The business of being a humanitarian

By Seth Robinson

Humanitarian Sarah Forbes came to Melbourne Business School (MBS) to study in the Master of International Business, a degree that gave her skills she could apply in both the workplace and the field. Now, as a Program Coordinator for RedR Australia, Sarah is in the business of supporting humanitarian deployments and training when it’s most needed, on a global scale.

RedR Australia (RedR) is a leading international humanitarian response agency that partners with governments and the United Nations (UN) to assist communities plan, prepare, rebuild and recover: before; during; and after; crises and conflict. RedR maintains a roster of more than 700 technical experts across 79 skill profiles who can be deployed into the humanitarian responses of RedR’s partners worldwide. It is also a Standby Partner (SBP) to 11 United Nations (UN) agencies or entities as well as other front line relief agencies and local governments, and is the only SBP in the southern hemisphere.

Sarah first joined RedR as an intern, and over the next seven years filled a variety of roles both in Australia and abroad. As she progressed, so too did her desire to take on postgraduate training and hone her skills in the management space.

“It took me a while to decide on the masters course that would best enable me to meet the demands of my career and open up opportunities for advancement. I’d worked in this sector since completing my undergraduate degree in Arts/International Studies in 2011, however I recognised that I still needed to expand my knowledge of business practices and principles. I also wanted to develop my management and leadership skills in a supportive yet challenging educational environment and to better understand how corporations could be more accountable and socially responsible.”

Ultimately, Sarah enrolled in the Master of International Business at MBS, a program that offered her these desired skills and opportunities for growth.

Sarah Forbes
Sarah Forbes.

“I think many people undertake a masters with the intention of ‘landing a job’. I was fortunate that I already had a job that I was passionate about – I just wanted to be better at it, and so I was looking at it from a different angle. I genuinely wanted to learn and upskill, particularly in areas such as corporate governance in a global context, strategic management, accounting for decision making, cross-cultural leadership, and marketing in an international space. I believed that greater knowledge and skills in these areas would better position me to be both an effective manager and informed leader in the international humanitarian and business sectors.”

When reflecting on how studying this course has impacted her career development, Sarah noted: Through studying the MIB, I developed a greater capacity to recognise – and create opportunities to utilise – the individual skills, potential and perspectives of team members. This ability to bring together diverse individuals to work productively and cohesively towards achieving a desired outcome will be an important management skill to apply throughout my professional career. I also enhanced my capacity to coordinate strategic projects and manage diverse teams more effectively.”

Sarah also studied social entrepreneurship to learn about social enterprise business models and corporate social responsibility (CSR) as she thought she may want to explore opportunities in these spaces in the future.

“I think nowadays some corporations are doing their customers and their stakeholders a disservice if they’re not considering how they can conduct business with a socially responsible lens. Whilst recognising that businesses have responsibilities to increase profits for shareholders, this objective should not be considered exclusive from socially responsible endeavours. In fact, I think that neglecting to invest in or as least investigate CSR initiatives can impact negatively on corporations, including reputational consequences, sacrificing lucrative business opportunities and missing the opportunity to capture untapped markets. Suffice to say, I see value in looking into new and innovative ways businesses can be more accountable, sustainable, and socially responsible.”

Now, Sarah is based in Suva, Fiji, as the RedR Program Coordinator for the region. It’s the next step in a career she’s found “personally and professionally rewarding”.

“Humanitarian deployments, particularly those supporting an emergency response, can be fast-paced and involve working in complex operating environments. This requires personnel to be able to ‘hit-the-ground running’ to deliver outcomes quickly, whilst working with a range of stakeholders in sometimes evolving situations. Whilst no one situation is the same, the accompanying lifestyle of a humanitarian can involve living in hotels or compounds, irregular working hours and separation from family and loved ones for periods of time. This presents both opportunities for growth and challenges. To this end, there is a certain level of adaptability, independence and resilience required. When I was deployed through RedR to UNICEF in South Sudan in 2014, I was working and living in compounds and curfews were in place, so movement was restricted at times. Saying this, it’s equally important to note that this deployment was one of the most rewarding professional and personal experiences of my life. This provided the opportunity to support and contribute to UNICEF’s important programme work in South Sudan; to work with and learn from an incredibly committed, diverse and talented team; and I formed a strong support networks of friends and colleagues that I still connect with today.”

Sarah has also found that opportunities in the humanitarian sector are not confined to working directly in the field.

“In 2017, I was seconded into the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome, where I was responsible for coordinating FAO’s Standby Partner deployments globally as well as partnership development with civil society organizations, private sector entities and academia. During my time at RedR, I have also contributed to RedR’s corporate strategy, provided corporate governance support to the CEO and Board of Directors, coordinated donor reviews, negotiated partnership engagements, and undertaken program monitoring and evaluation.”

The Master of International Business at Melbourne Business School equips students with the management skills they need to succeed in business around the world, with courses in corporate governance in a global context, strategic management, cross-cultural impacts and marketing in an international space.

Find out more now.


For graduates eager to work in the humanitarian sector, Sarah has some advice:

“I definitely recommend exploring opportunities in the humanitarian sector as I’ve found it to be an incredibly rewarding career path to date. There are different ways to work in or engage with this sector, including through direct engagement with governments, NGOs, humanitarian organisations and/or UN agencies, humanitarian deployments, the private sector, social enterprises, and many other pathways. So, researching entities in this space and the types of roles available will help you make an informed decision about whether this might be the right fit for you. At RedR, we have different technical profiles on our roster and display these on our website.  If humanitarian deployments are of interest to you, this might be a useful reference point for you. I suggest researching organisations of interest and broadening your networks to identify entry pathways you can access.”