Beth Eggleston is a co-founder of the Humanitarian Advisory Group, was 2019’s Fulbright Scholar and has authored a number of publications on military-civilian relations. In her free time, she volunteers with NGO’s including the Red Cross and NATO. Today, she shares her experiences as a woman throughout her international career and the lessons that she has learned along the way.
In 2012, you co-founded your social enterprise, the Humanitarian Advisory Group, and have since worked on multiple projects. What sparked this idea and what projects do you get to work on?
Our goal for the Humanitarian Advisory Group was ultimately to create an organization that was agile and could respond quickly to what was happening in the humanitarian sector. This led us to focus on a few main areas of work including independent evaluation, monitoring, research work, facilitation, and training. The Humanitarian Advisory Group works with large aid organisations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to provide advice in these main areas. For example, we have agencies come to us asking to conduct policy review, design simulations, and improve operating procedures. In doing so, I’ve had the chance to work on a lot of really fascinating projects to help these NGOs and UN agencies.
One of my favourite projects was when I had the chance to conduct different evaluations for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They engage in a wide variety of activities, so every evaluation was quite different. For example, we looked at their response to tropical cyclone Gita in Tonga and later, looked at their response to different humanitarian projects in Syria. It was really interesting looking at the impact of these programs and from that, making recommendations for how they can improve next time.
Volunteer work is clearly important to you and you currently serve in highly accredited organizations like the Australian Red Cross and NATO. What do you enjoy the most about it?
I want to start by acknowledging that volunteering is a luxury and at times is overly exclusive. I was very lucky to volunteer for several years at the beginning of my career and was fortunate enough to be supported by a range of different Australian Government volunteer programs. This allowed me to cover my cost of living so that I could partake in volunteer programs like Australian Business Volunteers and Australian Volunteers International. A lot of people who are working in the international aid and development sector, myself included, entered into this space through initially volunteering with various organizations. Thus, it can be very hard to break into these spaces.
I am very fortunate to be able to volunteer and even today, volunteer in a number of roles. While of course, some may say there is an altruistic element to volunteering, it’s also something that I find very interesting and am passionate about. Currently, I volunteer as an advisory board member for the Australian Red Cross which has been incredible. I’ve found it so fascinating being able to work within such a complex organization, and in doing so, develop a deeper understanding of the relationships between NGOs, civil society organizations, and local and national governments. It is especially interesting to see how this dynamic changes in crises. I find with volunteering, there is always something we can learn.
Having visited the US Naval War College as a Fulbright Scholar, what were some of your biggest learning experiences from this program for you?
I had such a phenomenal experience as a Fulbright Scholar. A lot of the work I did was within various American universities including Harvard, MIT, and Yale. I partook in various humanitarian courses, had the chance to meet academics, and in doing so, gained a greater understanding of what power and privilege look like in the US.
Outside of the classroom is probably where I had my biggest learning experiences, however. I think in particular, my experiences with American culture were quite defining. Often, we assume that Australia and the US are extremely similar based on our shared language and colonial history. However, through living in the US, I really came to see the differences. Some of them were less positive than others. I remember one morning, my boss came into work and told us all to get into place for active shooter training, something I’ve never been confronted with in Australia.
I also thought it was interesting to see the way I was treated differently as a woman on a military base. I remember, the men at the gate every morning assumed I was dropping my husband off and only a few weeks later, came to understand that I work there.
Civilian-Military relations are your area of expertise since you have contributed to Ethics Under Fire: Challenges for the Australian Army, and From Principle to Practice: Protecting civilians in violent contexts. What do you see as the most pressing challenges for these relations?
Over the past few years, I’ve really been focused on looking at how Australian humanitarian organizations and the Australian Defence Force work together in emergencies. The cultural differences between these two organizations are what really makes this area of politics fascinating. While both organizations deliver assistance and protect people, there are stark differences. On the one hand, military organizations tend to be very hierarchical and controlled while humanitarian organizations tend to be flatter and consultative. In times of crisis, both sides have such unique skills that lend really well to the other’s skills. The military side tends to have incredible training, leadership, and logistics, while the humanitarian side has a lot of technical expertise, knowledge, and experience. The problem tends to be that neither side is considering the range of benefits that the other side can bring to the table, particularly in crisis situations.
My goal in my recent paper was to look at how we can ultimately bring both sides together to have frank and fearless dialogue about how they can work together in conflict situations. There tends to be a lack of trust on both sides, often due to a lack of understanding and stereotyping, so bridging this gap is critical.
You’ve lived in many places throughout your international career, for example, Afghanistan, while you were in the UN and Liberia as a part of your work with Oxfam. What is it like moving across the world to places that are culturally quite different to Australia?
Since completing my undergraduate studies, I’ve been very interested in anthropology and have wanted to live in different places and learn more about them. I think travel is one of the things that attracted me to this field of work the most. It is certainly interesting living in culturally diverse places. Of course, there are challenges such as language barriers and different customs, but, luckily I was fortunate enough to work with very supportive, local staff who helped me navigate some of these cultural systems. I remember, whenever I was starting a new role in a new place, I would be quite upfront with my local counterparts. I would ask for lots of guidance and ask them to flag any cultural faux pas’ that I make. I find in these situations, it is through working with national, local staff that you can learn to navigate these unique situations and cultural norms. I made plenty of blunders, but with the right people by your side, it isn’t quite so daunting.
Do you have any advice for young women interested in pursuing a similar career pathway to yours?
I have a few main points that I’d love to discuss. Firstly, I’d say that young women need to know that they can be confident and humble at the same time. From a young age, women are taught to not talk about their accomplishments in order to avoid being perceived as arrogant. Women never give themselves enough credit for all that they have achieved and tend to doubt themselves far more than men do. This can lead to all sorts of negative consequences. For example, women tend to only apply for jobs when they are certain they’ve met all of the job criteria, while men will apply for the same job when they feel as though they have met around half of the criteria. This can lead to women limiting their own opportunities simply because they are doubting their competence. It’s not always that women aren’t being selected, it’s often that they aren’t applying in the first place.
Secondly, I really feel strongly about women supporting women. We need to come together to back not only ourselves but each other. There are more than enough opportunities for everyone, so it is better to share our opportunities, knowledge, and experience to help others achieve their goals. This isn’t even necessarily a belief backed by principle, I’m basing this on research. Data supports that by helping others up, we can gain new opportunities, knowledge, and competencies that will help us thrive in our own careers while being able to support other women in their journey to do the same. There is a huge issue of women not rising the ranks within organizations to the same extent that men will. Even within the humanitarian sector, this is a problem. When we did research within the Humanitarian Advisory Group, we found that women are over-represented in junior positions and very much under-represented in more senior positions. While a lot of this is beyond our control, by helping others and accepting help when it is given to us, we can accomplish so much more than we could alone.
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