Survival in the hot spots
◗ ◗ Rod Reeve has seen it all - war, disasters, famine. Once he barely escaped with his life. But he carries on because he believes the world isn’t ready for what’s coming next
IT’S early in the year, but already Rod Reeve has been to Poland, Britain, the US, Thailand and Jordan. This month it’s Cambodia. And that’s a normal travel schedule for the 50- year- old aid and development worker. In his 25- year career, Mr Reeve calculates he has made more than 100 overseas trips, ranging from a week to a couple of years duration, and worked in about 35 countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, China, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan and Laos.
He has been in war zones, flown in several decidedly dodgy aircraft and witnessed the aftermath of some of the world’s most lethal natural disasters. These days he does about eight or 10 short trips a year and is away up to four months in 12. ‘‘ You need a very understanding partner, that’s for sure,’’ he says.
Mr Reeve calls his line of work ‘‘ hotspotting’’, which is also the title of the book he wrote about his experiences, published last year.
His interest in aid work was piqued when his older sister went to Ethiopia in 1973 to help with famine relief.
‘‘ I was an impressionable teenager of 16 and I think that had an impact,’’ he says. ‘‘ It was a mixture of a desire for adventure and a desire to do something worthwhile.’’
His own adventuring began a decade later when he spotted a newspaper advertisement for an agronomist to work on an agricultural project in northern Iraq. The timing was perfect. Reeve, who grew up on a farm in South Australia, had finished studying agricultural science at the University of Adelaide and also just broken up with his girlfriend. He applied, and spent the next two years working in a war zone 80km from the frontline with Iran.
Inspired by the experience, when he returned to Australia he joined Coffey International Development, an arm of the Australian Securites Exchange- listed engineering and consulting firm Coffey International.
Companies such as Coffey compete for development assistance contracts awarded by organisations including AusAID, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the United Nations.
One of its current projects is managing the six- year pilot program for the Enterprise Challenge Fund, a $ 20 million AusAID initiative that aims to encourage business projects in the Pacific and South- East Asia. Since bowing out of full- time field work 17 years ago, after the birth of his first child, Mr Reeve has been based in Coffey’s Adelaide office. In 2006, he became chief operating officer of the Asia Pacific region in charge of 500 aid workers.
Development work usually entails working in difficult and sometimes downright dangerous conditions. But Mr Reeve says aid workers get used to the physical hardships and learn how to control the risks.
‘‘ There are health dangers and security dangers but we have pretty good ways of handling that and preparing for it,’’ he says. ‘‘ We employ good security and we know when to avoid places and when to keep a low profile.’’
His own biggest health scare came in 2003 when he was working on a women’s health project in Indonesia and contracted cerebral malaria, which causes delirium, delusions, convulsions and coma and can kill in 72 hours. Indeed, chapter one of HotSpotting opens with Reeve bawling in a Denpasar hotel room after being diagnosed.
‘‘ What the hell am I doing this job for?’’ he remembers asking himself. ‘‘ My lovely wife and children are thousands of kilometres away tucked up in their warm beds in the Adelaide Hills and I should be with them.’’ Instead, delirious, hungry and alone, he prayed the medication would work. Which it did.
‘‘ In fact, I don’t think I missed a day’s work,’’ he says. ‘‘ I just took it easy for a couple of weeks.’’
Even more of a challenge than the physical perils has been the task of unravelling the social and cultural complexities of the countries he has worked in. The measure of success for any development project is whether it is sustained by the locals once the aid workers jet out. For that to happen, the projects need to be carefully designed and sensitively implemented, taking into account local ways.
‘‘ Where there isn’t local ownership and people aren’t committed ( projects) are less likely to be sustained,’’ Mr Reeve says. ‘‘ Where local leaders are supportive, they always work.’’
During the women’s health project, for example, the team discovered almost a third of newborns were having their umbilical cords cut with a shard of bamboo, which could introduce infections and cause deaths.
‘‘ We thought it would be so simple to introduce a sterile system such as we use in Australia. But it took three or four years to achieve,’’ Mr Reeve says.
‘‘ First we had to understand why they were doing it. We found ( using the bamboo) was a thousand- year- old practice. There were a lot of superstitions about it, so we had to move slowly and carefully and involve community and religious leaders.’’
Inevitably, Mr Reeve has seen some terrible sights. The worst was in Indonesia’s Aceh Province in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunamis that killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.
Coffey worked to rebuild the main hospital in the city of Banda Aceh and is still working on AusAID projects there.
‘‘ To be effective, you have to remain objective and detached, otherwise you can’t function well,’’ Mr Reeve says. ‘‘ But every now and then you find it getting a bit too much for you. Everyone who witnessed the aftermath of the tsunami felt depressed and sad . . . but the rewards of the job are the obvious ones. It’s intriguing. It’s exciting. The satisfaction - you can’t place a high enough value on that. You feel you are contributing.’’
Sadly, given his speciality, Mr Reeve believes his line of work will always be needed: ‘‘ In fact, the sort of work we’re doing now is going to become more and more important. There are going to be another three billion people on this planet in the next 40 or 50 years, and we’re just not ready for it.’’
On the front lines: Cleaning up in tsunami- ravaged Banda Aceh ( main picture), while helicopters drop supplies to stricken villagers ( top left)