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Learning how to ‘get stuff done’ — skills for a humanitarian career

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Humanitarian Response, International Development on December 2, 2016 at 1:53 pm

This post was originally published on 4 Nov 2016 on DevEx

It was a cool, misty evening in Kathmandu, Nepal, about a week after the April 26 earthquake. My Catholic Relief Services colleagues and I were meeting to discuss our emerging response. At that point, we had about 20 staff in country, about half were from the humanitarian response team, the rest had come up on temporary duty assignments from our India country program, but many more were needed. We had a human resources problem — and as the emergency HR adviser, it was the reason I was a part of the team.

We had 20 trucks coming in the next seven days. There were dozens of disparate tasks that needed to get done to make sure the trucks made it across the border through customs. The nonfood items transited to appropriate warehouses, would be unloaded and inventoried, and then transferred to their final destinations and distributed to beneficiaries according to the direction the Nepalese government.

We would need people working customs, procurement, logistics, distribution managers, warehouse managers, and other operational staff and we needed them very quickly. We were not yet legally able to hire local employees so we had to bring in all of our own staff. I would have hired almost any capable and available development professional at that time for a consultancy, just to test them out.

This experience and others I had during my time working in humanitarian response, including in places such as Niger, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq and Turkey, indicate to me that in the humanitarian context — there will almost always be a need for skilled operations professionals, and there currently is a shortage of skilled, trusted operations managers. The best ones have their choice of assignments.

I left humanitarian response exactly one year ago to take a position as a career and academic adviser at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, where I completed my master of public administration in 2007.

In my current role, I advise students on careers in development. Many of my students have aspirations to work in the field, and they often start out thinking they want to be technical program managers. However, due to the fluid nature of humanitarian response, and due to the fact that more and more highly skilled local national staff are filling these roles, most expatriate program managers will need to be competent generalist managers, and the differentiator will be operational skills.

While the technical program management positions will continue to attract attention, aspiring development professionals will need to know about the fundamentals of managing donor-compliant programs.

Yes, there are fundamentals to designing sustainable development programs, and students need to have a sound academic foundation. Courses in program design, behavior change, and monitoring and evaluation are essential. But, the entry-level staff that get promoted are those that can hit the ground running and get stuff done.

Students studying international development program management should balance their coursework between program and operations-oriented subjects. Find classes, either through their school or through short-term training courses with groups such as EdX, DisasterReady, or InsideNGO where they learn about the budgeting and financial management in social change organizations.

Most development managers will need to know about human resources, proposal writing, project design, program management, ethics and strategic partnering. Graduate students should aim to complete an internship for three to six months at some point, to gain hands-on experience applying what they’ve learned.

Among the soft skills required, humanitarian operations managers need to be creative, flexible, patient and proactive. These attributes will help you navigate the often overly bureaucratic systems you may encounter, when, for example, looking for a place to rent or even faced with a potentially corrupt situation. We’re there to help vulnerable people as soon as possible, in some cases we’re literally saving lives; earthquake affected people had lost their homes and livelihoods and were living outside, without food and with ruined infrastructure. Agility and being able to think quick on your feet are essential to providing timely assistance.

Hard skills include experience with procurement, logistics, human resources and finance. When you’re spending donor money — you have to take the utmost care and take accountability very seriously. There can be no waste, and you have to make smart, quick decisions based on a thorough knowledge of procurement rules and regulations.

Logistics is it’s own art form — the ability to manage so many moving parts can be awe-inspiring when you work with a true professional. This is the kind of back-office work that many people take for granted — when things run smoothly you forget how much effort went into making sure the NFI’s were shipped, that the distribution managers and workers were well trained, that the procurement process was sound and the future audit will be clear.

Ultimately, within the just over three weeks I spent in Nepal facilitating CRS’s HR in Nepal — we peaked at just under 50 staff in country on temporary duty. The second phase would entail hiring local staff and normalizing the program for early recovery work.

Right now, in Haiti, many NGO’s are likely in the thick of the operations to distribute nonfood items and commence early recovery programming in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. While they will eventually hire consultants and staff that will design and manage long-term recovery efforts, they immediately needed skilled operations managers to get everything where it needed to be and leave a perfect paper trail behind. If you want to be gainfully employed in humanitarian work, operations and logistics is a great way to go.

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