19 Sep 2023
Podcast Ep 1: For Peter Grzic, mum knows best

When Peter Grzic’s mum returned from a trip and handed him a business card from a disaster responder she met on the plane, he never suspected his life would end up how she envisioned. Years later, Grzic is an experienced humanitarian, as well as a trainer on RedR Australia courses.   

For the very first episode of RedR Australia’s new podcast, Humanitarian Conversations, Grzic sat down with Sally to talk about why he loves being a humanitarian trainer, how the humanitarian landscape is changing and how his career unfolded after that advice from mum.  

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Host: Sally Cunningham   

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 


SALLY: In the first episode of our new podcast, we're speaking with Peter Grzic, who is in fact known to everyone simply as Grzic. Grzic is a very experienced humanitarian. He's worked for UN agencies such as OCHA and UNICEF, as well as governments, NGOs and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. His humanitarian career has seen him work across Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, as well as his homeland Australia. He has a Master's in Humanitarian Action and is a volunteer with Red Cross and the Country Fire Authority. He loves learning languages and speaks six to varying degrees. 

Grzic is also one of RedR Australia's much-loved associate trainers. And if you have participated in one of our courses over the past few years, like me, you may have met him. Since 2017, Grzic has helped to facilitate countless RedR training courses, including our Essentials of Humanitarian Practice course, and the Hostile Environment Awareness Training course.  

I first met Grzic at the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice course, where he took on many personas over the five days, which is always a very memorable way to meet someone. However, it wasn't just his acting that was most striking, as Grzic was clearly brimming with first-hand knowledge of field work and coordination, and was very generous when sharing his knowledge with the participants.  

We sat down for a chat for the first episode of our new RedR Australia podcast. We talked about why he loves being a humanitarian trainer, how the humanitarian landscape is changing, and how his career evolved. And to start it off, I asked him, when did you realise you wanted to be a humanitarian? 

GRZIC: Yeah, I think like a lot of things, mum knows best. So my path actually started, I was in Year 12, and she came back from a plane trip, and just handed me a business card and said, “You'd be good at this”. And it turned out she had been sitting on the plane next to someone from what was then AusAid, the Australian Government’s aid program, who was working in disaster management. She just said to me, “You'd be good at this”. I was like, “What, what are you on about? This is what superhuman people do. I don’t do this.” You know, I pretty much dismissed it out of hand and went, you know, on a different sort of career path through uni.  

Just every so often I would read an article or watch a disaster movie or something like that, and it’d just get me thinking. And I guess the other part of it was that throughout uni, I sort of came to some realisations about myself, one of which was that I really enjoy helping people. And not just that it was something nice to do. But that it was...I wouldn't be happy unless I was doing something that I felt really was helping. So it was just before the end of my degree, about six months out from the end of a four-year degree, that I realised, actually, no, I really do want to do this, and I have no idea how to start, but I want to go and do disaster management work overseas. That was sort of, I wouldn't even have known the word ‘humanitarian’ in that sense back then. I think there was a disaster management course at my uni, and I remember trading a few emails with the lecturer there. Spoke to a few people, and the first advice everyone gave me was, you've got to get experience overseas.  

I was just at a party and somebody was about to head overseas with the AYAD program, the Australian Government's Australian Youth Ambassador for Development program, which was a volunteer program for people under 30. They were talking about it and I thought that sounds really interesting. They said, “Ah, you know, they take anyone”. I think it was a lot less competitive to get in then than it was in the later years.  

So my first overseas job, I was 22 years old, and went and worked in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. And this was just a few years after the peace agreement. And it was an extreme posting, I think even by, the others were in Delhi or in Hanoi, or wherever, and just having a great time, and I was really out in the sticks by myself. So that's, I guess, how I got my start. It was drawing on what my university studies had been related to. A lot of it was just the life experience of living in a completely different context and working in completely different conditions. And I was working at the interim Bougainville Government. Coming back, I realised I needed some sort of qualifications.  

And so I actually did a Graduate Certificate in Disaster Management, just part time, while I was, I was actually working as an outdoor education instructor during that period and before, that was sort of my first career choice. And eventually took another longer-term volunteer position in Vietnam. But this time based in the Vietnamese Government's Disaster Management Office. There I was sort of working with this unit that was basically a bit of a coordination unit for all the international organisations working more in disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation. And I was the only international working in that team and so sort of found myself in that work. We had some big floods, we had some typhoons come through that year. And so I sort of found myself in this coordination role where I really became a focal point for coordination for most of the UN agencies and international NGOs.  

