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So you want to be an aid worker?

Just off a plane from South Sudan, aid worker Libby Bowell reflects on her career path and what it takes to work for Red Cross overseas.

How did you get into aid work?
Back in the 90s I was an emergency and intensive care nurse in Newcastle. A couple of remote area nurses came to work in the emergency department and I was immediately drawn to what they did. Shortly after, I moved to the Northern Territory and began working as a remote area nurse. From there it seemed like a natural progression to the international aid world.

What's the connection between bush nursing and humanitarian aid?
Remote area nursing combines primary healthcare and community development. It's working in a community, living in a community, being part of a community. There's also the isolation, the distance to more definitive care, the lack of resources and just living a long way from your family. So it's a really good grounding place to get experience for international field work.

Tell me about some of your missions with Red Cross.
I started with Red Cross in Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami. Then I was part of an emergency team in Yogyakarta after an earthquake. I've been away pretty much every year since - Kenya, PNG, Sierra Leone, Haiti after the earthquake and the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. I've worked in Solomon Islands several times over a four-year period, and just now in South Sudan.

What were you doing in South Sudan?
There was a cholera outbreak in Juba City. The Nile river runs through the country and there's almost 100 per cent open defecation across the country, so there was a concern that if the disease got out of Juba, there could be quite catastrophic consequences.

I was part of an international Red Cross team that went to assess the situation, the capacity of South Sudan Red Cross to respond, and how we could support them. There's a great network of volunteers at the community level who can deliver prevention messages - wash your hands, boil water before drinking, safe sanitation methods. We also set up oral rehydration points in communities for people who had cholera - this reduces loss of lives and severity of cases, and also helps relieve the burden on hospitals.

Why is it important to support local efforts?
Because ultimately, we're going to go home and they're going to stay and face the crisis, day in, day out. So the National Red Cross Society takes the lead and we're there to support them. And whatever we do has to be sustainable for them.

Is being an aid worker everything you expected it to be?
Truthfully, at the start I was champing at the bit to save lives. The reality is you do very little of that. I sometimes feel like an invisible helper - training, guiding, supporting - not getting in and saving the world. I think you have to accept that.

How long did it take to grind off the idealism?
My first mission! Trying to bring in your expectations of what should happen in a hospital setting in your own country, into somewhere where healthcare systems are not as developed, it can have really bad effects. So you make a few mistakes in your first mission and it makes you a lot more realistic.

What kind of experience do you need to break into aid work?
You need to have done some long-term, community development stuff. It is so beneficial to understand how development works as well as what happens in emergencies. Get to know how who the players are, how they work together. There are lots of opportunities with Red Cross to do training.

What personal traits do you need to succeed?
You have to be calm, you have to be flexible and adaptable. You have to be able to break complex things down into simple terms.

What are some of the physical challenges you've faced as an aid worker?
There are usually strict security guidelines and you need to be accepting of the rules and restrictions. Life in the field is rarely comfortable, so you learn to take little things that are important to you. It's always difficult being away from family, too.

Staying well can sometimes be an issue, especially in emergencies when you work long and hard with little rest. You learn to be aware of your own boundaries.

So how did you know this was the right career choice?
I feel really comfortable with my decision to work with Red Cross because I believe in its principles. I feel well supported by Australian Red Cross. Even when it's hard, it's good. You get the opportunity to help people help themselves, and being a part of that is incredibly rewarding.

Looking for a career in aid work?

Take our International Humanitarian Action Training course to learn the ropes. Then volunteer overseas to build your field experience.