19 Apr 2024
Podcast Ep 7: For Richard Simspson, leadership starts with listening

From taking cover in bomb shelters in Ukraine, to herding donkeys in Afghanistan, to drinking kava in Fiji, Richard Simpson has many rich insights from 25 years as a humanitarian leader, innovator and educator. 

After a serendipitous meeting with a United Nations official in Turkey in the 90s, followed by a degree in anthropology and Latin American studies, Richard found a path into the humanitarian sector via a role in Timor Leste. 

Since then, Richard has accrued more than two decades of humanitarian experience working in 25 countries around the world. Richard’s experience spans international NGOs and United Nations agencies. In 2022, he was in Ukraine as the country director for CARE and he recently returned from Palestine where he supported Oxfam with their response to the crisis in Gaza. 

In this episode, Richard talks with Sally about the importance of listening—to communities, colleagues and oneself. He explains the benefit of making measured—but swift—decisions at the onset of a disaster. And he ruminates on the challenges of working in an active conflict zone, and how important supportive families are for humanitarian workers. 

Host: Sally Cunningham      

Guest: Richard Simpson 

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar  

You can find out more about RedR Australia’s training courses here.   

You can join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 


SALLY: This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and we acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to land, waterways and skies. And we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. 

RICHARD: When I was having my leaving do at Oxfam, someone said that Richard was one of the only people to start a crisis with making a good cup of tea. So I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But one of the things I think is not to run around like a maniac. If something happens in a sudden onset [disaster], is to go right, okay. What's going on? Understanding the situation. One of the really important things is to make decisions. You go into a humanitarian crisis and 30% of the decisions you make are probably wrong. But that's more important than not making a decision and not going into that inertia where people don't know what's going on. But you make a bad decision, you can change it. You make no decision, you have nothing.   

SALLY: Hello and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. Today, I'm pleased to be in the studio with Richard Simpson, a highly respected humanitarian leader, innovator and educator. Richard has more than two decades of humanitarian experience working in 25 countries around the world and counting. Richard's experience spans international NGOs, Oxfam and CARE, and United Nations organisations such as IOM, UNOPS and the UNTAET peacekeeping mission in Timor Leste. In 2022, he was in Ukraine as the country director for CARE. For Oxfam, he has lead on humanitarian strategy in Uganda, he was country director in Sri Lanka, and he was Oxfam Australia's response coordinator for the Nepal earthquake. He's recently returned from Palestine, where he supported Oxfam with their ongoing response to the current crisis in Gaza. Richard is a specialist in the area of humanitarian response evaluation, and helped to pioneer the Real Time Evaluation process, which is now commonly used in the sector. He is also a much-loved RedR Australia trainer, and has been teaching on our courses since 2016. Richard, thanks for joining me on Humanitarian Conversations.  

RICHARD: Thanks, Sally. It's a pleasure to be here.  

SALLY: Now, tell us a little bit about your path into the humanitarian sector. Did you always know you wanted to do this kind of work? 

RICHARD: I think so. I think when I was young, I'd always thought this would be great. But I didn't think that it would be a possibility. It was interesting because I was thinking about this the other night, and my first work in the humanitarian sector was in Timor Leste after the crisis in 2000, when I was working with a medical organisation called Médicos do Mundo, a Portuguese organisation. But actually, it was earlier than that. So when I was traveling, there was myself and a Scottish person, we were working in Palestine and in Israel. And then we were traveling around Turkey. And it was a time of the 1990s Gulf War and there was a lot of Kurdish refugees coming out of Iraq. And I think that really resonated or upset me, or some reason I wanted to support and help them. And myself, and Donald was the name of my companion, we were wandering around Turkey, and we went to Ankara, and we went to the UN building. And we asked if we could get work to help in the refugee camps, which is completely bizarre when you think about it now. Just, you know, no experience, no qualifications, nothing. And we just thought we'd roll up. And we met with a very senior person in the UN at that time. Which once again, was totally bizarre, they wouldn't have any interest in us these days. And we had a long conversation with him and he was really interested in us. And he said, Yes, he said, three weeks ago, we really needed work. But he said the Turkish government has taken over the camps and has thrown us out. So we can't work there now. And then when I went to...I traveled around when I was young, I finished school early. So sort of went back to school and back to university. And I focused primarily on a Latin American degree, Latin American studies, history and politics and anthropology. And that has always been incredibly useful for the work that I've done. It's been really useful because it gave me an understanding of communities, especially communities and people that have been working and living in a different area for a very long period of time or have very traditional beliefs and roles. And to help me to communicate with them. But I never...I didn't see that as a path at the time. But then I was...I had a colleague in Timor Leste, and she sent down a job as a logistician, which I actually had to look up what that was. And I applied for it. And I got that job based on the fact that I; my writing was very good. And the person who employed me, he was like, we'd really need an Australian to talk and deal with the Australians. And Darwin, there was a lot of work between Darwin and between Timor Leste. And he felt that there would be a lot of issues if people couldn't communicate in the way that the Australians in Darwin could communicate. And he said, we had a lot of applications from overseas. But I felt that we really needed someone—an Australian. And that was how I started in the work. And I found it very, very interesting. And from there, I moved to the UN, I worked with the Portuguese organisation for a while. I moved into doing, I was sort of like the field office team leader. They worked out that I was probably better suited as sort of management or team leader or the programmatic side rather than the logistics side. And then from there worked in the district with the United Nations Transitional Authority.   

