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“It’s not an obvious career path, no,” concedes Sanj Srikanthan. To outside observers of the development sector, his comment might come as something of a surprise.
Srikanthan, you see, served as an officer in the British army for seven years – deployed in hotspots around the world – before swapping his uniform for a frontline role with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He has since worked in eight countries in response to natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake and Ebola outbreak, as well as complex, conflict-related emergencies in Syria and South Sudan, rising to the role of deputy executive director in the process.
So, doesn’t the familiarity of being deployed to some of the world’s toughest situations and contexts mean that the two roles share many similarities? Well no, it transpires.
“Although working in tough spots in the field is similar, the culture and values are completely different,” he explains. “NGOs obviously never use weapons – that’s a given – but also the whole approach differs from the military. My advice to anyone looking to make a similar transition is to accept you are leaving one life behind and starting a brand new one, rather than try and sit across both.” Fortunately, Srikanthan has no regrets about making the switch – anything but.
Exhausting – but exhilarating
The roots of Srikanthan’s decision to opt out of the military can be found in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq conflict. By then he had ascended to the rank of captain, but his experiences in that particular military theatre left him yearning for a different path.
“I had a really rewarding military career,” he points out. “I chose it because I didn’t want to go into a classic office job and I hugely enjoyed the experience – the training, the people I worked with – but equally I was part of the operation in Iraq post-2003. I saw the shortcomings of a military-led response that didn’t take into account adequate planning for reconstruction, peace building, and the humanitarian response. As a result of those experiences, I felt that what I wanted to do with my life was work on international development and humanitarian issues. And so it was with that conscious thought in mind that I left in 2007-08 and applied to join the IRC – and I’ve been there ever since.”
As an emergency field director for the IRC, Srikanthan was thrust into some of the organisation’s most testing and difficult responses. His experiences – which were different to what he had originally anticipated – helped shape his perspective on the development sector as a whole. “I studied post-conflict development before joining the IRC, and the theoretical and the practical are somewhat different,” he says.
“I think the biggest surprise for me was the sheer impact that aid can have, as well as the real sense of thinking that goes into how we change the sector. We never stand still. We – at least at IRC – constantly think about how to improve the way things operate. We are always looking at whether our activities are sustainable and if they are going to work and, if not, what needs to change. The really remarkable thing is just the amazing efforts of humanitarians in the field. The first part of my time at IRC was field-based, and it was extraordinary to see the work and courage of humanitarians when facing immense personal risk and long hours.”
With this in mind, it seems pertinent to ask what type of skills a person needs to thrive in those types of situations – courage under fire, clearly, but what else? “You need to be comfortable with ambiguity, lack of clarity, and sometimes with tough living conditions,” he replies. “You also need to have a great deal of patience and agility of thought. But you can come from almost any walk of life – as I can testify. We’re looking at former management consultants who are trying to get into this space, or social workers, teachers, nurses – the list goes on. All of them, though, need to have a recognition that this is something of a calling. The working hours aren’t standard, they often require sacrifices in your personal life, but the rewards are potentially great as well: you’re part of a venture that has fundamentally life-changing goals in mind for the bottom billion people in the world.”
The example of Ebola
Of the many varied experiences that Srikanthan has clocked up in the field, one of the most intense was the response to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Looking back on the epidemic and the response, he says that – thankfully – lessons aplenty have been learned at every level.
“At the strategic level we saw the cost of the brain-drain effect in the health sector, particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there was a severe shortage of doctors and nurses to lead the response,” he says. “The second piece we learnt was that coordination in this sort of crisis is something that is very hard to get right. I think the World Health Organization, in particular, learned some really important lessons on pandemic response planning. And the third was how we operationally respond to a pandemic. Ebola is actually quite a weak virus and its transmission is fairly easy to prevent, but the challenge is that it needs good hygiene messaging. So you had to isolate the problem and then respond accordingly. At the start, we focused too heavily on treatment of those who already had it and not enough on prevention.”
He is at pains to stress, however, that the outbreak was ultimately brought under control not by the panoply of international organisations and governments deployed to the region but by the local presence on the ground. “The most enduring lesson is around changing perceptions and culture around disease and what we can do to fight and prevent it,” he says. “It was the power of local communities to control it through good hygiene prevention and also good local capacity to deal with cases – it wasn’t only the international presence that ended the crisis.
“Always more to do”
Such is the nature of development that the IRC, which has been in existence for some 84 years, finds itself with an array of priorities on its horizon. From helping address the ongoing refugee crisis to raising the alarm over the threat of mass starvation in Yemen, Srikanthan and his colleagues are juggling a myriad of tasks, both large and small.
“We see ourselves focusing on fragile and conflict-affected states, states where we see a lack of government capacity – or lack of government entirely – and extreme poverty,” he says. “About 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, but unfortunately they are in hard to reach places. The low-hanging fruit in terms of addressing extreme poverty is now gone.”
They are also seeking to mix short-term emergency responses with more long-term planning to help tackle more deep-rooted issues. “We are supported by donors to look at the economics of crises and lack of cash and livelihoods, and we also have concerns about other vulnerable groups that are often left behind – like women and girls who continue to be victims of sexual violence at horrific levels in fragile and conflict-affected states.”
To help them in this quest they can call upon an R&D Lab, which is tasked with thinking of innovative solutions to some of these crises. “We’re not afraid of failure or of taking risks,” says Srikanthan. “The Lab focuses on finding new solutions that are slightly out of the box and have not been tried before. That type of approach is in our DNA and it is absolutely necessary because, unfortunately, with this type of work there is always more to do.”
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