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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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)

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