SALLY: That's a really great historical story, an unexpected route as well to get there. So yes, that's great. I'm sure your experience in logistics has helped regardless, having that broad view of the operations.    

RICHARD: That's right. Yes. It's interesting, because once again, I would have thought, No, I wouldn't be a logistician. But I ended up doing—working in logistics in Afghanistan. I was a regional logistics coordinator for the Afghani elections, which some would say that's not humanitarian work. But it's very similar, it was in a conflict zone. It was many of the same issues and difficulties that I think humanitarian program faces, such as time limits, such as scrutiny. We had a lot of difficulties with...and working with government, of course, we were sort of working alongside the government. I was with a UN organisation attached to the Afghani government of the time, the Afghani electoral body at the time. And it was after there was some major riots in Jalalabad, just before I came. You know, a lot of the staff, they were quite shaken up by those. And election work is a lot of logistics: it's setting up the counting centers, it's moving the papers, it's getting people to where it is. And I know that RedR has had some deployees that do work in logistics as well. So that's...so I think RedR understands the importance of that in humanitarian settings. So we had a transport fleet that was helicopters to donkeys. So we had everything in between because of the terrain and the way we had to move. So it was a complex operation. And then from there, I moved more into program management side of things after that when I came back to Australia. 

SALLY: Awesome. And herding donkeys in between. So as you mentioned, last year, you worked in Ukraine, and you've also worked in Gaza a number of times, most recently earlier this year. So what is it like working in active conflicts? 

RICHARD: So I think there's a few things. You could go somewhere like the Ukraine, and there is a frontline, and there's an active conflict. And that would be incredibly dangerous. Then also, you're working in some parts of the country which are very safe, and they're quiet. So most of the time when I was working in Ukraine, I was in Lviv, and we would have air raids there. But there wasn't...the cafes were open, people could go do things, you could live in comfortable accommodation. And other times you'll be living in in very rough accommodation. So when I was living in and working in Darfur during the conflict way back in 2007, or 2008, you were living in very, very different conditions. And you also had a heightened sense of security as well. So thinking about your security and safety of your team is of the most importance in Ukraine. We would always recognise when there was an air raid siren, we would always use the shelters. A lot of people didn't, but we would always use them. Also, where you're in a situation where there's quite a lot of bombing, and air raids, it can really affect people's mental state. Not instantly, not dramatically, but over time it can. And lack of sleep. So in Lviv, even though we were away from the frontline, there were air raids every night, so people would get up. And so there was a great deal of lack of sleep. So people would have to move around. So that can actually change how people work. So then you have to work out, how do you work effectively in those environments? How quickly do you rotate? How long do people stay in the country and then rotate them out? You may have to rotate them because people have...it's difficult. But then also a constant change of people can slow your programming down, so you've got two different issues. And that's where you can maybe move to working remotely. So sometimes my team would go and work in Poland remotely for a little while, because we had accommodation there, and they would work there just so they could clear their head a bit. They weren't very far away, but they could work from there and then they can come back again. Get some sleep. Your local staff in a conflict zone are probably going to be affected differently because they're deep—they're directly affected by the conflict. And I could see that, of course, in Palestine when I was over there but also in Ukraine as well with our local staff as well. So that also has a big part to play.   

