Young ICRC delegate ahead of her first assignement.
Interview by Mandana Razavi - Visiting other countries and experiencing different cultures is a dream Livia Hadorn shared with many other students. But while most them probably think of adventurous travels, humanitarian aid has always been uppermost in Livia’s mind. She is now set to embark on her first assignment as a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Mandana Razavi: What made you decide to work as an ICRC delegate?
Livia Hadorn: I studied international relations in Geneva and did postgraduate work in human rights in the UK. While I was studying, I naturally heard of the ICRC again and again, and was already considering applying to be a delegate. But after finishing my studies I had jobs at the UN and with a team of experts in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, which took me to Somalia, Congo and Nepal. However, I found myself becoming increasingly drawn to humanitarian aid; somehow the thought of the ICRC never left my mind. At some point I made my decision and sent in an application.
As a delegate, you will be spending a lot of time abroad. What did your family and friends have to say about your decision?
As I had already studied in England for a year, the fact that I wanted to work abroad again wasn’t that big a step for me. All the same, it wasn’t easy for my family when they heard that I was going to Somalia, especially as that country is considered quite dangerous. But when you come back from a posting like that in good health, any fears your friends and relatives might have had at first are quickly put to rest. By now they’ve all gotten used to the fact that I’m going to be working abroad again.
Even so, there’s a big difference between England and Somalia.
Of course, it feels a bit strange at first when you get posted to a country like that. But I’ve always been convinced that you can meet people you can connect with anywhere – people who welcome you and help you get by. It’s also exciting to get to know new countries and cultures.
Do you find it hard to keep in touch with your family when you’re abroad?
Not so far. Mobile and internet connections have become quite good in Africa. It’s become much easier to stay in touch with my family, so in some respects it’s easier to stay in touch with my family, so in some respects it’s easier to go away now than it used to be. On the other hand, it’s important not to let communication technology distract you from settling into the new country with the local people. Forging close contact with the people there is ultimately very important for our work.
So it’s never been difficult for you to leave home?
No. I’m really looking forward to my first assignment as part of my new job. I’m preparing thoroughly for my new posting in the training course I’m attending with other new ICRC delegates. Now, after so many “dry runs,” I want to see how it will turn out in practice. So any sadness at leaving is overshadowed by excitement.
Before getting their first assignments, new ICRC delegates attend the training course you just mentioned. What is it like?
The so-called integration course I’m doing with the others lasts for a total of three weeks. During the final week we learn about “protection,” which includes various topics such as protecting the civilian population in armed conflicts, prison visits and reuniting families. Our approach to our future work isn’t just theoretical; we also simulate and practice things like visiting prisoners and passing checkpoints. We learn how to talk to militias, arms groups and prisoners. We have to pay attention to a lot of details, from choice of words to intonation. We also draw up plans for providing aid, logistical procedures and so on. In this way we learn in advance how to pay attention to the right things.
What happens after the training course?
The first two years are a kind of apprenticeship for new delegates. The ICRC sends us to work in two different countries to get to know two different cultures and acquire as much experience as possible.
In the last days and weeks you’ve role-played many different situations, for example prison visits. Do you really believe you can rehearse for a crisis?
I do believe that a lot can be rehearsed this way. In the course we also notice how often we tend to make the same mistakes. It’s very helpful to have this pointed out to you and be corrected. You can learn a lot from your mistakes. Once in the field, we’ll be working with experienced colleagues who will keep an eye out to see that everything goes okay.
Do you already know which country you’re going to be sent to? Do you have a special wish?
The decision on which country you’ll be sent to is usually taken just before the integration course begins. You don’t have a choice. My first assignment will be Sudan, and I’m really looking forward to it. I didn’t have any special preference in this respect, as I believe that a lot depends on the people you work with. If you have a good team of people who support each other, you can have a really interesting experience even if the living conditions of the place you’re in are difficult. But I have to admit I’d treat a posting to a place like Iraq with respect.
You’re young, well-educated and have your whole life ahead of you. Being a delegate is not always danger-free. Aren’t you afraid something might happen to you?
Not really, no. You know, we’re trained for our assignment. Naturally, sometimes we talk about what could happen, but I don’t like ruminating on it in detail. I have a strong basic trust in myself and my abilities, and in other people as well. What’s more, if I was constantly asking myself what might happen, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. It would simply be the wrong job for me. I try to keep my focus on the people I’m supporting in my work.
What do you expect from your first assignment in Sudan?
I don’t have any expectations. But I am looking forward to it very much and am sure it’ll be exciting. I’m also going to try to learn as much about the country and its culture as I can, as quickly as possible.
What do you want to achieve through your work with the ICRC?
It might sound egotistical, but the main reason I chose this job is that I think it’s exciting. Naturally it’s also important for me to help people in need through my work, but I believe that I can only do a job really well if I’m truly interested in it. I also believe I have to remain realistic. With some people we will be able to help and bring about positive change. But there are many, many others that we won’t be able to help because change can often take a long time.
Don’t you think you’ll get discouraged over the long run if you don’t see your work resulting in progress?
It’s important to not get discouraged by such things. Many, maybe even all, changes start small and might be almost imperceptible at first. But they happen all the same. I’d only be frustrated if, for example, somebody underestimated me and my abilities without knowing me. Or if they didn’t give me a chance to get involved. But this is probably the same for everyone, whether they work for the ICRC or any other organization.