August featured podcast

A Diamond in the Rubble

We take a peek behind the curtain to see how we’ve built on 75 years to become a leader in emergency response and recovery.


Behind the Story Podcast Series
A Diamond in the Rubble

Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And welcome back to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history—the people we serve, our partners, our staff … and especially the supporters like you who make our work possible. Now, in our last episode we spoke to Caroline Brennan, our director of emergency communications, about the resilience of children in emergencies … and about the work we do to help families rebuild their lives after witnessing violence and fleeing their homes. This month—in honor of World Humanitarian Day—we’ll be talking to one of our great humanitarians. Donal Reilly is CRS’ director of humanitarian response, and he is going to give us a peek behind the curtain … to see how we’ve built on 75 years to become a leader in emergency response and recovery. Donal, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Donal Reilly: Great to be here.

Nikki Gamer: Donal, tell us how you got into the emergency response business. I understand you came to CRS in 2000.

Donal Reilly: I’m a civil engineer, and I was at a time in my life where I’ve always wanted to do this type of work. I always felt like, you know, a desire to get involved in it. A moment that sort of triggered it for me was I was at my old company’s private sector annual golf tournament and they were giving out clocks to people who are retiring, and I just kind of felt if I kept going the way I’m going, I’ll get a clock at the end of the day. And that might be all I get out of life. So, I decided I wanted a bit more than the clock. Now I’m sure CRS might give me a clock as well someday but …

Nikki Gamer: If you’re lucky.

Donal Reilly: If I’m lucky. But at least if I look at that clock, I think I can say I made some contributions to helping people when they were most in need.

Nikki Gamer: Donal, so you started working in Haiti about 10 years before the big earthquake that hit there in 2010, right? What was your impression at the time?

Donal Reilly: Well, I will always remember when I got the job offer, I wasn’t even quite sure where Haiti was. And I went to my ma, because I was thinking Tahiti, actually.

I’d been to Jamaica, but it was nothing like Jamaica. It was just so different. So underdeveloped. Security was quite an issue at times. At the same time, I really fell in love with it and, you know, I’ve been back a few times for different emergencies. I just find the people fascinating. They’re so resilient. CRS had a large feeding program in Haiti at the time, distributing food to about 1,500 different centers, hospitals, schools, clinics, orphanages.  And I took on the job as commodity manager overseeing that work. It wasn’t quite emergency work, but it was very much operations and logistics. And then from Haiti I moved to Afghanistan in about 2002.

Nikki Gamer:  Nothing like going from Haiti to Afghanistan.

Donal Reilly: No, that’s true. Two completely different environments. But Afghanistan was very interesting. I was there for about 31/2 years, and that was emergency work ‘cause we’re dealing with a lot of people that have been displaced …

Nikki Gamer: From the fighting?

Donal Reilly: … from the fighting, yes. Then there was a couple of isolated winter emergencies as well that we dealt with, you know, just extreme cold and people being isolated by large snow falls.

Nikki Gamer: What was the biggest change for you when you started this new career?

Donal Reilly: I think the big change was from being a civil engineer and managing construction sites, and being the guy in charge and making, you know, decisions. The change was really about involving communities and having to understand that I could make all the decisions that I wanted, but nothing mattered unless the community were involved, unless it was something that they really wanted.

Nikki Gamer: You know, “emergency” is our middle name—it’s at the root of our history and our work. Can you tell us about CRS’ core emergency work?

Donal Reilly: We have a response department that’s made up of different types of staff, but we have one group that works on technical areas like shelter, water and sanitation, protection, disaster risk reduction, market-based response, food security—and I supervise that team.

Nikki Gamer: Okay, let’s say, like an earthquake just hit, you’re the head of this emergency team, what are our emergency responders doing?

Donal Reilly: Well we’re, first of all, looking at what capacity exists on the ground ‘cause normally it’s our partners and our country programs that lead the response first. And they’ll see, they’ll tell us or we’ll be communicating to them where are the gaps, what’s happening, how big is this response, how much additional support do you need to be able to respond. And, based on that, then we start to mobilize team members, based on where the gaps exist within the country program or the partners.

Donal Reilly: In Haiti there … so you’ve got the 2010 earthquake. That was a massive response that required global mobilization on the part of CRS. Our local partners did a lot of work, but it was beyond their capability to be able to respond to all the needs. So, we mobilized ourselves alongside our partners. We’d go out to the regions and country programs, and find what we call temporary staff to come in and fill positions until we could staff up for the longer term.

Nikki Gamer: Okay, so you have staff. What else do you need in that type of emergency?

Donal Reilly: A lot depends on who’s on the ground and what experience they have, where we fit in. We always try to build that local capacity and work alongside it. Sometimes we have to take a more of a leadership role if, say, for example, the people on the ground were not that experienced in emergencies. And then if you have a CRS country program office there, I mean, 95% of the employees are local staff.

Donal Reilly: Most countries we work in, we have the Church and they are already involved. They’re been involved perhaps in development projects or some form of social welfare or helping the most vulnerable. They know the context much better than we do. They know who would be the political leaders. They know the social context. They just have a deeper knowledge of the environment.

Donal Reilly: An example was in South Sudan about 4 or 5 years ago.  And there was aerial bombardment right between Sudan and South Sudan, an oil field area. And we sent a team up there because the Church had called and said, we’ve got a local father up there, so we’ve got some issues over here. We need some help. So, we sent a small team up there and they got there. And the other NGOs, international agencies are there, said, “Why are you here? There’s no need to be here. We’ve covered all this.”

Donal Reilly: And the Church said. “Well, hang on.” They took us out … I wasn’t with … it was a team that went out … they went out into the field, and in the bush there was 5,000 people that were being missed by everyone else, but the Church knew where they were. So, there’s this local outreach and knowledge they have that many other agencies can miss because they don’t have that connection to the people on the ground.

Nikki Gamer: Now, at CRS I know we like to talk about the three Rs of our emergency response cycle: rapid, response and recovery.

Donal Reilly: It’s this idea of saying that we’re going to get there quickly, we’re going to do our response, it’s going to be an appropriate response. And then we’re also there for the recovery side. We’re not just there to dish out emergency …

Nikki Gamer: … food or water …

Donal Reilly: … food or whatever. We’re there actually to help you recover as well.

Nikki Gamer: Can you give us an example of what a recovery would look like?

Donal Reilly:  A recovery would be helping people recover their livelihoods. So, it could be agricultural crops were damaged. So how do we support people to replant and recover that livelihood? It could be shelter. For example, during an emergency shelter straight after the response. Now we need to find—how do we get you into a place where you’re going back to your permanent shelter?

Nikki Gamer: Right. So, if your house was destroyed by an earthquake. We help that family or that community decide, okay, well maybe this isn’t the best place to rebuild. Maybe we go, maybe like 100 yards this way. Is that kind of the idea?

Donal Reilly: Now you’re getting into disaster risk reduction, which is when we do work with people to recover and rebuild, it is about trying to make communities more resilient. Like so, yes …

Nikki Gamer:  We love resilient, but what does that mean?

Donal Reilly: Well, how can they be better prepared for the next cyclone or hurricane or earthquake. So, for example, if we build back shelters, we want to make sure they’re stronger and more resistant, and in a better location maybe might have been some of the initial reason why it got damaged so …

Nikki Gamer: So what does success then look like, and how long does that recovery take?

Donal Reilly: It can take a long time, and often recovery goes on for years that we might not even be part of. I mean, the communities themselves will continue.  Our role is really to try to set them on a right track.

Donal Reilly: Padang is in Indonesia. There was an earthquake there. So, we’re doing a lot of shelter, but we found people were trying to recover their shelters themselves, but are having to go into debt to do so. So we actually started doing a cash-based response whereby we give people cash to buy the shelter material, but we also get them technical advice at the same time and how to build our shelters back safer. So, success there was very much the community being involved and engaged, and kind of leading their response.

Nikki Gamer: So, CRS really prioritizes the dignity of the person, and what we call a “holistic” approach. How does that translate in an emergency setting?

Donal Reilly: So, holistic means when we deploy, we deploy a team that is usually of mixed sectors. We will employ our shelter or water or sanitation or livelihoods or food security people, or protection people. Try to give them as much choice as possible to suit their individual needs on the ground.

Nikki Gamer: So, would you say that that approach, it makes CRS unique?

Donal Reilly: I find, compared to other agencies, we’re less siloed. So, it does make us unique, I think to a degree. There is a lot of conversation, the wider humanitarian community now, on support to move towards a more holistic approach. So, I like to think we’ve been feeding that conversation and leading it along with some other agencies as well, but we’re hoping that’s the way it’s going to go. And we intend to keep pushing that agenda going forward.

Nikki Gamer: So, what you’re describing in CRS “inside baseball-speak” is the definition of what we call “integral human development.” Do I have that right?

Donal Reilly: Well, yeah, this is kind of our DNA, and this is why we take a holistic approach. So, integral human development looks again that household is not a single component. It’s got all these different components that help a family make a decision. So, you look at what are your financial assets, what are your physical assets, what is your human assets, what are the other systems and structures in your community that can help you?

Nikki Gamer: So, in CRS’ 75 years of history, we’ve responded to so many disasters. Can you take us through some of the big moments and what we’ve learned?

Donal Reilly: I know Hurricane Mitch was a big one, but I wasn’t with CRS at the time, 1998. A huge hurricane that formed in the Gulf of Mexico and just came straight into Central America. Think it went up through Nicaragua, Honduras … About 20,000 people died, actually. It caused a lot of damage and destruction. But I think that was one where CRS recognized the link and the strength of our outreach to U.S. constituents, to the people who support us normally.

Nikki Gamer: Yeah, and then there was the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when more than 200,000 people died …

Donal Reilly: I was not a part of the tsunami response. But that was obviously a huge emergency around Christmas 2004 and then going into ’05. That was a massive—obviously—and huge response from CRS. But to help people recover they gotta have a sort of a stable place to go to. Even if the initial emergency area is a tent or a tarpaulin, that is your first part where your family’s together again.

Nikki Gamer: Can you remember how you felt like when you got to one of these hard-hit areas, what that was like for you?

Donal Reilly: Yeah, you are focused on getting the job done. There’s no doubt.  But you’re also seeing things sometimes that are not very nice, and, especially if you’re in there the first few days. You see huge needs, but you also see huge resilience. People are not just sitting on their hands waiting for CRS to turn up. They’re trying themselves to do with whatever they have, with whatever small resources they have, to protect their families, and to find food, whatever their gaps are.

Nikki Gamer: That must be so overwhelming, and hard to take on a personal level.

Donal Reilly: Yeah, you feel it. And I think part of being out there is you have to make sure you take time to, you know, let people understand you are aware of what happened, you know, offer your condolences when there’s loss of life—which is usual—and make sure you use … just spend time not just gathering the information you want, but hearing what they’re saying their issues are and what they’ve just been through.

Nikki Gamer: How about for you?

Donal Reilly: Um … we all handle it differently. I like a bottle of beer, and sit in a quiet place and reflect, and deal with it. But CRS is also very good now making sure our staff have resources available if they need to decompress, and try and understand what they’ve been through. We do have support systems in place these days to help with that.

Nikki Gamer: So, I’ve heard you talk about how technology has helped in certain responses, especially hurricanes. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Donal Reilly: The technology now around, you know tracking hurricanes and cyclones is just so much better. You get 5 days’ notice of roughly where it’s going to hit. So, you know, just clear your calendar, and then just watch and see what happens.

Nikki Gamer: And we’re using drones, aren’t we?

Donal Reilly: Yeah, we’ve used drones. I’m a drone fan and not a drone fan, depending on the context. ‘Cause I think one of the important things is communicating with people. If you put a drone up in the air, what message are you sending? Oh, look at us. We’re making decisions for you based on what we see from our little drone. What we want to do is engage people in the response and talk to them. There’s not much empathy in a drone. You know, being on the ground, turning up, talking to families, seeing their conditions is important. So I think it’s a mixture. I’m not saying don’t use a drone, but, you know …

Nikki Gamer: It’s not a silver bullet.

Donal Reilly: It’s not a silver bullet.

Nikki Gamer: How has emergency response changed over the years? For instance, how do we use local markets and cash?

Donal Reilly: Back in the day we used to call it a “truck and chuck” sort of mentality, which is basically pulling in with a truckload of gear and just basically throw it off the back of the truck to people.  But we’ve moved on from that now. We’re very much into understanding local markets now. So, look at the local markets. If it functions, can we give people either cash or vouchers—cash is preferable—to make decisions. And it’s so much more dignified.

Donal Reilly: Giving someone cash, allowing them to go to the shop and choose what they want is a lot more dignified than standing in a queue, where there’s sometimes pushing and shoving, where you’re made to stand in the heat perhaps for hours to get something. If we can’t do a direct cash distribution to the people who are affected, then we will look to see can we buy … if we have to buy the stuff, can we buy it locally?  Again, trying to have a greater impact on the local market as well before we go out to some global procurement. It’s more dignified and it makes people less dependent on us as well in some respects. They can start to recover themselves.

Nikki Gamer: What about the forgotten emergencies that might not get public attention? Can you tell us about the importance of donations for these types of emergencies?

Donal Reilly: With the smaller emergencies, yeah, there’s lots of ones that happen that don’t make headlines these days. And if they’re not newsworthy, then often the public donors are not that keen to fund because there’s not much pressure on them. And, so, there’s people who are very vulnerable who are suffering. They’re suffering as much as someone who would have been in a large emergency. So, the private funds allow us to go in there and target these smaller emergencies.

Nikki Gamer: So, Donal, you’ve gone to so many places, you’ve seen so many things. Who are you inspired by? I understand you had an incredible experience in Central African Republic?

Donal Reilly: Bishop Nestor in Central African Republic. I thought he was an amazing person and character. There was an internal conflict between the sort of non-Muslims, which some are Christians, and the Muslim community. He was basically sheltering 20,000 people in his compound, and making sure that they were getting access to food and shelter and water.  And then also looking after the Muslim camp as well, and making sure they were safe. And dealing with conflict.

Donal Reilly: The more ex-military guys are well armed. And we went in and we met with these guys. We sat down, and they were speaking local dialect. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was quite a tense conversation. It wasn’t friendly. And I was getting a bit worried. I was like, wow. But the Bishop’s sitting there. He’s a big man. He’s just chatting away, and he’s quite firm in what he wants to happen. And after about an hour, we get up, and he says, “Right, come. We gotta go.” And we go.

Donal Reilly: And we follow this car of military guys out. And we come to a place. And, basically, what he’d done is he’d negotiated the release of a Muslim cleric and his family. We loaded the family into the car, and drove into the Muslim camp, and I always remember when the bishop got out and he let out the Muslim cleric, and the camp just exploded into joyous welcoming of this family, because they thought they were dead. They didn’t realize that this family was still alive. I was just overall impressed with the way he operated there and his commitment to working on both sides to look for solutions.

Nikki Gamer: But, if you go back to yourself … back to that golf course, and you’re watching this guy get a clock. Do you think now that you made the right decision?

Donal Reilly: Oh yeah.  I knew that within the first 6 months of being in Haiti. I knew then that I wasn’t going back.

Nikki Gamer: Donal Reilly … thank you so much for joining us.

Donal Reilly: Yes, thank you.

Nikki Gamer: All right everybody, join us next month as we look back at the 1960s, when the Catholic community in the U.S. welcomed thousands of Cuban refugees. In fact, it was our last resettlement effort here in the United States. And we uncovered a few surprises that you won’t want to miss. So, don’t forget to check us out online at And if you are enjoying this podcast, like I know you are, please subscribe so you don’t miss out on the next episode. And, just want to say, thank you so much for listening.


Behind the Story Podcast Series
A Diamond in the Rubble
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