SALLY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's not easy. So how do you balance returning to Australia and watching these conflicts continue from afar? 

RICHARD: That's a very good question. I was looking at...there was a Four Corners program the other night with John Lyons in Israel and Palestine. And yes, it was very interesting watching that and going, right, okay. I'm not quite sure how to answer that. But it's a really...it's quite complex coming from a longer period of time I was in Ukraine, of course, set up the office there, started things, and then just stopping the contract. And then coming back to Australia, looking at that, it is kind of odd. How do I manage? I like to keep in...if I can keep in touch with people, keep in touch with people. I still do follow those primarily on media or news, but also on other things that you can see how the humanitarian program is going through the UN website. So I still do follow and see what's going on in those countries because it has—I have left with little piece of myself in those countries, and they are more than just a passing interest. They're a longer term one.   

SALLY: And you might be called to go back.  

RICHARD: And I think being connected and part of an organisation is also a really important thing, even if you're not full time. So I work with RedR, I do some work with Oxfam. I do some work with CARE. I do work with others. And just maintaining a connection with people in those organisations is really important for me. 

SALLY: So you have mentioned a few countries, now bear with me. You've put yourself out there, you've worked all over the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe to Iran, Israel, Palestine, Malawi, Nepal, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, Ukraine, the list goes on and on. You must have a unique view of the world. Do you have some insights to share with us? 

RICHARD: I don't know whether I would have any unique perceptions. One thing I think that's actually really important to remember, and I think I see all the time, is that people are pretty much the same. Wherever you go, if people are affected by some sort of crisis, their focus is on their family, their focus is on their community, their focus is on rebuilding if they can. If it's a conflict, trying to keep people safe, keeping their family safe, trying to keep their communities together. If there's such a thing as a natural disaster, where something has occurred, it's rebuilding, and if they can't get back to normal, getting a stasis of normality, and I think that's pretty much everywhere in the world. That's one of the key things. Unfortunately, with most of those countries, it's usually during some sort of crisis that I've been there. And it's pretty much that people are the same. The people who are affected by the crisis are pretty much predominantly the first responders and we really need to remember that when we're, as foreigners, coming in or we're deploying, that people are doing stuff on the ground. We're there because they're overwhelmed. It's not because they can't do stuff. It's because they need extra support. And that's wherever you go. And if we look at Australia, during the bushfires, Australians, and we've seen some great work by the Australian emergency services. Sometimes they're overwhelmed. And there's people who fly in and support them; it doesn't mean we're not doing anything. And so that's the same in other countries as well. It's really important to remember and think about that. Pretty much, people are the same, mostly, in every country you go to.   

SALLY: I think that's a really lovely insight. Because as humanitarians, we're working to support people. And people do want to feel safe and secure and know what's coming next and feel supported, and listening to what people are already doing on the ground, it can be very powerful.   

RICHARD: Coming into a country, you base a lot on the experience of previous countries, which is really important, I think. Really important to base that experience from what you've done in other places. But you can't...that can't be everything. Because every country you go to there is different. That's when you need to actually listen, if you're working with local communities, is to listen to what their major concerns are. 

SALLY: Yeah. So can I ask you, can you think of an example of where the listening has perhaps given you some information that you weren't expecting, and it's impacted the decisions that have been made next?   

