More challenges and constraints, but more impactful work.


Melisa Bonzo, Water and Habitat Engineer

Melissa Bonzo from Harare, Zimbabwe, has been working with the ICRC since 2010. She started as resident staff and after 5 years she applied to become ‘mobile staff’, meaning to work on assignments abroad. Since then, she has worked and lived in Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria. We asked her 9 questions about life as an engineer at the ICRC.


1.      Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My background is in civil engineering with a focus water supply and project management. I started with the ICRC in 2010 as a field officer in Zimbabwe, where I spent five years working on water supply in places of detention. I am currently in Homs, Syria, working on projects related to detention, water supply, health facilities and shelter projects in areas where displaced people have returned.

2.      Can you describe a project you’re proud of?

One project I’m particularly proud of was building shelters for people returning to Nigeria after a period of displacement. Initially, the people were building their own houses, and the ICRC was providing construction tools, doors, windows and roofing materials. The walls were built from mud, and the materials provided by the ICRC were installed by the people themselves. However, it became clear that the construction quality could be better, and that the tools provided were not always being used. So we adapted the project: instead of providing tools, the ICRC hired and trained a local builder and carpenters to build the houses. This improved the quality of the project and generated income for the builder and carpenters.

Later, we introduced us a building technology already used in southern Nigeria known as soil-stabilized bricks or SSB. SSB are less than half the cost of concrete bricks, have less of an impact on the environment than burnt bricks, and houses built from SSB are more resistant to flooding and last longer than mud houses. I was part of the team involved in deciding how to manufacture and use these bricks in different areas, and although I left before the new method was rolled out, I’m still happy to have been a part of that transition. This is one of the many examples of how we at the ICRC work both within the organization and with external actors to ensure we provide sustainable assistance.


 “we had to adapt: instead of providing construction tools to people, we hired and trained a local builder and carpenters to build the houses. This improved the quality of the project and generated income for the builder and carpenters.”


3.      How does your job at the ICRC differ from your previous work experience? What specific challenges do you face?

My job at the ICRC differs in that there is more to take into consideration, such as gaining access to people in need (which is sometimes limited) and ensuring that the decisions I make will have the greatest possible impact within those constraints. It’s important to remember that the ICRC’s reputation as a neutral, independent and impartial organization will be based on how you communicate verbally and non-verbally to beneficiaries and others. You have to consider any risk that may arise as a result of your assistance and put mitigating measures in place when planning your response. In places where you do not speak the local language, you have to find ways to ensure that people understand your questions by asking the same question in a number of different ways. You need to build trust among everyone involved, and that takes time. However, when you take into account these factors – and many others I haven’t mentioned – your project is likely to have a greater impact.

4.      What is your favourite and least favourite part of ICRC fieldwork?

Working in the field means understanding that, much as we might want it, we do not always have access to people in need. In the cases where we do, we can sit and talk with them, get their perspective on the problem, hear their proposed solutions and incorporate that into our project design. My least favourite part is seeing the effects of conflict and other violence on people’s lives.

5.      What have you learned?

I have learned that our organization is rich in terms of the people we work with, be it in my current assignment or from colleagues at the regional level. We work with people from different countries and with different backgrounds who have experience from the places they’ve worked or within the ICRC itself. This is helpful because when you ask for help, ideas and feedback, people are willing to share based on their experience and help you shape the ideas you have.


“When you ask your colleagues for help, ideas and feedback, they are willing to share based on their experience and help you shape the ideas you have.”


6.      How does the ICRC support you in your job?

The ICRC supports me by providing information about an assignment before I leave and once I arrive on site. The briefings upon arrival also help me to have a better understanding of the local context. The coordination team gives technical guidance when we implement projects. In terms of my career, my talent manager at headquarters provides me with information and guidance about possible career paths so I can make informed decisions.

7.      Have you completed any special training at the ICRC?

Yes, I have completed the staff integration course and the Leading a Team, Security and Safety in the Field, and Effective Presentation Techniques courses. I have also completed the technical training courses Water in Emergency, Basic Cement and Concrete Applications, and Nutrition in Detention. I am currently in my last semester of a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration which was paid for by the ICRC through the iDevelop programme.

8.      What do you think are the qualities an ICRC engineer should have?

You should be a good team player and a good negotiator, because coordination with the authorities and other entities is part of our work. You should be adaptable, as we work and live in very different environments that change from one day to the next. We also work on multidisciplinary projects, so ICRC engineers also have to be flexible.

9.      What advice would you give to fellow engineers who are considering applying to the ICRC?

If you are looking for more than just good work experience, if you want to be part of a team that is more like a family and, most importantly, if you want to contribute to restoring dignity to people affected by conflict and other violence, then being an ICRC engineer is the job for you.