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Switching off the lights

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People from the Haiti operation

As you know, I try not to write too much about the work I do, in an attempt to segregate my official duties from my blog. I will make an exception for once.

When the earthquake stroke Haiti on January 12th, it not only devastated the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, but it also devastated our operations in Haiti. Our offices were destroyed. Our staff lost family and friends. Most of the country’s infrastructure was affected, making it very difficult for any humanitarian aid to reach those in need.

We set up our office in the Dominican Republic to provide the needed support both for our own organisation and for the other aid agencies. We set up a logistics “pipeline” receiving aid goods, coming in via air and sea, and transported them via air and road into Haiti. We set up an airbridge ferrying in the initial response goods, and humanitarian staff into Port-au-Prince and beyond.

For the past months, I headed our operations, based in Santo Domingo. End of May, we are wrapping up the the initial emergency response phase. As the months went by, all organisations rebuilt their infrastructure, and the port, roads, warehousing capacity inside the country came back on its feet. Since a month, we have been converting our office from its initial response, to a more longer term configuration.

When I landed here on January 19, a few days after the Haiti earthquake, I found a dozen staff who arrived here before me, cramped in a small room. As the days went by, more and more people flew in, both to support our office, as well as all those on route to Haiti. At the peak, we had people working in the central office, at two ports, two airports, and two suboffices in the country. We built up the operation from scratch, growing to almost 100 staff, mobilized from countries all over the world. We had staff working in our offices who were called in from over 30 different countries. Logistics experts, food specialists, finance and administration staff, procurement people, airops officers, security officers and engineers…

We based our operations in two conference rooms of a hotel, here in Santo Domingo. No windows. The “dungeons” we called them, as they had no windows. Sunlight was a rarity in those early days. A month later, the hotel converted their “ping-pong room” near the swimming pool into a working space, with seven more offices normally used by beauty salons and travel agencies.

The first few weeks were hectic. We worked from 7 am until late at night, 7 days per week, moving cargo and people into Haiti, processing finance and procurement transactions like there was no tomorrow. Staff rotated in and out, replacing the “initial responders” with “fresh blood”, again called in from all over the world. We had people working with us, who are normally based in our operations in North Korea, Malawi, Dubai, Rome, all over Central and South America and Asia. Senior experienced professionals worked side by side with staff for whom this was their emergency operation, and local recruits. We dealt with government officials, nutritional experts, security incidents, commercial companies, airport authorities, immigration staff and transporters. It was never a dull day for the -last count- over 170 different staff who worked in our Dominican operation.

Now, four months later, we are “switching off the lights”. As of June 1, we have demobilized most of the international support staff, handing over the operations to the local staff we recruited, with just a few expat staff remaining. The initial response phase is over.

Organising a new office has its challenges. Making sure all operations go smooth, fast and auditable. Ensuring all the pieces of the supply chain match together. Building up a team, even with that many people coming in and out. Dealing with sudden ‘emergencies': our staff in Haiti running out of food supplies, pockets of displaced people appearing along the border in need of assistance, one of our staff being shot at, to manually stamping 500,000 food distribution coupons.

But building something, a team, an operation, is fun. That is what I like. Downscaling -although an intrinsic part of any good aid operation- is more difficult. Not only ensuring all the last bits and pieces of the operation are properly closed, suppliers are paid, all contracts are well documented, etc… but the personal aspect, is often a challenge… “Switching off the lights”.

It has been an interesting experience within myself. I had to downscale something I built. In the past four weeks, gradually people have gone back to the duty station they were called from. There have been many goodbyes. And I am not good at goodbye’s.

We had many beautiful people working with us. Professional in their job, and really nice individuals. Some of them have worked in this operation since the beginning. And now, it is time to leave. Time to close what we have worked on. “our project”, “our office”, “our team”.

Over the past months, I have gotten to love the people I work with. Working in any emergency creates that bond, the feeling of “us”. And saying goodbye, especially to those who were here since the beginning, is not easy. Sure enough, we are all professional aidworkers. This is our job. But we are also human. We are not only saying goodbye to colleagues, but we are also saying goodbye to people who have become close friends. People who we have shared a unique experience with. People who we have shared these incredible four months with.

As we walk in this road of life, we cross many people and we create many bonds. The bond between emergency responders is unique. We hold together. Together against the challenges of time, the challenge of the enormous needs, the challenges of.. “the outside world”. We live and work together, not thinking of “tomorrow”, but dealing with the issues of “today”.

And now, we will all go our own way. Back to France, Italy, Panama, Ivory Coast… Many of us, in thoughts. A piece of us will remain here, in Santo Domingo. Cradled in memories of those crazy nights stamping those damned coupons. Of the time where we had to get a ton of food for our own staff on the plane in three hours. Of the time where we had to get that much needed aid cargo at the border in 24 hours.