RICHARD: So Oxfam has this great thing called an Oxfam bucket, which has been designed by their water and sanitation people. And it's...you put water into it and the only way you can take the water out is through a tap. So there's a tap on it, which is great because that way you don't dirty the water. It's also designed that it's sort of around the weight that you can carry on your head. And that's based primarily on a lot of work they've done in different countries in Africa. And of course, when I say you can carry on your head, it's primarily women because women are the people who have to carry the water. So this same bucket they've used in different places. And when we were doing a response in Laos, we were distributing these buckets. And we couldn't quite work out why no one was using them for the correct thing. And of course, one of the things was, people carry their water in totally different way. They have a stick and they had two small jerry cans on either end. So therefore, they didn't...so they had to change their programming because of...and it's that type of thing to go, Okay. What is the process? It's actually talking to people, communicating with them. Another example was, I was talking with a community in Fiji, after Cyclone Winston. And they've had many different agencies that were providing support to them, and we were providing some agricultural equipment. And we had to have the process of drinking kava, and we bought the kava root up and I hadn't done that before, I'd hadn't been to Fiji. So it was great for me, and it was really interesting to see the ceremony and we drank kava, and we talked a lot. And the people there said, look, it's great that you're staying and you're listening to us. A lot of people have come through here and they...they look, they have their clipboard, and they want to check things off. And then they disappear. They don't listen to our stories, and they don't listen to us. They're just in a hurry. They said, it's nice you're not in a hurry. And I was like, Well, you know, it's kind of nice. I'm enjoying this kava experience. I hadn't done that before. And I like sitting around listening and talking. So it's perfect for me. But one of the things they said was one of the organisations supplied—and so it's not one of the organisations I was working with—supplied food to them, and it was a lot of tinned fish. And they said, we don't eat tinned fish. So we got all of this tinned fish, and we don't know what to do with it. Interestingly enough, they gave us some food there and it did have tinned fish in it because they wanted to get rid of it. But yeah, that was one of those things where, once again, talking to people before you provide things. Having an understanding. Doesn't even have to be talking to the communities on the ground, it can be talking to other people that work there. Most places have people that have been working there for ages. You can say no, don't do that. We did that last time and it was a mistake. There's been lots of reports, lots of things written about many, many different countries in the past. Taking your time to actually look at some of those background documents. Not as good as being there. But it can work.    

SALLY: Yeah, the evidence is there.   


SALLY: Now you've held a number of team leader and project leader roles, both in-country and remote. Can you tell us about the skills that you must have, and perhaps some that are good to have, for these challenging roles?   

RICHARD: I think managing people roles are really important. They're one of the primary roles that managers have. And I always think that the managing people part is sometimes undervalued. And, for example, when I was working in the Ukraine, I set the country office up there for CARE International, and we had to do a lot of recruitment of new people. Bringing them in. And the number of...and senior management too, I was bringing in directors, program directors, operation directors, that type of thing. And the number of people that don't put human management or people management as part of that skill is quite surprising. And it's always a question I ask, because I think that's probably the most important part of that. So if you're a team leader, and you have a happy team, this may sound like, lazy, but it actually reduces the amount of work that you have to do because everybody's working and doing what they need to do. So listening to your team and working with your team, I think is the most important. 

SALLY: Yeah absolutely. It makes the job easier when everyone's working seamlessly together.  

RICHARD: Exactly. Often that doesn't happen. So why is that not happening? And once again, taking the time to listen to people and say, Okay, what is the conflict here? What's the difficulties? 

SALLY: I wanted to ask you about the fact that you're a RedR Australia trainer. And you've trained me, thank you. We have a lot of demand and requests for our HEAT training, which is Hostile Environment Awareness Training. So I know you have experience teaching this course. What do you think are some of the outcomes you notice at the end of these courses, when people take them that have perhaps not taken them before?    

RICHARD: The HEAT course is quite interesting, because it's very much self-assessment. And I did them--I was a trainee on the HEAT course, probably a couple of years before I was a trainer. And I hadn't done it for years. And it was really good, because it's not...I'm sort of waiting for the trainers to go, oh, you should have done that. Or you should do that. But there's none of that. It's about self-assessment. And that's really important—that you see yourself grow throughout the training. With regard to both the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice that I train on and the HEAT course, I used them every day when I was in Ukraine. They were so useful for the staff, I ended up having to spend a lot of time with the staff talking about different things on those trainings because they hadn't...especially the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice, which is a course looking at the humanitarian system, a lot of the staff members hadn't looked at that. And I was able to utilise that in a way. And every one of those sessions was incredibly useful or is incredibly useful for humanitarians to...I think, both experienced ones, but also new ones to go into and understanding how the humanitarian system works. One of the things that I really like about the fact that I've been deployed is I can actually talk about the reality of what we train in the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice. So going well, okay, we're talking about theory here. But this is actually how it happens on the ground. So we're talking about civ-mil coordination. We were dealing with a lot of that in Palestine, which I have just come from. There were some very real examples that I could share. Yeah, very, very relevant trainings, both for NGOs, and government and the UN. 

