"Experience is the comb life gives you after you lose your hair."
I decided to take a moment and step back, just to think for a minute about what I am doing. Though I feel like my experience coming into this is paying off, I also feel that the new experience I'm obtaining is something sort of hoping I'll never need to use again.
In this ever changing situation, I find it challenging to make sure I’m focusing in the right things. You need to make sure that staff are safe. This involves adapting policies according to the circumstances. We have staff that are unable to leave their homes due to the conflict. Are they taking vacation days? What if you have two staff from an area determined to be dangerous, one makes the effort to come but another doesn’t? What if you have staff that are working in a safer area (ex. up country) but want/need to be with families who are living in known dangerous areas)? Staff that have received death threats? Staff who are involved politically? Staff who are posting partisan comments on social media wearing their organization t-shirt? What can we do to improve staff morale? Are staff adequately informed? For those that have vehicles, do they know which roads are safe whether going to work or heading home? Etc.
You need to make sure that our compounds and assets are safe. You need to make sure that you are fulfilling your responsibilities to donors – those that fund everything you are doing. You need to adjust your activities. No large gatherings. Stay out of dangerous areas. Be careful what you say – stay neutral. Is not taking a position considered neutral? Be prepared to take criticism either way.
You need to make sure HQ is fully aware of what is going on given that they provide important support before, during and after crisis. You need to respond to media. You don’t respond to everything but it’s important to make sure that the media stays aware of what is going on. In this situation, the media has played a big role for both sides – inside and outside the country. Be careful what you say; the consequences could be very serious.
You need to monitor logistics. Certain goods and services are no longer available. Inflation is starting to go crazy as it normally does in these situations. Budgets need to be adjusted. Donors need to be contacted. Utilities are irregular. Water can disappear. Do you have back-up? Electricity has been out for over three days in one neighborhood. You can’t afford to run a generator 24/7 so food goes bad in residences. Is phone service working? It’s common in these situations to shut it down to control communication. Do you have back-up communication in place? VHF radios? Satellite phones? Business continuity? Are banks still operating? Can you process payroll? Do you have enough cash on hand? Are there sufficient control mechanisms in place?
All the while we’re looking at programming in response to the crisis rather than hiding under our desks. This further complicates all the above as you pivot towards activities that you design to support the population as the situation in the country deteriorates.
And then there is the reading. One thing that I didn’t anticipate about my job when I started about 9 years ago was how much reading you need to do: reports, proposals, articles, manuals, etc. The security reports and articles on the current situation are endless (I’m much better at scanning than I used to be), exacerbated by the fact that the situation is constantly changing. But it’s critical to gather as much information as possible. Decisions regarding all of the above depend on having a full understanding of what is going on at all times. A bad decision can be very costly.
Add to this a couple hundred emails per day, loads of inter-agency coordination meetings, meetings with ambassadors and other donor representatives, UN, etc. Daily briefings to prepare. To make matters more challenging, as more international staff are evacuated, there are fewer people with whom I can share these responsibilities.
I’m venting, of course. Though it's messier than I would like, I signed up for this and, strangely enough, I still enjoy my job. It’s a wonderful opportunity and most of the time it’s quite fascinating. I have been witness some amazing selflessness, creativity and courage not only recently but over the years. But I do need to take the good with the bad and lately, of course, there’s a lot of bad. You see the investments made in the country by your organization, or the hard work of other organizations, gradually unraveling. People are dying and being shot every day. Hunger and malnutrition, a problem before the crisis, are getting incrementally worse. It can feel quite desperate at times. But abandoning someone when he or she is down is not an option. When I see the commitment and boldness of my Burundian colleagues who are in far worse circumstances than I am, it is humbling. And truly inspiring.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
C. S. Lewis