Human Resources In The Humanitarian Frontline

Katherine Galliano, head of Human Resources at MSF in London, has spent the last six weeks in South and West Darfur, in Western Sudan. Katherine's a trained nurse and midwife  but her job in Darfur is to help manage the flow of MSF's Sudanese national staff, dealing with our biggest humanitarian medical  emergency in the world today.

Hiring Frenzy

“I have come to Darfur to support the teams here in recruiting and managing national staff. Even in an emergency MSF tries to work within the labour laws of a country. That has meant drawing up contracts of employment for our national staff and informing them about these contracts and staff rules and regulations. For some of them, it is the first time they have ever had a formal employment contract and paid tax and social insurance (the equivalent of national insurance).

The challenge for me is keeping up with the rapid pace of hiring national staff. At the last count we had about 800 locally hired staff but this changes on a daily basis. MSF is hiring them so quickly we don't always have time to write detailed job descriptions. It's difficult to screen national staff, as there isn't the time to go through a formal recruitment process. Often potential candidates don't have official documents such as birth certificates, and certificates of education or professional diplomas because they lost all their belongings when they were forced to flee their burning villages. We have had to adapt our policies to the current situation. It is important that these people know what they are signing when they sign a contract but it takes time to get a translator to explain the job information in Arabic. And information flow is not as fast here since you can't just pick up the phone or send an email like in the UK. I have been going out into the camps to get national staff to sign their contracts. So far I have drawn up 500 of them for people working in all sorts of positions such as feeding assistants, nurses, drivers, watchmen, translators and outreach health promoters.

Unexpected situations

Issues arise that you don't expect and that need dealing with carefully. At MSF we have a strict no weapons policy. In Darfur it is traditional for men to carry a tribal knife strapped to their upper arm. It wasn't easy telling the staff that they weren't allowed to bring their knives to work with them; it had to be discussed with staff sensitively to get them to understand and agree with our policy. Travelling to and from the various project sites is a mission in itself. Travel permits are required by anyone travelling in the area, so planning ahead is a must. The current rainy season has made some areas inaccessible and causes huge delays in road travel. Safety and security always has to be a priority when driving. My journey from Nyala to Garsila in West Darfur (a distance of only around 200 kilometres ) took two days ! Driving cross country in a four wheel drive, through rivers and fields of sorghum in heavy rain, hoping you get through the muddy ditches isn't what I would describe as a comfortable journey, but the amazing landscape you get to see on the way by far makes up for it. Driving past a herd of about 200 camels or being stopped in the road by a cattle meandering across the road isn't quite the same as the delayed 07.37 Southwest train journey into Waterloo!

Hope Despite Loss

What has struck me most while being here is the amazing, positive attitude of those national staff working for us. Despite having lost everything and live living in makeshift camps, they come to work everyday with smiles on their faces and a strong desire to help others. One of the women I met whilst in the camp at Kalma is already a widow at 22 years old. She has a young child to provide for. A job in one of our feeding centres gives her some security for the coming months and the opportunity of a better future for herself and her child. I also met a young man in his early twenties, who is working for us as a builder. In addition to his three young children, he also has to support his mother and eight other siblings after his father was killed last year.

MSF Recruiting Volunteers

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is not going to suddenly stop. There is an ongoing need for more volunteers so we will keep recruiting.  MSF UK began sending volunteers to Darfur in the beginning of November 2003. There are currently 24 expatriates from the UK in the region.

Interview with Katherine Galliano

What kind of personnel are you looking for to help out in Darfur? 

Before I got here, at the beginning of the emergency phase, there was nothing in place, so from the UK and other countries, we needed to send expatriate volunteers from the MSF register, with previous experience working in emergency situations. Now these experienced staff have been able to get things set up, we have also started sending volunteers who are on their first mission. It's a steep learning curve for them, but the rewards are immense. Right now we need logisticians for a variety of activities: managing the large stocks in our many warehouses and the supply line of getting them from A to B (not easy in a region where it easily takes you 7 hours to drive 70 km with cars and trucks getting stuck in the mud and wadi 's now the rainy season has started); ensuring expatriate staff are equipped to carry out their medical work; operating radio and communications equipment and making sure appropriate water and sanitation is available. The latter is essential at a time where we see so many displaced people getting ill because of drinking dirty water and a lack of hygiene. There is also an ongoing need for coordinators, who manage the projects and the project teams. The challenge for them is finding the time in an already overwhelming workload to train and support new volunteers. Doctors, nurses and midwives are needed to run therapeutic feeding centres and primary health care clinics and to hire and train community health workers.

What does it take to be a successful MSF UK volunteer in an emergency situation?

A successful MSF UK volunteer in an emergency situation needs to be adaptable, flexible and able to be organized in a chaotic environment. One day you may be scheduled to go to one IDP camp but the next day that could easily change. There might be a food distribution planned but then it isn't possible because security won't allow it or the rains make areas inaccessible. Flights are frequently cancelled so often you can't reach the project site on the day you had scheduled. So volunteers need to be patient and to be able to go with the flow. They also need to be ready to work long hours. MSF staff often work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day on average and sometimes up to 16 hours. Because of this intense work schedule, we try and send our volunteers to Khartoum every 6 weeks for a break. In addition, volunteers should accept that getting sick comes along with the job since they are prone to malaria, diarrhoea and upset stomachs for example. They also need great communication skills, and a sense of humour goes a long way in this harsh and emotionally draining situation.