Since graduating from Bellarmine in 2004 with degrees in psychology and theology, Elizabeth Tromans has been busy saving the world. As a technical advisor with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City since September 2017, she supports humanitarian assistance to the East Africa region, Yemen and Bangladesh. Before that, Elizabeth worked for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for seven years. Based in Manila for four, she was the regional technical advisor for Emergency Preparedness and Response for the Asia region, handling responses to two earthquakes, a typhoon, a cyclone and flooding. She also developed disaster-preparedness programs in India; oversaw food-aid and short-term employment programs in Afghanistan; and managed a program that established 21 new settlements and built 1,300 temporary shelters after Typhoon Washi (2011) in the Philippines.
Elizabeth, a Hamilton, Ohio, native, credits several Bellarmine experiences with setting her on her path, including the service trip to Guatemala, a semester of study abroad and an internship at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. After graduation, she worked in the Peace Corps and earned a master’s degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Assistance. She speaks Spanish and Bengali but kindly agreed to stick to English for this interview.
What exactly does an IRC technical advisor do?
My specialty is in cash assistance. More and more humanitarian aid is going in the form of cash rather than in-kind. Back in the day, we used to procure relief items overseas, ship, transport in-country, put things in warehouses, transport again, then finally deliver to the people who needed it. With cash assistance, we’re much more efficient—all of those costs except for last-mile delivery are removed. Cash also allows our clients to purchase what they need. Equally as important, we support the local economy and traders there. I help ensure high-quality cash delivery, which means things like making sure the market can support a cash infusion without causing inflation; finding a way to actually deliver the aid (mobile money, a rural bank or sometimes a guy on a donkey with a bag of cash!); and making sure we have selected the right people for assistance.
What inspired to you do this kind of work?
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, three major world disasters happened: the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the Asia tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. I learned watching the coverage of this event and meeting aid workers that humanitarian aid is an actual career. I came back to the U.S., and while working in the Bellarmine Office of Admission, I figured out how to get there.
Have you ever feared for your own safety in a disaster-stricken area?
There have been a few scary moments here and there. While the stats seem high for aid workers killed on the job annually, the biggest hazard, like elsewhere in the world, is from traffic accidents. I always wear my seatbelt! More often, I have feared for the mental well-being of myself or my colleagues. That’s why we had a really aggressive R&R policy—three weeks on, one week off. It was mandatory.
How do you stay positive in the face of so much hardship?
Good segue! The thing I love about acute emergencies is the way people truly shine. All the silly things that don’t matter have absolutely no place, and people focus on how they can help each other get through this terrible thing. I get to see the best of humanity at those moments.
Has America’s changing political climate affected how relief workers are received abroad?
In some ways, yes. Every new administration has different priorities, so less funding means less programming. The hiring freeze also affected our operations. Otherwise, how I’m received as a Westerner really depends on the location. Where I lived in Afghanistan, Ghor Province, people were really persecuted by the Taliban, so they were not hostile to the U.S., as other parts of the country more sympathetic to the Taliban may have been. In most places, our safety relies solely on our relationship with the local community; if we’re good to them, that respect is returned. Most often, I get a pass that a lot of my local colleagues don’t get: I’m less of a target for the most part, and if things got really bad, I would be evacuated. They would not.
There’s been an increase in “volun-tourism.” It’s a great impulse, but is it a good one?
Many people read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American man who built schools in Afghanistan. His plan was short-sighted. There were no trained teachers. There were no school supplies. These buildings are now being used for other purposes. CRS’s education program, on the other hand, knew that because education is very important to people in Afghanistan, one just needs to train teachers, and the communities will rally and find a physical location. This is much lower-cost and also values what communities themselves have to offer.
To give another example, many people came from the U.S. and other Western countries in the hectic days immediately following Typhoon Haiyan. CRS prepared us to be 100 percent self-sufficient. I brought my own tent, food, water-purification tablets, solar chargers, flashlights, batteries, medication, first aid supplies and, of course, coffee. When someone travels solo during the chaotic period immediately after a disaster, in the best case they are another drain on resources, and in the worst-case scenario, they may become someone else who needs rescuing.
Further, the types of jobs that volunteers do are often low skilled labor like debris removal, masonry, basic construction. Local people just lost everything, including their jobs. People need an income to recover, so why not hire them to do this work? Time and again, we learn this is the preference of people in disaster areas; they’d rather not have a handout. An average flight from the U.S. to the Philippines costs around $1,500, while building one temporary shelter for a family costs $800. Send your money.
Where is your favorite place in the world?
This is an impossible question! I always ask for a category when I get this question. Favorite people? That would be the very joyful and friendly Filipinos; Afghans get the runner-up slot for being the warmest and most hospitable. Favorite cuisine? I have a favorite dish everywhere, but I really love Bangladeshi. My favorite place to go on runs was along the Mekong River in Laos. Nigeria gets the award for most colorful. Fiji has the best beaches. My favorite island, and my favorite scuba diving spot, is a tiny dot on the map in the Central Philippines called Malapascua. Last but not least, Indian mangos just can’t be beat—and this will be a very controversial statement for anyone who grew up where mangos grow!
By Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org