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, returning to the UK during this period to upgrade his qualifications.

What motivates him now is witnessing the impact of RedR members in the field and the challenge of continuing to provide effective and competent people to support humanitarian programmes. ‘If you don’t have good people on the ground you won’t get the job done,’ he says.

Checking motivation and providing high quality training play a major part in ensuring RedR provides the right kind of people. Lambert spent four years from 1992 developing and running RedR’s training programme. It comprises 17 courses devised in collaboration with relief agencies.

The courses are frequently used by outside agencies and non-RedR members. Lambert also co-wrote a practical manual for volunteers in the field, Engineering in Emergencies.

Teamworking is an essential attribute for volunteers, Lambert says. ‘Engineers seem to be very good at team working and have the right approach analyse the problem, devise a solution and implement it.’

But they can fall down in dealing with people, which is where training can make a difference. As well as ‘hard’ subjects such as water supplies or power generation, RedR courses cover skills such as managing people and personal effectiveness.

Volunteers need to have reasonable expectations as well, says Lambert. ‘You don’t want nit-picking perfectionists. It can take a long time to get things done but the impact can be significant. Building a simple irrigation system in Tanzania might seem quite trivial in engineering terms but it can make a huge difference to the local people.’

Danger is another reality which volunteers have to be able to deal with. ‘Personal security is one of the most popular and essential training programmes,’ says Lambert.

During his long involvement in humanitarian aid work Lambert has seen an increasing drive for professionalism and accountability which he welcomes. ‘Humanitarian aid is big news and questions are quite rightly being asked on how the money is being spent.’

RedR is involved in several initiatives to improve professionalism. These include being a signatory to the Red Cross code of conduct, which defines guidelines for relief agencies, and contributing to a project devising basic standards in humanitarian aid. It also supports a move to create an ombudsman for the sector.

Lambert does not feel that the drive to professionalism will diminish the voluntary spirit. ‘It’s not about rejecting voluntary input at all. The opposite to professional is unprofessional, we want people to give their time but in a professional way.’

For the future he is excited by the opportunities presented by the Internet and teleconferencing for increasing the register world-wide. RedR has offices in Australia and New Zealand, and is looking to set up in North America and India.

Lambert also plans to broaden the range of skills on the register. ‘We’re keen to recruit people with intranet and IT skills to help set up and run communication systems.’

Personal rewards for Lambert have been many he even met his wife in Africa. Being heavily involved in the training courses has been particularly rewarding. ‘Seeing people change behaviour even in a small way and being able to interact with others is really encouraging. Failure to do this is after all one of the major causes of conflict in the world.’

Robert Lambert at a glance

Age: 39

Education: Bachelor of Engineering (Agric) University College Dublin. Msc & DIC in Public Health Engineering, Imperial College, London. Chartered Engineer, Institution of Engineers Ireland.

First job: Assistant engineer with Dept of Forestry and Fisheries Ireland.

Current Job: Director of RedR (Engineers for Disaster Relief)