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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Public shouldn’t turn their back on vital humanitarian work

This opinion piece is over 6 years old

Richard Cambridge, a humanitarian worker for the International Red Cross, says the public needs to back aid charities

As an aid worker I’m depressed by the current furore over Oxfam. I worked in Haiti in 2010 for a year and know that the vast majority of aid staff from NGOs worked as complete professionals. So this has come as a huge disappointment, mostly because it calls into question our devotion.

Aid workers rarely find themselves in the sector by accident. It takes a certain breed of person. You have to be utterly committed, thick skinned, selfless and prepared to give up all your home comforts.

From an early aid I always wanted to travel. My dad was a pilot in the RAF and we had to move around a lot. I was born in St Andrews, Fife, moved to Aberdeen, Anstruther then Aden in Germany before going on to Cyprus.

Richard Cambridge
Richard Cambridge

I first started out in 1999 working with the International Red Cross running convoys into Bosnia. I'm an engineer by trade and gave my unpaid services to aid charities in the Blakans as countries rebuilt infrastructure after the brutal civil war. We slept in tents alongside the road and we were frequently threatened with all sorts of violence. It was dangerous but I revelled in the excitement. I was single then – aid is really a single person’s vocation – and a bit more care free. With two children, that’s all changed.

I’ve also worked in Darfur, Lebanon, Syria and Belize and assisted in paid roles with water purification teams in Cambodia and India.

Haiti was different in that it was about rebuilding and disaster relief. That’s the toughest job in aid work. There was huge destruction on the island. Bodies lay in the streets and there was an imminent threat of a cholera epidemic. Over that year I worked tirelessly reconnecting people with loved ones and working in a medicare centre. We made massive strides in getting the country functioning in a very short timeframe.

In Haiti they were over 10,000 NGOs working along with about 100,000 aid workers. With that amount of people there will be problems; it’s disingenuous to think different. But the critical issue is how the aid sector responds to those problems.

There’s no doubt certain people abuse the system and take advantage of crises

I’ve returned to the island in 2016 working in the country’s prisons delivering healthcare. It’s prospering compared to how it was in 2010; I’m proud to say I helped with that.

There’s no doubt certain people abuse the system and take advantage of crises. However we’re well versed in this. We are trained to be aware of colleagues and the mechanisms are in place to deal with this in terms of reporting. And all aid workers have strict codes of conduct, no matter who they work for.

Can the aid sector survive the scandal? Yes, it will but it might have to take a hit. Reputational damage will hit income but the other issue is the fact NGOs have to work hard to get the trust of communities in which they work. Now it is going to be harder to build that rapport with communities, especially in country’s which have a deep suspicions of state control and foreign aid.