Forward planning helps charity with tsunami response

Optimism was thin on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami disaster in South East Asia last Boxing Day. But the dedication and hard work of volunteers and staff at aid agencies means people in the affected areas are beginning to see glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, according to those most closely involved.

Leonie Lonton, international HR policy director for Save the Children, has just returned from the devastated province of Aceh in Indonesia.
In an exclusive interview with Personnel Today, she revealed that the high level of public donations have enabled agencies to move swiftly to the second of their three-phase response to the disaster.

“In the early days, we had people who were sleeping on office floors and anywhere they could find space,” she said. “Now we have found housing and have put in place a ