Secretarial: I Work For... Polly Markandya is PA to Anne-Marie Huby, executive director of Medecins sans Frontieres - Job without frontiers

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The Independent Culture
From the age of 16, I had wanted to work for Medecins Sans Frontieres. It was, and still is, an organisation that reflects the things I find important. MSF members always speak passionately, have guts and go to places others wouldn't, standing up for some of the most unlucky people on the planet. Whenever there is a big disaster there's always an MSF doctor at the scene.

I studied modern history, which was all about wars, disasters and population movement, so it wasn't a great leap to the field I am now working in.

After I graduated, I worked as an intern in Moscow for an organisation called Winrock, helping farmers through the transition from collective farming to private smallholdings. On my return, I wrote to 20 charities but got no positive replies, so I got a job with Marks & Spencer. Luckily I was saved from a lifetime of retail when MSF offered me a part-time voluntary job which I combined with two other jobs, until, six months later, I was given the full-time paid job of PA.

Anne-Marie and I shared a desk for several years, which was invaluable because I learnt so much from watching her and listening to her - her gut feeling is usually right and her advice excellent. Like many of my colleagues, she's a polyglot which makes me sick with jealousy - I would like to say I correct her English from time to time, but instead it's usually her correcting mine. She's supportive of me and pushed me to take on responsibilities and build my confidence.

Initially, I was doing anything from setting up board meetings to fielding phone calls. Some calls are vital, others well-meaning if a little bizarre, such as the widow who rang because her husband had left his false leg to MSF in his will.

As time went on I began taking more media enquiries and when Anne-Marie asked me what I most liked about my job at my annual review, I told her it was the press work - so she made me press assistant. I still work closely with her, for example when she was on Question Time and needed to be prepared, I spent an afternoon researching topics such as genetically modified foods and education.

Since we are an international organisation, we need to work closely with colleagues around the world, most of whom I've never met, but I really like the relationships we build.

The situation in Kosovo is dominating everything; however, there are 80 other countries that receive our help. We are concerned about the failure to find a political settlement to the war in Sudan, for example, since there's a likelihood of it leading to another famine.

It's my job to brief volunteers beforehand and explain what their responsibility is vis-a-vis protecting the rights of the patient. A quarter of the countries we work in are within areas of conflict, and we feel strongly that it is the responsibility of each individual to provide a degree of protection for the patients as well as drawing their plight to the attention of the general public. We also believe that to protect people on the ground means being there, usually before the TV cameras and for some time after they have left.

The International Red Cross and MSF were the two organisations that stayed longest in Pristina, which was partly due to the dedication of the people in the field. But as the bombing became more intensive and law and order began to break down - a precursor to the "ethnic cleansing" - it became impossible to work amid anti-Western mob violence. As the British communicator in England, I was on the phone to our volunteers a lot, and the calls were awful. Tim Boucher, our head of mission, was very worried about the local personnel. He reported how fearful the Albanians were.

One Kosovar member of staff, for example, told him: "I'm 45 and I've lived my life and don't mind dying, but what about my six-year-old?"

The calls from Sierra Leone were particularly bad as colleagues found adults and children who had been deliberately mutilated as part of a terror campaign. One feels sickened and horrified but at the same time driven to work harder. The best motivating factor is when you are asked to spread the news to the wider world.

I love and believe in my work but I make a real effort not to bring it home with me - none of my friends works in the aid sector, which helps prevent me becoming totally obsessed. You need to keep the perspective fresh, otherwise there is a danger of your becoming insensitive to the level of what is acceptable and what is not.

No one working here clock-watches; everyone puts in the hours, because they know the necessity of it. It is a very friendly office, we all have lunch together and there's a spirit of task-sharing. We do have an administrator but it's the job of everyone here to do their own typing and pick up the phone - we don't have voice mail. And when we had the office extended, everyone came in at the weekend to help out with the painting.

We are all listened to here, because each person has a different perspective, which ensures that there's a debate - and that's important because constantly questioning what humanitarian action is keeps us close to our principles.

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