A Day in the life of an humanitarian

Dr Michelle Sanson is an international lawyer with degrees in business, law and adult education. Five years ago, she  left behind her career in legal practice and academia to apply her professional skills in humanitarian contexts.

“I can recall sitting at home seeing news of devastation from things like war and tsunamis, and I just felt so powerless, like there was nothing I could do to help those people’s suffering”, she says.

“I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to deploy to some of these contexts, and contribute in some way. But it doesn’t make me a good or superior person – we all contribute in our own way – lawyers, engineers and other professionals may work in an office and it is their taxes that enable our country to help others in need.”

Michelle has worked in conflict settings, natural disasters and complex emergencies, in places like South Sudan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Her work is focused on the protection of human rights in these contexts.

“In humanitarian work there are responders from many different professional areas, and we work together and learn from one another”, Michelle says.

“For example in an evacuation centre or camp setting, while a water and sanitation engineer may focus on the placement of latrines and ensure their technical suitability to the environment, someone like me focuses on ensuring safety and dignity by thinking about ways to reduce the risk of gender-based violence, such as through having separate facilities for males and females, and locating facilities in a central place with good lighting, or making sure they are accessible to people with disabilities”.

Michelle recalled an example of a refugee camp in Jordan where, for cultural reasons, women and girls could not go to common latrines in the evening, and families dug small troughs for use beside the family tent.

“There was the obvious hygiene issue, but the land was also very porous and there was concern about contamination of the water table not far underneath, which would have had consequences for the host population’s water supply. This sort of thing can fuel tensions between refugees and host communities, which can become big problems."

“While logisticians may be focused on ensuring a certain volume of metric tonnes of food assistance is procured and reaches a particular affected area in as short a time as possible, someone like me looks at how the assistance will be delivered, who it will reach and who may miss out,” she says. “You can’t just assume that everyone will get some; there’s always the invisible and voiceless, and that can include the elderly, people with disabilities and people from minority ethnic groups.

“If you just pull up with a truck and start distributing items, or worse, organise an air drop, who is going to get the assistance? Only those who have the physical strength to push and shove and get what they need. It is the less physically able who may miss out, and you end up with an even greater gap in power and resources. Then you have to ask yourself, what will the “haves” expect to get from the “have nots” in return for sharing some of the assistance?”

 “I can’t really describe a day in my life, they are all so varied. I’m deployed as a gender and protection specialist with UN Women in Fiji at the moment and yesterday I was in the field speaking with first responders from last year’s Tropical Cyclone Winston which affected 350,000 people”.

 “It was really inspiring to speak with some people who provided psychological first aid in the early days after the disaster, and to hear the stories of people with disabilities who mobilised to identify and assess needs of people with disabilities, and get them assistance that is vital for their safety, mobility and dignity, like adult diapers and assistance devices. We’re right in the middle of cyclone season again right now, and we’re looking at how these local organisations can be supported to help the most vulnerable in their communities, if another cyclone comes through,” Michelle said.