SALLY: Amazing. Now, I'll shift a bit. We've talked a bit on the podcast about how being a humanitarian can be challenging for families as well. So how have you found a balance between humanitarian work, and then jumping back into family life? Not that any of those ever finish, but the balance. How do you balance that?  

RICHARD: When you're back in country, making sure that when you're back at home with your family, you're with your family, not thinking about other things. So making sure that if I did come back, it was during school holidays. Making sure that we go away, making sure that I'd be around to be able to pick up the kids from school, be able to do the cooking, do all of that type of support work that you do in the house, so that you can help as much as possible and be around the family as much as possible when you are around the family. I've got a very supportive family as well. So talking about what I'm doing with the family is very important. We are much luckier now then a few years ago, when...so when I was deployed to Afghanistan, you know, we could make a few phone calls, maybe? But there wasn't Zoom or Skype or WhatsApp, or any of those ways of connecting. Which now you can connect on a daily basis, you can look each other on daily basis, you can talk to each other two or three times a day. Whereas in the past, you were gone, and you're gone. And then you had to come back. And it was really difficult to...compared to how to manage what goes on now. So a lot of humanitarians come back home and always go, oh, I've come back home and I can't relate to anything and no one's interested in what I've got to say. And that's very true. But you can take people on the journey now. Because when you go, you can actually talk to your friends or talk to your family and keep in contact with them while you're overseas. So it's a very different situation than it was in the past. And I think that's a really important thing to look at. And also I have a very supportive partner. She's very much like, well, you know, if you're involved in this industry, I want to see you go to Palestine, if you can support people in need over there. I remember the East Africa crisis, she was also like, well, I think you should be there. It seems like it's a terrible space to be in. There's massive starvation in Somalia. If you can go and be of help there, that's great. So that's handy as well. I think one of the really important things is to know what you are good at, and what you can be helpful at. I've a lot of people going, Oh, well, I just want to get into the humanitarian space. And it's like, so what do you want to do? Oh, I don't know. I just want to be helpful. It's like, well, there's a whole population of people in most countries that are affected that can be helpful. What's your added value? We don't need another foreign person going into the country unless there's a gap there. What's the added value that can you can bring? Now I could go, Well, yeah, I need to go overseas and I'd be great because I can drive a truck and move stuff around. It's like, got lots of truck drivers, we don't need that. What's your added value? For me, it's more and more removed from the communities that are affected. It's more working with the organisations. So it's probably coming in with that experience is what I can bring. But it's very important to understand that. When I've been asked to do roles for certain countries, I've asked the organisations, So why are you there? What's your added value in being in the country? Which they've been quite surprised about, because they've offered me a job and I've gone why? Why this organisation? Why are you in this country? And I've done that a couple of times, and they've stopped and thought and went, That's a good question. Well, it's because of blah, blah, blah. And, you know, they've always given good reasons, but it is important to think about. You know, I saw a lot of wackos in Ukraine. People driving from the UK with their four-wheel drive packed up with who knows what going off to help, but not part of the system and not understanding whether they're going to help or actually be problematic. So, you know, there is a system there. There's a coordinated system there that works, for some doesn't work, but there's a lot of agencies there and they need to make sure that they are relevant and they're useful and they are not doing harm. Are we going in there and are we leaving without causing more problems than when we started?   

SALLY: That reminds me of when you were talking about making decisions and making that decision: Am I in the way of this crisis? Or am I useful? And what can I do? I think they're really good questions, because that should inspire your decision. So we've talked a lot about a lot of things. 

RICHARD: Thanks very much for giving me the time. Thanks. I appreciate it. I hope it's useful. 

SALLY: Some things that have stuck with me today have been listening, questions and decision making. So thank you so much for your time, and sharing your experience with us. I think you're a wonderful RedR Australia trainer. And no doubt other people that have worked with you said your support has been invaluable. Thank you, Richard. 

RICHARD: Thank you very much. 

SALLY: You've been listening to Humanitarian Conversations, a podcast by RedR Australia. You can learn more about our work at redr.org.au and we invite you to join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This episode was produced and engineered by Jill Farrar. I'm Sally Cunningham. Thanks for listening.