John Brogan, Section Head of Water Environment Livelihoods & Disaster Risk Management at Terre des hommes, a Non-governmental organisation based in Lausanne, Switzerland, took the time off his schedule to talk to us about what it’s like to work for an NGO in Switzerland.
His career path is truly fascinating and has taken him all over the world, from working in international development and humanitarian relief projects focusing on water sanitation, hygiene, disaster risk reduction, nutrition and child protection in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to finally settling in Switzerland.
As someone who works for a non-profit organisation, Mr. Brogan believes in the power of positive thinking and taking concrete action to make his vision a reality. Below is how our conversation went.
Accurity: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you started working for Terre des hommes?
I started working in water and health initiatives in low and middle income countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village of adobe huts in southern Mauritania. It was 1996 and I was 21 when I landed in the austere Sahel setting, right out of university. Everything—the climate, language, culture and their subsistence livelihood activities—were completely different from what I’d known previously. It took some time to get my bearings, to learn about the rhythm of life and to be able to communicate in the local dialect. The stoic and hospitable nature of my Mauritanian hosts was remarkable. We took time together to understand which projects were most interesting from their point of view. After Mauritania, I took assignments with a small French NGO in Albania and Yemen, and then went back to Mauritania as a Peace Corps trainer, and then as part of the Embassy’s development team. My supervisor in Yemen, Vincent, called me in 2003 to say that he was starting a project to prevent child trafficking with the Swiss NGO Terre des hommes in Albania. He asked me to join and, except for a two-year sabbatical in India, I’ve been working with Terre des hommes ever since.
Accurity: If you could talk a little about your day-to-day operations and the relationship you have with your team and colleagues in Switzerland.
Today’s digital communication tools keep us connected with field offices on a near-daily basis. Aside from the occasional power outage or network cut, we can check in with most of our colleagues through messages, calls and video conferencing. This morning I spoke with our project managers Aboubacar Ballo in Mali and Naing Aung in Myanmar about their progress in promoting infection prevention and control in health centers and their interactions with the Ministries of Health in both countries. And Natacha Djigeumde provided strategic perspectives on a Blue Schools project in Burkina Faso slated for 2020. In some contexts, our plans can be curtailed by security concerns—we stay vigilant and are backed up by a risk management team at the Terre des hommes headquarters in Lausanne. At the regional and global levels, we take cues as to the kind of technical support needed by country teams, and raise issues in our networks in Switzerland and globally.
For example, Switzerland’s network for Water and Sanitation, AGUASAN, has been around since the 1980’s and is the oldest such professional community of practice in the world. AGUASAN is informal and highly collegial. Nearly 100 professionals from Swiss government, research institutions and NGOs share information and advice, meeting periodically in Bern and hosting annual workshops sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation on current themes related to water; such as circular economy, nature-based solutions and youth empowerment.
Accurity: Describe your duties and overall responsibilities within the end goal of your organisation.
Terre des hommes has signature programmes for Maternal, Neonatal & Child Health and Child Protection. My team covers a range of interventions that enhance the outcomes of these programmes; such as water, environment, food security and disaster risk management. For example, sanitation and hygiene in health care facilities in Mali, or economic incentives to influence educational opportunities for working children in Bangladesh. Some of us work at the global level based in Lausanne, others work on a regional level and are based in Kathmandu, Kolkata, Bamako and Port au Prince. We interact with local project managers across 30 countries, offering guidance, learning from their experiences and showcasing that learning across Terre des hommes’ operations and the global community of practice.
Accurity: What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of beginning a career in an NGO?
Thanks for that question! If you have that gap year between high school and university, experience life through another lens, not in the tourist sense, of course. See how experiencing life in a different setting resonates with you. Experience what it’s like to be in an area where you have to adapt and actually understand what’s going on around you.
Then I would just say to simply volunteer. A great way to get involved and see what resonates with you is to offer your own time, be with like-minded people and see how you respond to such work. For me, volunteering with Peace Corps was mainly that, and along with some volunteering I’ve done in University, that’s what guided me on this career path. But you don’t need to go to some far-off country to contribute in such a career field. There are plenty of amazing civil society groups and initiatives in local communities that enhance the wellbeing of people and the environment. Giving time and energy to these efforts is rewarding and makes a difference.
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