Once upon a time, we will all meet again. In another emergency. When I meet Georges next time in flood operation somewhere in Asia, or Alex in a civil war somewhere in Africa, or Henrik in a drought operation in the Caucasus, we will meet again as old friends. As if we never parted. Sharing the memories of this operation. Sharing the bond.

But for the time being, we have to go. We part. We say goodbye. Knowing there is never enough we can express at the moment when we give that final handshake: “Thank you for your help, it was a pleasure working with you”, while we really wanted to say is “You know, I loved working with you. You are now part of my heart. Thank you for being part of this”.

So for all of you, this is not goodbye. But “I will see you again”. You are in my heart. We did well. We made a difference!

Written by Peter

June 1st, 2010 at 9:21 pm

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We lost 5 colleagues in a suicide bombing today

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WFP office bombed in Islamabad Pakistan

Today, it is my birthday. But not much reason to celebrate. This morning, someone got into our office in Islamabad, Pakistan, and blew himself up.

He took the lives away from Botan, Farzana, Abid, GulRukh and Mohammad. Our colleagues and friends.

Botan Al-Hayawi (41) was Iraqi. He leaves behind a wife, two sons and a daughter. Botan was on mission in Peshawar when suicide bombers blew up the Pearl Continental Hotel in June. I met Botan several times back in 2002 and 2003 when I worked in Iraq.

Yesterday, Botan posted something on the Interagency ICT discussion forum:

I arrived to Islamabad last Monday morning with a busy day planned. I had just returned to Islamabad after recovering from the Peshawar blast on June 9th, 2009, which left me with some minor injuries but did not break my spirit.

He wrote this less than 24 hours before someone took his life away.

Farzana Barkat (22) was an office assistant. She worked in our logistics office, right next to where the suicide bomber blew himself up. A young woman at the start of her life.

Abid Rehman (41) was our senior finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons. I worked with Abid when I was based in Islamabad from 2000 to 2002. We always exchanged friendly and teasing jokes as I stretched the finance unit with my urgent requests.

GulRukh Tahir (40) was our receptionist. She leaves behind a husband.

Mohammad Wahab (44) was our finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons.

I am a bit numb at this moment. I think back of all the people I have known, and who lost their lives in the line of duty. Abby, Saskia, Pero, M.….

I think how it is possible to be close to those we want to serve, without having to isolate ourselves with barbed wire and sand bags. I think how we can still work in places we are still needed, but know we are at risk. Algeria, where our offices were bombed in 2007. Somalia, where we lost two colleagues earlier this year. Sudan, where we lost several drivers over the past years… Only to name a few.

It is strange.. It is only after the hours go by that the cruelty and the reality of the act today really seeps through… And the consciousness that if we are to work in a higher risk environment, there actually is not one place, where one is totally safe. Where would that be? In the office? They drive a truck through the gates and blow it up. In the guesthouse or the hotel? Same thing…
You can restrict the movements of staff and reduce field visits to minimize the risk, you can drive armoured cars – as we do in some operations – but then again, what holds them from blowing up an anti-tank mine underneath your vehicle as you stop in front of the traffic lights? What holds anyone from gunning you down when you get out of the car. Even when you think you are safe in the office compound.

Security for humanitarian workers has been more and more restrictive on what and how we can do our work. “Protecting ourselves” is a must. But how far does that conflict with being able to do our work, which entails having direct contact with those we serve? Should we all pack and go home?

I do not know the answers. I know one thing. This is not a happy birthday for me…

This song keeps on playing in my mind…

Picture courtesy The Nation

Written by Peter

October 5th, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Quo Vadis UN Peace Keeping?

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UN helmet

“Tall trees catch a lotta wind”, the saying goes. With cost of UN peace keeping operations now peaking at US$8 billion per year, no wonder the troubled UN department is front page news (again).

Deploying and supporting its record number of 113,000 staff, the blue helmets came into the press cross-fire (again) due to the most recent debacles in DRC and Darfur where they don’t seem to have any direct positive impact on the peace process.

But one should look at both sides. It is all to easy to blame it on “the UN”, as if it was some piece of soap in a bathtub: difficult to grab, and a generic nuisance. “The UN” does what its memberstates define what it should do. If member states only want a ‘token’ peace force in some country, a ‘token’ it will remain, despite best efforts on the ground.

Two pieces I recently read, at least tried, to see things in perspective. One from the New York Times:

More than a decade after United Nations peacekeepers failed to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica, Bosnia, what many consider the organization’s flagship mission appears to be slouching toward crisis once again, diplomats and other experts say.

