So when did you first identify as humanitarian? And how long have you been in this space?
Jamie: Humanitarian is a strange label. I was always very keen on community work. In Scotland I worked with homeless people and people with disabilities in particular.
My first overseas post was a Voluntary Service Overseas person, like your Peace Corps. That’s a British Government thing. I went to Nigeria to work in a high school and that was it.
From there. I went on to work and community development work in Papua New Guinea. Y’know working with prisoners, dealing with street gangs. We were trying to bring them into or rotate them into the mainstream. After that, I got more of an interest in the international sector.
What did your initial work in the international sector look like?
Jamie: I started in Sierra Leone when the war was taking place in Liberia (which began in 1989). There were a lot of displaced people and refugees coming across the border. Basically we were trying to reestablish services for farming communities — health, water, sanitation, and schools. Afterwards, I went to work in Somalia. I was there when Operation Restore Hope came in during the time of Aydid. Then Black Hawk Down happened and all the stuff that went with that. It was an introduction to a very dark time for international intervention, but I stuck with it. I went from there to the war in Bosnia. I worked with the international Red Cross and it was kind of a depressing experience to be honest with you. Ukraine, in terms of dynamics, is not unlike that situation. I went on to a series of other places like that. I worked most recently in Palestine and Yemen.
In between those conflict zones, I worked on a lot of natural disasters: the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the earthquake in Iran, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. In Nepal I was the Humanitarian Coordinator.
So, my experience is all about complex emergencies: crisis, conflict, and the natural disasters.These are things where I think that you know you can do quick work. You can do fast work. It’s got a pace to it that I appreciate.
But I think what we do is probably not enough. The fastness and the swiftness of response is required of course. However, we don’t necessarily engage properly with the locals, and that’s one of the things that I think we need to start highlighting much more! We got to work ourselves out of a job.
That’s an important insight. I suppose that leads to my next question, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
Jamie: The first responders are local people and local families. They are the vulnerable populations we want to protect. We tend to forget that as an international community.
There’s a certain degree of: I know more than you. I’m experienced, or I have a templated approach to how this will work; I know what’s best for you and I don’t need to have a conversation with you. I’m going to form the needs assessment. I measure up what I think needs to be done based on past similar events and some of the crises, and I just bring it to you without any real dialogue.
The people are desperate for help so they accept (and often welcome) the material. But y’know, is it the right stuff? And I would say it’s probably not. We should incorporate their views, opinions, and voices from the get go; don’t override them. There was a lot of talk about localization after the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, but it’s just not matched in action. We would be much more resource efficient by shifting the emphasis away from big NGOs and UN agencies. There should be a different type of relationship between donors and local actors. I think the financial model and governance structure we have needs to be remodeled.
I think that we’ve got to start a different type of community engagement dialogue. That way, I think we’re better placed to serve, respect, and engage a population. That means you sit down with them and work together. Together you decide the needs, actions and beneficiaries. Our “implementing partners” must become strategic partners and political partners. True joint partnership isn’t happening quick enough.
How has your experience and perspective on the space informed the upcoming podcast?
Jamie: The podcast is called Humanitarian Fault Lines — relating to the fault lines after an earthquake or disaster site. Those fault lines don’t go away. You have to be aware of them; you have to mitigate them; you have to minimize their impact. It informs how you live, how you perform. So what we’re trying to do as part of the IDHA is capture leading voices. Not just heads of agencies and big organizations, but also people in the field settings. Especially deep field settings: national and local staff. How do they survive? How do they better understand what dynamics are? How can we be able to give assistance in a way that’s measured, legitimate, credible and appreciated, but also respectful as well? I think if we don’t get that part of the parcel, we’ll always see local groups as just implementing partners.