International Idea Exchange

The humanitarian work of RedR

Bruce Sinclair
Chairman, RedR International

Engineers can make a difference
Questions often asked by experienced engineers and other technical personnel are: How can we make available our technical knowledge and experience for the benefit of disadvantaged people throughout the world? How can we "make a difference"?

The most conventional route is to become involved in projects sponsored by the World Bank and international aid agencies. These are generally staffed by consultants, and offer little opportunity for engineers in the public works field. Others may become directly involved with the work of non-government organizations (NGOs) such as International Red Cross, World Vision, Peace Corps, and similar bodies. These deployments may often be for extended periods, not compatible with a mainstream career.

Let me describe how the work of RedR (Engineers for Disaster Relief) provides this opportunity to career public works engineers in a way which enhances, rather than diminishes, their careers. Let me also describe some of the outstanding humanitarian work performed by persons deployed to the field by RedR.

The need
When disaster strikes, the basic needs are for security, shelter, water, food, and sanitation. These are needs that can be provided by engineers and their colleagues, rather than the medical community.

Rapid response is essential-a day in the freezing mountains of northern Iraq, or in the heat of the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, can, and often does, kill. Poor sanitation and water supply led to some 50,000 deaths among Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire in 1994, in just a few short weeks.

Humanitarian relief agencies need to supply a rapid and professional response. Few have the resources to have the necessary skills on standby, nor is there time to recruit and train staff for the crisis.

It is exactly to meet this need that RedR was established.

What is RedR?
RedR (Engineers for Disaster Relief) is an international non-governmental organization working to relieve suffering in disasters by training, selecting, and providing effective personnel to humanitarian relief agencies worldwide.

In 1979, English engineer Peter Guthrie was seconded by his employer, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, to work in Vietnamese refugee camps in Malaysia.

At the end of his assignment, Peter saw all too clearly that while engineers had an important role to play in reducing the human suffering in emergencies, front-line agencies faced great difficulties in identifying and recruiting such staff.

Back in England, Peter searched for a solution and, after discussions with friends and colleagues, founded "Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief" in 1980.

The original concept of RedR was to create a register of carefully selected engineers who could be called on at short notice to work for up to three months with front-line relief agencies on secondment from their regular employer. This concept remains at the heart of RedR to this day.

The first RedR office was established in England. Based on the success of this first RedR, offices have also been established in Australia (1992) and New Zealand (1994). A RedR organization has recently been formed in Canada, which will be happy to accept applicants from the USA, at least until a separate RedR is established there. RedR's International Secretariat was established in Geneva in 1996.

The four RedR Registers contain some 1,600 names, most of whom are in regular employment with consultants, public and local government agencies, and contractors. Others are the footloose "free spirits" which one finds in every profession. All have the capacity, experience, and motivation to "make a difference."

The UK Register includes members from the Republic of Ireland, mainland Europe, and Kenya, while the Australian Register includes persons from Papua New Guinea, and the New Zealand Register includes engineers and others from the Pacific Islands.

The RedR engineer or technician is deployed on the request of the front-line agency, when it becomes aware of the need. Some have been deployed within 24 hours of the first call. About 100 agencies have called on RedR for assistance, and there have been up to 200 assignments in any one year. They involve tough, hard living, and can be anywhere in the world where people are suffering.

Deployments are generally for about three months, but may be extended for up to six months by mutual agreement. The important thing is to get the job done. The requesting agency meets all the costs involved, which usually includes a salary component.

Selection and training
It is just as important that a person deployed to a crisis point be able to cope with the cultural, health, security, and personal issues they may encounter, as to be able to manage the technical demands. There is no "second chance."

To ensure quality, each RedR organization uses a rigorous interview, selection, and training procedure. The core of this process is the five-day residential Refugees and Relief Workers (RARW) program. This is now recognized as the most effective and, in some cases, the only training program for humanitarian NGO workers, and many of the participants are from other NGOs, the military, and private organizations proposing to deploy staff on contracts or consultancies. The core RARW program is augmented by a series of associated courses in allied fields such as security, water/sanitation, public health, site planning, and others.

RedR International, the umbrella organization of the operating RedRs, ensures that quality and consistency are maintained across the RedR family, such that any RedR organization can confidently fill a request by accessing personnel from one of the other Registers.

Corporate support
RedR in each country receives strong financial support from the engineering community, particularly consultants and contractors. For some, RedR is their "charity of choice." Many also encourage their staff to enroll on the Register, as they see this as a significant benefit in skills development.

The challenge is to maintain and increase this support in the light of increasing demand for RedR services, and to avoid the effects of "compassion fatigue." We can never stand still!

The future
The end of the cold war, and the much-trumpeted global economy, may have changed the world, but there has been no let-up in the number of man-made and natural disasters. The demand for effective responses continues to grow, presenting a challenge to increase capacity without compromising quality.

It's a tough world out there, but RedR is providing engineers with the opportunity to make a difference.

Bruce Sinclair is the recently retired Chairman of RedR Australia which may be contacted via e-mail at Further information on RedR's international programs is available at

Mission to Yemen

RedR has a history of involvement in the refugee camps of South Yemen going back to the deployment of camp site planners David Swan and Colin Campbell in 1995-96. In 2000, two RedR members, Neil Hodge and Val Tarasov, were deployed as Construction Managers in Yemen with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Val Tarasov gives us some history: "As a result of permanent unrest, wars, natural disasters and poverty in the countries of the Horn and East Africa during the last 10-12 years, some 100,000 people of African origin have fled to Yemen. This is a heavy burden for such a poor country as Yemen where unemployment rates run as high as 70 percent.

"Six years ago, UNHCR opened a short-term camp in Al-Gahin. People were living in hangars with family compartments divided using plastic sheeting. In 1999, the Government relocated the refugees from Al-Gahin to Al-Kharaz, a longer-term camp."

So how does an Australian RedR deployee find himself in Yemen of all places?

Neil Hodge takes up the story. "I had this tussle going with Christine Vincent (Executive Officer RedR Australia). I maintained that it would be very difficult to place a person such as myself (56 years old, background in contracting on major marine projects) on a short-term assignment. I rate my primary expertise as people management. People management skills go with senior positions, not with temporary assignments. 'Not so,' Christine assured me, 'we'll have no difficulty finding a suitable assignment. Wait and see.'

"Given this background, it was more than my credibility was worth not to put my name down for everything she sent me. And so it was that Christine proved her point, and I ended up spending six months in charge of the design and construction of a Somali refugee camp in the harsh coastal plains of southern Yemen. It definitely tested my people management skills to the limit; very different culture, harsh environment, remote location, uncertain security. But at the end of the day, the fundamentals of people management remain the same. People still respond positively to clear instruction, consideration, encouragement, etc., regardless of their language and culture. I knew I was getting somewhere the day that the Project Manager of one of our local NGOs took my hand as we walked through the camp-very Arabic!

"Technically, the assignment was a piece of cake. Even the difficult logistics eventually succumbed to rational planning methods. I was pleased to find myself surrounded by some extremely competent local people. I learned from them, and they learned from me. Together we got the job done in record time. I came away feeling that I had made a worthwhile contribution, and feeling rewarded by having enjoyed an enriching life experience."