The most immediate cause, they say, is a sharp rise in the number of peacekeeping commitments worldwide and a type of “mission creep” that has added myriad nation-building duties to the traditional task of trying to keep enemies apart. The new demands come at a time when member states with advanced armies in particular have become more resistant to committing additional troops or even necessary equipment like helicopters.

Those challenges have only added to a deeper and longstanding problem: the continued lack of clarity about how the United Nations should intervene when its members lack either the military force or the political will — or both — to halt carnage.

“Peacekeeping has been pushed to the wall,” said Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, which is working with the United Nations on reform efforts. “There is a sense across the system that this is a mess — overburdened, underfunded, overstretched.” (Full)

And one from the book “Blood River” by Tim Butcher (more on this book in a later post):

I have seen numerous UN missions around the world, in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and all over the Middle east. Each was castigated by the international media and commentators for being inefficient, bureaucratic and ineffective, but such criticism always misses the point.

Yes, the missions are sloppy and poorly focused, but that is precisely because the international community’s attitude to complicated problems like the collapsing Yugoslavia, or rampaging west African rebels, is sloppy and poorly focused.

When the United Nations Security Council addresses these international problems, the questions it ends up answering is not ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but ‘What is the least we can do?’. UN missions around the world evolve at the pace of the lowest common denominator between the nations of the world, and that common denominator is pretty low when nations with interests as divergent as China and America both hold prominent positions in the UN Security Council.

Picture courtesy genetologisch-onderzoek.nl

Written by Peter

February 16th, 2009 at 7:57 am

Posted in Soapbox

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Thirteen years ago

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Peter in Uganda (1996)

Almost to the day, thirteen years ago, I stepped off a plane in Uganda to start my first posting for a UN humanitarian organisation.

Since I had quit my ‘normal job’, three years before, went on an Antarctic expedition, and worked for the International Red Cross (IFRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in several short term consultancies for two years. But this was my first full time job since three years.

I originally joined as a telecommunications specialist, but went through many different assignments with postings in Kosovo, Pakistan and Dubai before I ended up at the headquarters in Rome.

When I look back at the picture above (I certify I have not worn sandals with white socks for years!), a lot of memories come back. Mostly memories I am very fond of, and tried to reflect in my eBook.

Today, I was reminded of what it was like, thirteen years ago: I got two Emails from people describing how they have been trying to get a job in the humanitarian world. Both of them described their attempts, and up to a certain level showed doubt if ‘they would ever get in’.

Somewhere, today, it was easy to put understand how these people feel. I remember how I found the humanitarian world to be locked by a huge steel door, which was almost impossible to get through. I had the right qualifications, a proven track record and experience. I was motivated, and felt a ‘true humanitarian at heart’. And yet, I could not get a full time job. What was wrong with me?

I kept on sending my resume to a multitude of organisations. And resending them, and resending them. Until one day, someone replied showing at least some level of interest. After a couple of exchanges, I got interviewed – via telephone as I was on mission for the Red Cross in Ivory Coast -, and some time after that, it looked like the steel door was finally opening for me. Four months later, I stepped off that plane in Kampala.

I summarized my experience and tips for aspirant aid workers in what is now one of the most read posts on this blog. Looking at the volume of Emails I get asking for suggestions on opening that “steel door”, I know how many, today, are in the position I was thirteen years ago.

Apart from the hints listed in that post, the only thing I can say is “Don’t give up”. Keep on trying. It took me three years to get in, but thirteen years later, I have not regretted my choice to push that door. And bang it at times. So don’t give up.

More posts on The Road about aidworkers

Written by Peter

February 5th, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Stories

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Global recession and aid: Bad outlook for the poorest.

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Red CrossRemember my post After the global financial crisis comes the global humanitarian crisis?

Well today both the optimists and the pessimists hit the news. Or maybe they are both pessimists.

On one hand the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (said to be the largest humanitarian organisation in the world) is considering cutting staff and shelving projects as it braces for recession-hit donors to slash aid contributions.
It warned of greater social unrest in poor countries as high food prices were compounded by slowing economic growth, job losses and falling income.

They added “It is ‘revolting’ that the US could find $700bn to bail out its financial sector while rich countries continued to fall short of their pledges to raise aid spending to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product.”

During the 1990-1993 downturn, global aid spending fell by a quarter and did not recover to 1992 levels until 2003, the UN added. (Full

On the very same day, the UN asked for $7 billion to fund its humanitarian work around the world in 2009. That is almost double of last year’s appeal. (Full)

The need is greater, but the funding outlook for humanitarian aid is worse than before. The poorest will fall between the cracks of this dilemma.

Picture courtesy PSDTUTS

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Written by Peter

November 19th, 2008 at 4:56 pm

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