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Relief workers on high alert

Published on Thursday, 24 Mar 2011
Relief workers assist a victim of the tsunami in Ishinomaki, Japan. Post-disaster specialist workers are in great demand.
Photo: Reuters

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan show the magnitude and impact of disasters on human lives and property. According to the United Nations Office for the

Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, last year saw the largest number of people affected and dying from flooding. In light of the frequent outbreaks of natural disasters, the demand for disaster relief and development professionals has increased in Hong Kong and abroad.

"Disaster management is a multidisciplinary industry, which requires professionals with diversified backgrounds, including medical and health care, engineering, logistics, communications, IT, administration and management," says Betty Lau, acting head of international and relief service of Hong Kong Red Cross.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) is building a team for overseas medical relief service for disasters, which needs not only doctors and nurses, but also electrical, mechanical and civil engineers, water and sanitation specialists as well as telecommunication and IT workers.

Yet, just having the technical knowledge is hardly sufficient, says Meng Abarquez, programme manager of humanitarian and disaster risk management of Oxfam Hong Kong. "You may be able to build a bridge, but that may not be enough to work in [the field of] emergency response."

Knowledge of project management is also important, Abarquez adds. "The range of this job is so many. You will not just be managing a project technically. You will also be managing people and the budget, and organising the work."

Above all, the right mindset is crucial for the job. Disaster relief is more than philanthropy. It adopts a rights-based approach that emphasises individuals' entitlement to assistance, which means relief workers are collaborating with marginalised groups as they address their sufferings.

"We don't work for the people - we work with them. That will mean [a relief worker] has to have a certain belief that the poor and the people affected by disasters have rights," Abarquez says.

She concedes it is not easy to find the right people for the job because relief work is often financially less rewarding than most professional jobs. For instance, engineers working in NGOs or emergency relief organisations may earn half of what their counterparts receive in the private sector.

But often it is the experience that people value in the emergency field. There's so much to learn on the job, from organising skills to local culture, that having the right mix of experience can help you stand out from other applicants, says Ho Wai-chi, an independent consultant to charity groups.

"Even if you're a fresh graduate with no practical experience of operating in the field, you should look for volunteering opportunities or applying for internships at NGOs," Ho says.

In addition to organisations in Hong Kong, students can also look for opportunities overseas. Ho says these learning experiences could give them a global perspective on important issues such as poverty and climate change.

Abarquez suggests people should volunteer "at least three times in their lifetime" for disaster relief work. They can also take a humanitarian course for knowledge, do volunteer work for field experience and then decide on whether they are suitable for the job, she adds.

"They [relief workers] are driven by a desire to help ... knowing that with a little support, people can get out of poverty or emergency situations," she says. "If you really want to do it, many NGOs need your knowledge and skills."

Learning to plan for the worst

  • CityU is running a master’s programme in development studies which provides training in policy analysis, situational knowledge, administrative planning and management of key development issues in a wide variety of political, social, environmental and cultural contexts.
  • Also check out courses in international law and social work offered by some local universities, as training in these disciplines are relevant to disaster relief and development work.
  • The Hong Kong Red Cross conducts sharing sessions by disaster relief workers, which are open to the public. Go to for details.
  • Oxfam Hong Kong welcomes applications to their internship programme. Interns are expected to commit at least 120 service hours, during which they will gain firsthand experience of the daily operations of an international NGO, and learn about issues of poverty. For more information, visit

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