'Corporate consultant switches career to provide aid in conflict zones'
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Mike Seawright joined Purposely Podcast to share his founder story with ReliefAid.
Frustrated by the inability of many aid organisations to get staff and resources into conflict zones quickly and effectively Mike launched his own NGO. A decade prior Mike had switched careers from corporate consultant to aid worker and following his first experience in Sudan he has specialised in working in conflict situations.
ReliefAid has gone on to become a respected international aid organisation that is saving lives and alleviating the suffering of people affected by conflict through independent and impartial humanitarian action. They work closely with other international aid partners including ShelterBox.
What is the mission and vision of ReliefAid, the charity you’re founder and CEO of?
‘I'd been working in war zones for a number of years, and I realised from first-hand experience that not enough aid was getting into places like Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, the key conflict hot spots of the world. It was a kind of ‘aha moment’ a realisation that I could help families that no one else could help. Six years later we've supported over 210k people in conflict zones.’
There are 80 million refugees worldwide and 50 million people displaced by conflict or war, can ReliefAid make enough of a difference?
‘The numbers are absolutely staggering and of course you can feel overwhelmed and that not enough can be done. One of the challenges we have when communicating with the New Zealand public and people around the world is stressing that while the numbers are big and the problem is huge, making a positive difference starts with helping one family. We can help people, who through no fault of their own, are forced from their homes by the effects of war and conflict.’
So ReliefAid provides independent and impartial humanitarian action, why is that so important?
‘In a war zone the political parties and warring parties could perceive you to be part of the conflict itself. I have worked in Foreign Affairs as a Diplomat and during that time I could see aid decisions being made based on political and military objectives. We took a lesson from that and when we founded ReliefAid we knew we did not want to be at the mercy of a country's foreign policy. To that end we have had to stay clear of Government money and remain independent and neutral. We don't take sides in the conflict and our focus is on accessing people who need how help and support and the assessments made on the basis of need and not on the basis of political objectives.’
Your main focus is Syria, what marks this conflict out as different?
‘Prior to the conflict Syria was a middle-income country, for example they had more doctors per capita than anywhere else in the world and education was an essential part of their culture. Their lives were not that different to our own lives in New Zealand. By contrast if you're in Africa and your life is ripped apart by war and conflict the effect on you and your family is equally as devastating but it's made even more apparent when you go from a country that has a similar set-up or standard of living to New Zealand. That's what has happened in Syria.
‘We are still delivering aid interventions, distributions and deliveries, to Syria. We speak to our Syria based team every day on an operational basis and they are telling us that the situation in the country is deteriorating significantly. War itself is devastating but it's now been followed by COVID-19 and an economic collapse. When you combine these things together and the humanitarian situation is absolutely catastrophic. life for families pretty difficult’
What motivated you to work humanitarian aid?
‘I was lucky enough to be living a particularly good life before I started as a humanitarian work and I was doing consultancy in telecommunications and investment banking. I had a big yacht and I was loving living in Auckland, which couldn't be any further away from a warzone. Out the blue the opportunity arose to start a humanitarian career in Sudan and 16 years later I'm proud to be running an NGO.
I never would have anticipated where that path would eventually lead me or that I would make it my life’s work, but I have no regrets whatsoever. Making the change from a corporate and money life to delivering humanitarian aid is incredibly rewarding in a different way. That said it does come with its difficulties, for example, we lost two staff in 2016 in Aleppo City, killed by snipers, and dealing with some of this pain and trauma is at times difficult. Nonetheless, I personally feel I get more out of it than I put in and I believe this is because we work with some absolutely incredible people’
How do you deal with working in dangerous situations?
‘Put simply you just can't operate effectively if you're living in fear and if I was to typify my own attitude and approach when working in these conflict zones it is to keep it simple and focus on my job, to manage risk and to reduce it. If you spend all your time worrying about getting hurt it increases the chances of getting hurt. Indecision can be the difference between getting hit in an airstrike and successfully continuing with your work. In many cases getting hit is a random act although there have some cases where aid officials and organisations have been directly targeted.’
What coping strategies do you have?
‘I find myself compartmentalizing things in mind and I don't quite realize I am doing that while I am actually in the conflict zone, however, when I come home and I get the ability to decompress I often realise some of that innate pressure that I’ve been under. You can better reflect on the strategies you've applied to keep both yourself and everyone else safe. It's only when you get out of it you realize the difference. That is why I have so much respect for the ‘in country staff’, those nationals who do not get to leave the conflict situation after the work finishes or when they have a break from delivering aid. In contrast I'm lucky enough to come back to New Zealand for my breaks. It's inspiring to work with people that dedicated.’
So it was a conversation over a beer in London that led you to partnering with ShelterBox?
‘Yes, I founded ReliefAid in 2015 and I was really struggling to find money to fund our operations, no one would talk to us. I could sell myself as having the experience but getting them to buy into the organisation was harder and I was sending lots of emails to people and getting nowhere. I realised that it was just about getting our name out there as much as I possible and on this one occasion I flew down to Hawke's Bay, where I'm from, and spoke at a Rotary event and met this woman called Margaret Taylor. Margaret introduced me to ShelterBox in New Zealand and eventually this led me to their UK team. I eventually visited London, put simply I had a few beers with them and on a handshake we formed an incredible partnership. What ensued was a six-year relationship that has supported almost 200,000 people providing material support that we would never have been able to generate ourselves. So it's an absolutely incredible partnership utilising their expertise and materials combined with our networks to get it into families. It's It was a game changer for us.
If your home's been bombed and you've been forced to flee with nothing more than the shirts on your back, you need the practical things like blankets and tents. You need a cooking equipment to prepare meals and you need water containers to store water and without these things you can't keep yourself or your family alive, so it's the basics that ShelterBox are so skilled at supplying’
Where will ReliefAid be in five years? What's your vision for the organisation?
‘This is a great question Mark and one I'm dealing with right now… I'm putting a lot of thought into what we would look like in a few years’ time. The simple answer is that we will be in more war zones and delivering more aid to more people in need. This is our mantra and ideally we will have the funds to expand our operations into Northern Ethiopia with the Tigray conflict. We'd also be back in Yemen, helping populations been devastated by years of conflict and war. We would be getting aid into these places where other aid agencies are unable operate.’