I think that was a really significant job for me, just because I realised that I actually really liked the coordination, the challenge of coordination, and the chaos of it. Coming back from there's actually when I did my RedR courses, I did the two core RedR training courses, and later on, went to do a Master's in Humanitarian Action, and then another job and another job and another job. So, it's bit by bit. For me, as like most people in the humanitarian sector, it wasn't really a straight-line journey, it was one that has different steps and different points of realisation along the way. 

SALLY: It's just occurred to me that we understand what coordination is. And I know this is a big part of your career. For people who might not have the humanitarian experience, or this is new to them, how would you define that sort of role? 

GRZIC: The usual, I guess, phrase I would use is ‘how to make sure everyone's working together and playing nice’, particularly in the acute phase of emergency. But even in ongoing situations where, maybe, information isn't readily available, there are obstacles, or a dynamic situation, it isn't easy to know straight away what everyone else is doing. And a lot of people, a lot of organisations, go in really focused on trying to do, trying to be useful, trying to be practical and trying to move quickly. There's not always a natural inclination to go and say, “Well, hang on. First, let's make sure we know what everyone else is doing, so we're not duplicating someone else's work” or you know, no one who really needs assistance is missing out.  

So that's a critical part when you've got lots and lots of different organisations working together, to have systems and a way of organising; no one's missing out, you know, we're getting to the most affected, we're making more strategic decisions, especially where we have limited resources, which we nearly always do. You really need to make sure that those most in need are getting the assistance they need. A lot of people in the humanitarian sector, I think, have a sort of begrudging acceptance of coordination in that they don't; it's nobody's favorite thing, nobody goes to a humanitarian crisis because they want to go to a meeting or fill out a spreadsheet. 

But there is a sort of recognition that, and indeed, lots of past experience, where if this doesn't happen well, we don't perform. People are going there because they want to help, and when we're thinking about ourselves as a group, and not just as an individual or an organisation, we realise that helping has to involve an element of coordination, because if we all just go off and do our own things, it gets a bit chaotic. For me, coordination is a really dynamic, challenging aspect of humanitarian work.  

I remember one relatively well-known humanitarian said to me in one response—it was just a real strange response, a bit of a chaotic one—and he said, “Why would you want to do anything else?” Um, whereas most people would be like, “Why would anyone want to do coordination?” And as I sort of look at it and go, “why would you want to do anything else?” We need a huge array of skills and different personality types and all the rest of it in the humanitarian sector. And yeah, you need people who don't mind a coordination meeting. So I guess that's where I fall in. 

SALLY: Now, you've mentioned quite a few intriguing locations that you've been placed. Is there a role that you can tell us a bit more about that maybe stands out for you? So we can get a bit of a snapshot into the practicalities of a humanitarian deployment. 

GRZIC: I was deployed through RedR to Fiji after Cyclone Winston in 2016. And this was to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. So OCHA, as it's called, is sort of the coordinating agency from the UN side, but obviously in Fiji have quite a strong government lead response and including of the coordination systems. I was actually put on sort of notice a bit earlier because they knew that there were a lot of cyclones spinning around the Pacific at that time. But I ended up being deployed and getting on the ground just, I think it was five or six days after this cyclone hit. I got on the ground quite early and literally just went straight to the office. As I said, it was very strongly led by the government of Fiji who wanted to learn from what had happened in Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, the year before. And so that, you know, in those early days of the response, there was just lots of people everywhere, and my role was actually basically, I was sent up to the government’s National Disaster Management Office and for the first, I think three or four weeks. And then gradually, you know, as the immediate acute aspect of the response starts to ease off, people start to leave the country, and I ended up staying.  

When the role was advertised, when I was sort of told about it, it was, I was told it was three-to-six months. And I remember coming to the RedR office on my way to Fiji, like I'd left home, come to the office with my bag ready to go to the airport, and as I was doing my pre-departure briefings, and so I said, “Is it three or six months?” And they said, “Oh, no, no, I think it's three”. And then I was literally walking towards the door with my bag, and someone comes running down the stairs and goes, “Actually, it's six months”. Alright, so six months. And then I got to Fiji, and my boss said, “How about nine months?” 

It was interesting, because then to really go after all of the surge staff had left and, and really heading into the start of the next cycling season I was there. And yeah, I really enjoyed that deployment for a number of reasons. And my role shifted throughout as it inevitably does with these things. You know, as I said, early on, I was very much a liaison person. Later on, I took on a number of roles, including supporting the government's inter-cluster coordination. Within the humanitarian system, we're looking across the whole Pacific. So I was managing what we call the inter-cluster or coordination across the Pacific, as well as a working group. So like a little Cash Working Group, which is still there today. So yeah, all of those things happened in my role.  

You don't, you can never really know what your role is until you get there. And it can always evolve, and usually does evolve throughout a deployment. We talk a lot on the courses about the importance of, as you call them, soft skills, non-technical skills, but those interpersonal skills and, and personal skills like adapting to change. And yeah, expecting the unexpected, it's a really critical part of being a humanitarian is being able to deal with just rapidly evolving environments.  

And that's, again, to come back to the courses, that's actually something we really try to create on the courses. We don't just sort of run through dry technical stuff, we actually put people into situations where they get a sense of what it's like, and they have to demonstrate not only, you know, the information that we've been learning throughout the week, but actually put into practice those personal skills. And they literally come out of it going, “Oh my god, that was chaos”. And it's funny, the reactions after the simulation on the last day, it's not uncommon to have someone say, “Oh, that was overwhelming—but amazing”. 

SALLY: I can validate that. No, it's a big experience. But I think it's, you're right, it's really important, because nothing is scripted. And you need to have those soft skills and be dynamic. And we're adding more value to that these days than perhaps was recognised in the past. 

GRZIC: I think it's important when people are thinking about humanitarian careers, they're not only thinking about those most high-pressure, acute crisis situations, which is, if you look at the bigger picture, that's actually the smaller end of the spectrum, there's a lot more ongoing work to be done. And then some of that is a long, slow grind, so everyone has to find their niche to see, “Where do I fit in?”. 

SALLY: Now, I've got a broad question for you. How do you think the humanitarian landscape is changing?  

GRZIC: Yeah it’s, there's so many, so many changes and patterns playing out. And some of those reflect what's happening in society at a wider level. Obviously, we're all dealing with the impacts of climate change. And in the humanitarian world that's having a big impact, we’re seeing more disasters, more people impacted. Similarly, we've got population growth around the world, which means more people are in disaster affected areas. We're also trying to work out how to do our work and have less of a negative environmental impact.  

But to think more specifically about what's changing for humanitarians, there's a number of big trends, the respect for, we would call humanitarian space. So I guess the protection and safety of humanitarian workers and facilities has deteriorated. We're seeing more instances where hospitals, schools, convoys, and humanitarian staff are actually attacked, which is a violation of international humanitarian law. So these sorts of international legal frameworks and norms that are getting potentially eroded, that's definitely changing.  

Probably the other, the big trend, the number one, is what's termed localisation. How do we make humanitarian response as locally driven as possible? And in reality, response is locally driven. As we always say, that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, when there's an emergency the first people to respond are the local people. If there's a car crash in your street, you know, the first people out there will be the people that live on that street. And it's the same around the world. But a lot of the humanitarian systems and structures have evolved over time, from a particularly Western, you know, UN system and a lot of Western NGOs. So sometimes it's termed decolonising aid, and how we try and correct for some of the biases and power imbalances that are in that system.  

And it is a challenge for us because, well, for a number of reasons. One is that every context is different. Ensuring our response is locally driven, so the decisions are made by local organisations; they're doing most of the work and they're not being forced or dominated by international organisations. That's a challenge. And that requires having a response approach that is entirely localised, it’s based on what that country wants, what those people want.  

That tends to butt up against the trend of the last 40 odd years, which has been trying to standardise our approach. So you can understand that rocking up to an international humanitarian emergency, we don't want to be going, “Right, how do we coordinate? Let's invent everything from scratch, you know, let's do everything for the first time”. There was a real benefit to developing predictable, standard systems and ways of working so that we could all work together very quickly, particularly in those sudden onset disasters. And that's been the sort of natural progression for quite a long time, and predictability and standard systems butts up against the need for a really localised response where local people are making decisions.  

What that sort of looks like right now is you see a lot of organisations that genuinely want to do a more localised response—they really do. But the systems and structures are much harder to shift. And that's not just because it's a, you know, sort of bureaucratic inertia, that's, there are reasons for having those systems in place. So I think the philosophical shift is partly there. But there's a lot of ingrained stuff and a lot of structural stuff that it's much harder to move the dial on. If you're stepping into the humanitarian world right now, that's a key conversation you're having. 

SALLY: So can you give us an idea, from your experience, how has training and study been important to shape your humanitarian journey? 

GRZIC: I think I had the passion and the drive, and the training and study really helps you understand where that needs to go, as well as giving you the skills to get there. My undergraduate degrees weren't specifically related to international development or anything like that. They had a particular focus, and I was able to use them in that role in Papua New Guinea, but it was when I came back from there and talking to people about what my next step might be, and how do you actually get into this more disaster management, humanitarian space. And somebody, I can't remember who, somebody said to me, “You should go and do the RedR courses, they are phenomenal”. You know, that was the way it was sold to me! They said, “They are life-changing courses, and they are just exceptional. And you should go do them”. And I had a bit of time on my hands. So I booked into them. And the other thing they said was that it would show potential employers that you were serious, that you weren't just someone who's coming along going, “Oh, I want to be a humanitarian”, but you've actually committed time and resources to going and improving your skills in that area, and they were really well recognised courses.  

So they were a pretty significant point for me, in addition to then doing university qualification, so Graduate Certificate in Australia, a Master's Degree overseas, both of those played roles in deepening my understanding. But I, like a lot of people, I didn't go undergraduate, master’s, you know, straight through and do the progression, it was very much interspersed with periods of work. And I personally think that that, which is a lot more common in Australia than it is overseas, is really valuable. Because you get more out of the studies when you do have a bit of experience. It’s helped clarify some things, it's certainly, you know, deepened my knowledge of a lot of the key issues and challenges. And I think that's probably one of the biggest ones, is you start to really understand a lot more about the challenges and get past that sort of Hollywood storyline of what it looks like. 

SALLY: Now, we've mentioned that you’re a RedR Australia trainer on a range of our courses. So, what do you enjoy most about being a trainer? 

GRZIC: Ah, that's, I don't really know how to articulate it, but I, there's just the joy in helping people get their head around complex things and seeing them progress along in their journey and providing the experiences that let them do that. Both the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice course and the HEAT, the Hostile Environment Awareness Training course, it's just such great training. Obviously I'm biased. But it genuinely is, it is fun to do, it is great to watch the participants really get in and do the things and not just talk about him, we use a very immersive style of training. So people really are not just talking about the response to a disaster, they're actually responding to a disaster, and they’re having to go through that process. And yeah, I get a lot of joy out of it. I love the other trainers, there's a real sort of community vibe within the trainers. Being on the course, it just doesn't feel like work. I mean, it is work. It is hard work. It's a lot of hard work. But it is just fun. And I love it.  

I think what I love most is seeing people have those revelations, seeing points hit home, and especially how much people are able to get out of such a short time. I can't tell you how many times I've had either current uni students or people with previous degrees going, “I did a three-year course, and I learned more practical stuff in this six days than I did in that degree”, like, or, you know, “I feel like I really got a taste for it and now I want to go and do that”. Or indeed some people going like, “Oh, that was amazing. I'm so glad I did it. I actually don't want to be a humanitarian! I know that now, and I'm glad I learned that now”. You know, it's a momentous point in people's journeys. And to be part of that is just fun. 

SALLY: Yeah, that's really great to hear. You've given us a lot of hints and tips along the way, if people are thinking about is this the sort of career that is right for me. But on top of that, what advice would you give someone who wants to move into the humanitarian sector? 

GRZIC: Yeah, I get asked this one relatively often. The first piece of advice that I would give anyone is, before you go and become a humanitarian, do whatever it is you need to do to really get yourself sorted, to grow up to be ready to deal with those complex environments. So, those soft skills. Essentially, the technical knowledge is fine, you can learn that. But what we really need is people who are capable and able to work in a crisis, able to learn and able to demonstrate those interpersonal skills, they're the hardest ones to develop, and they're the ones you can't do without. I can train someone how to do something technical on the job, but I can't train someone to communicate effectively, really quickly. That's always my biggest piece of advice.  

And what that looks like is different for different people. I think, for me, one of the most useful things I've ever done was spent time as an outdoor education instructor. You know, it may seem completely removed, but for me it was something I love doing. But it was also a lot of time working in dynamic environments, a lot of time looking at team building, communication skills in groups, leadership skills. And I remember actually, when I was in Vietnam, writing a letter back to my old boss from my outdoor education days, and sort of, I think it was along the lines of, “I've spent a lot of the last two weeks negotiating an argument between the UN and the World Bank on this particular 100 million dollar project, and I can't tell you how often I reflect back on my time working in outdoor education.” So that was it for me.  

But you know, if you have to go work on a fishing trawler, or if you spent 10 years as a teacher, or whatever it looks like for you, get yourself to a place where you're able to engage with all of that. That's the big one, because everything else can come.  

I mean, the more useful advice comes from really getting to know the person, getting to know them we can sort of offer advice. And that happens a lot on our courses. Because they’re residential programs, we're all living together and eating together for a week. So nearly every meal, the trainers, who are all, nearly all, experienced humanitarians are sitting there chatting with the participants, and you do end up providing little tips and advice to all the people based on where they're at, we offer advice as best we can. And because, again, every journey is different. 

SALLY: Well, we've covered a lot today. Thank you so much. Great stories, really appreciate the insights and sharing your experiences. So thanks so much.  

GRZIC: No worries.