Best person to call in a disaster: next week’s Excel speaker

Michael Peach works for Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) as the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator. He is responsible for working with countries in the South Pacific to prepare for, and respond to, disasters and climate change. 

He is our guest speaker at next week’s Excel Awards (Thursday, October 25 at 9am in the Student Centre). In his early forties, he and his wife Tamara live in the Redlands with their four children. Three attend BAC, while one is still at home. They also have one annoying cat, according to Michael ("Free to a good home," he says, though his kids might have something to say about that!). Tamara is a midwife at the Redlands Hospital.

We talked to him about his work and career.

WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL, MICHAEL?  

I attended school in the Solomon Islands, Melbourne and New Zealand. 

WHEN WERE THE EARLIEST MOMENTS YOU REALISED YOU WANTED TO DO HUMANITARIAN WORK? 

I always wanted to work in a people-oriented industry, but had no awareness of humanitarian work until I volunteered for a fly ‘n build while I was at Avondale College. I spent six weeks in Thailand building a water system for a remote community and realised how something quite simple could have such a transformational impact on the lives of many. 

WHAT DOES YOUR ROLE AS REGIONAL COORDINATOR OF ADRA SOUTH PACIFIC INVOLVE?  

The South Pacific is both an amazing and challenging place to work. Vanuatu, for example, is ranked number one in the world as the most disaster-prone country. ADRA has offices in five Pacific Island nations and a presence as part of the SDA Church in a further eight countries. This year alone, ADRA has responded to five large disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes and cyclones) in the Pacific, delivering over $1.5million of humanitarian assistance to affected communities in four countries. The travel can be difficult to manage, particularly with rapid-onset disasters, but my family is very supportive and flexible (he says, smiling nervously). 

WHAT STUDY, EXPERIENCE AND CAREER PATH LED YOU HERE? 

Following high school I spent three years at Avondale College completing a Bachelor of Arts. I read a lot of Shakespeare, wrote essays on existentialism, painted portraits and made pottery. I moved to Sydney and completed further study while working in the service industry. After a couple of years I returned to Thailand as a volunteer with ADRA. My 12-month volunteer contract turned into a ten year career with ADRA: four years in Thailand and six years in Sydney. We moved to Brisbane in 2008 where I worked for the Queensland Government, coordinating the whole-of-government disaster response and recovery efforts. This role kept me very busy for eight years before I decided to return to ADRA in 2016 to look after the South Pacific. 

WHAT ARE THE MOST PRESSING ISSUES FACED BY HUMANITARIAN AGENCIES THESE DAYS? 

An ever-shrinking aid budget and increasing competition for a smaller pot of money. ADRA’s work in the South Pacific is funded by the New Zealand and Australian Governments, the global ADRA Network, private donors and the United Nations. Catastrophic disasters, conflict and crises elsewhere in the world absorb a lot of these funds, meaning we have to work a lot harder to make an impact with less. 

WHAT DEVELOPMENT AND RELIEF PROJECTS ARE CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC? 

This is like asking me to name my favourite child. We’ve just started a pilot project in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu called ‘Disaster Ready Churches’. The South Pacific is extremely vulnerable to disasters and does not have a lot of resilient structures — buildings that will withstand a disaster. Typically, the local church is the biggest and (hopefully) well-constructed building in a community. ADRA is working with the Government to map the churches, retro-fit them to meet basic standards to be classified as evacuation centres, and train the youth as evacuation centre management teams. Youth will be responsible for early warnings to their community, disaster preparedness activities, evacuation and sheltering, as well as community clean-up post-disaster.  Youth unemployment rates are as high as 50% in these two countries and we want to deliver practical training and leadership skills that will help them with career choices, and be more relevant in their local community. 

IF ONE OF OUR STUDENTS WANTED TO WORK WITH A HUMANITARIAN ORGANISATION LIKE ADRA, WHAT SOFT AND HARD SKILLS WOULD THEY NEED? 

ADRA is a great organisation, present in over 130 countries, doing some really interesting and diverse work. We are always looking for disaster managers, health workers, teachers, agriculturalists, advocacy campaigners, finance people, project managers, volunteers, nutritionists, psychologists, economists to name a few. My advice to young people is to finish school, complete a degree (it’s much harder to send people overseas, get visas and work permits if you don’t have tertiary qualifications) and then commit to a volunteer role for 12 months. ADRA works closely with the Australian Government to send volunteers all over the world — it’s free and you get paid a pretty basic wage, but you’ll have an awesome time. From a soft skills perspective, you need to be the sort of person who embraces change, loves writing and fostering relationships. 

You are invited to the BAC Excel Awards next Thursday, Oct 25, at 9am in the Student Centre. These Awards celebrate the Term 3, 2018, achievements of our students in all areas of school life. Come along to hear more from Michael Peach and help us celebrate student excellence!