Sarah Downes is a trained nurse and Development specialist who has had the opportunity to use her diverse skills in Australia, South America and the Pacific.
GHG: Tell us about yourself
I grew up in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne with my parents and siblings. With an older brother and younger sister, people often jokingly ask if I have the famed middle child syndrome. To be honest, I’ve never really given in much thought. What I do have is a passion for meeting new people and exploring new cultures, a determination to make a difference in whatever way I can, and an independence and stubbornness which means that once I set my mind to something, I am not easily deterred.
I remember sitting in Health and Human Development in year eleven. I was reading about the Millennium Development Goals and thought to myself, that’s what I want to do; I want to help people to have the opportunity to decide what they want to be when they grow up. So began my interest in global health and my journey to where I am now.
After completing high school I decided to study Nursing. Three years later I started my graduate year as a Registered Nurse at a busy public hospital in Melbourne. It was during my final graduate rotation that I decided to return to university to study International Development. This decision was a real turning point in my life and was the first step to pursuing a career in the humanitarian sector.
Whilst studying International Development I completed two semesters of study abroad, the first in Mexico and the second in Ecuador. During my time in Ecuador I completed an internship at a public health centre in one of the lower socioeconomic areas of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Somewhere between vaccinating domestic dogs and cats against rabies, and conducting health assessments in Spanish, I realised this was what I had been looking for.
This was not my first volunteer experience, having previously volunteered as an English tutor with Sudanese Australia Integrated Learning. On my return to Australia I went on to volunteer as a research assistant for the Darfur Australia Network whilst finishing my degree.
GHG: Tell us about your current role
After completing International Development I started looking for a way to break into the field. I caught my break when I was recruited as a Vulnerable Populations Health Officer for a small Fijian non-profit organisation through the Australian Government’s Australian Volunteers for International Development program, supported by Australian Red Cross.
I recently finished working for Action for Children and the Aged Trust Fiji (ACATA) in August. The organisation works towards a healthy Fiji with happy and prosperous people and works across a number of key programming areas, principally on a grass roots level.
Working for ACATA I was responsible for strengthening existing projects and programmes, and developing new projects within these programme areas to strengthen ACATA’s progress towards their strategic objectives. My day to day activities were many and varied and included anything from project related research, writing grant applications, running participatory planning workshops, organising and running events and training, producing educational resources, and writing reports, press releases and content for ACATA’s upcoming webpage.
GHG: What were your main achievements – professional and personal?
My greatest professional achievement has been the School Gardens Project which I designed, and implemented for ACATA. This project involved working with Primary Schools to help them start or improve their school gardens. In doing so, this project aims to prevent and control non-communicable diseases by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among students and teachers, promote food security by encouraging backyard gardening, and reduces Fiji’s dependence on agricultural chemicals by focusing on organic gardening methods.
This project represents a significant professional milestone for me. As I was the sole representative from ACATA working on the island of implementation, I was directly responsible for its implementation and management throughout every stage of the project cycle. It was certainly an amazing experience to watch the initial project design turn into reality.
My greatest personal achievement was learning to speak Spanish when I was studying in Mexico and Ecuador. I still remember that moment when I could simply listen and understand without having to translate the words back into English. It’s so much fun learning to speak another language.
GHG: How do you keep motivated to work in the field of global health?
Working in global health often lands you in challenging situations and environments. You are often pushed outside your comfort zone, and are required to adapt to and sometimes challenge different expectations and ways of doing things. You encounter road blocks; whether cultural, financial, political, or otherwise, that force you to re-consider your options and develop alternative solutions. In short, working in global health can be really hard.
There were some days when I felt that Fiji had gotten the better of me and I felt like giving up. Thankfully those days were few and far between, and pale in comparison to the overwhelming feeling of joy and satisfaction I get when I see members of the community benefiting from the projects I’ve worked so hard to turn into a reality. These moments motivated me and reminded me why I was doing this work.
GHG: What is the most frustrating thing about working abroad in this setting? Any ways you have found to avoid or cope with this frustration?
Living and working in Fiji has been a completely new experience for me. It turns out “Fiji time” really is a thing. Don’t get me wrong, Fiji time is lovely when you’re on holidays, but when you’re working on a timeline, it can make life a little difficult.
I’m not really sure that you can avoid Fiji time, but I had to come up with a few strategies for working around it. One is to always have multiple things happening at the same time so that when something is held up, I have other work to do. Follow up visits are also extremely effective in Fiji and are often better than phone calls for moving things along. Pushing too hard in Fiji can often be counterproductive and can result in Fiji time extending for an eternity. I came to realise that there are times when I need to accept that something is outside of my control and to just go with the flow.
GHG: What are your tips for people interested in working in global health?
If you’re interested in working in global health but are reluctant because you feel nervous or scared, let me assure you that these feelings are completely normal. It’s normal to be nervous of the unknown, but you will be surprised how easily you adapt and how quickly the unknown becomes familiar. It’s like getting into cold water; the hardest part is diving in.
If you’re still a little nervous about making the dive, I would highly recommend the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. It offers a wide range of positions across Asia, Pacific and Africa and provide living and accommodation allowances. Travel expenses and insurance are also covered.
Sarah Downes, pictured above, in her role as a Vulnerable Populations Health Officer for Action for Children and the Aged Trust Fiji. This position ended in August 2014.