How to work in humanitarian services

Joanna Reid

Working in development I have met presidents and sex workers, celebrities and kids with smiles as big as their shoulders. I've had a very unusual career and I've not necessarily chosen or planned it all carefully, but it's been an interesting journey.

Being a vet was all I had ever wanted to do. I was determined to be a large animal vet, so after qualifying from Glasgow, I went to work in a practice in rural Aberdeenshire and thought that was the start of my veterinary career.

Leaving practice

I wish I could give a well-considered and rational reason for leaving practice, but I can't. The truth is that I was subject to what I now know to be discrimination and constructive dismissal for being a woman. To cut a long and traumatic story short, I was in a relationship at the time and the practice said that I would have to leave before employment rights – specifically the right to maternity leave – were introduced. I didn't think they could possibly be serious until I got a call one evening from someone asking about the assistant's job that had been advertised and I realised it was my job. I was too young and too ignorant to fight it and I'm sorry to say that when we called the RCVS for advice, they said: ‘It's a small profession, don't make waves.’ So I gave in, I left.

I did locums for a few years, but never went back to being a vet full time. I keep my RCVS registration because I was advised that prospective employers might think I had been struck off. It took a long time for the hurt of having my dreams taken away from me to ease, and to see that it created an opportunity for a different kind of life.

I needed and wanted to work so I applied for a random series of jobs and landed one with a coffee company. Was it humiliating to find myself with a degree in veterinary medicine selling coffee? Actually, it was like running my own business with someone else's money, so it was fun; but I still get teased about it.

"In career terms, I started at the bottom all over again, but this time it was my choice and it was exciting and liberating"

However, that wasn't going to be a career, so I applied to be a graduate management trainee with the Greater Glasgow Health Board and so began the next phase of my career, which lasted nearly 10 years. I used my degree as that – a degree rather than a vocation – and soon started an MBA, which was my way of formalising a change of career direction. I then embarked on a series of jobs at a large general hospital.

Those jobs were transformational for me in becoming a manager. As deputy administrator of Scotland's largest hospital I managed cleaners, porters, medical secretaries, catering and laundry staff. I also did jobs as an outpatient manager and a theatre manager (the operating kind), managing professional staff, many of whom were older than me. These jobs gave me an incredibly strong basis in people management. I dealt with good and bad performers. I had to make people redundant and I had to deal with staff falling apart because of personal problems. You can read about management in books, but there is no substitute for actually doing it.

After Glasgow I moved to Aberdeen and then to Bedford, where I was a Trust Board Director and well on the way to becoming a chief executive. I had a good income, a nice house and a good life. And then I thought: is this really what I want to be doing? I realised it was time to give something back.

Working overseas

I was on holiday in Kenya in 1998 when I made a New Year's resolution that by the end of the year I would be working overseas. And I was. I went to China with Voluntary Service Overseas. Apart from the very first month when I realised what my income was (and nearly wept), I haven't regretted it for a second.

In career terms, I started at the bottom all over again, but this time it was my choice and it was exciting and liberating. There were times I could hardly believe what I had done: I had no real idea of what I was letting myself in for, but I knew I could do it. I remember thinking that only two things really mattered – having my own personal space and a feather pillow. There have been times when my overseas career has really tested my personal and professional resilience, but I know I haven't reached my limits. Again, I decided to do some formal study and I did an MSc in development management with the Open University.

Becoming a civil servant

From China I got a job running a health project in Bangladesh, and then applied for a job with the Department for International Development (DFID) and moved to India to be a senior health adviser in what was the DFID's biggest overseas programme. It didn't strike me for a while that I had become a civil servant. There are various jobs working in development – those at the hardcore front end delivering services to very poor people, as I did in Bangladesh; jobs with donors, such as DFID, which give money to front line organisations and work with governments of developing countries trying to influence policy and build sustainable change; and consultancy companies that do certain specialised work.

I'm occasionally frustrated that I'm not still at the coal face, but I genuinely believe in influencing governments to tackle the fundamental problems that keep their citizens poor. In India, DFID's money counted for very little in real terms, but it got us a seat at the table designing reproductive and child health services which targeted the poorest.

"There have been times when my overseas career has really tested my personal and professional resilience, but I know I haven't reached my limits"

I was lucky when it came to my next job as I had a choice. I thought South Africa would be quite nice – comfortable and civilised, while Sierra Leone was probably a bit of a basket case. So I chose Sierra Leone. I was deputy head of office as well as health adviser and found I had moved back into management.

From there I became head of DFID in Yemen – a fascinating but troubled country. DFID tends to work in difficult places – we call them fragile states. Yemen taught me that you can't separate politics from development from humanitarian crisis and often from terrorism. British Embassy staff were twice targeted by Al Qaeda. The second time I was evacuated – due to the Arab Spring – I didn't get back for five months, and when I returned, I had to live in a shipping container beside the Embassy. The expat life isn't all luxury.

Heading DFID in Somalia

On promotion to senior civil servant I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to head DFID in Somalia. Somalia is described as the world's most failed state – it's incredibly fragile, but it is in a better place than it has been for a generation. Somalia is high profile; the UK Prime Minister has hosted two international conferences to discuss it and the UK gives financial and political support. We do it because there are some extremely poor people there, but also because it is a haven for global terrorism. I don't have a problem with acknowledging what we do, because at the root of terrorism is often not a belief, but a lack of alternatives. If we can give young people in Somalia hope in a future, Al Shabaab will hold no attraction.

I live in Nairobi but spend a lot of time in Somalia – we have an embassy in Mogadishu where I get to live in a shipping container again. I'll be moving soon to Khartoum, Sudan – another fragile state, for different reasons.

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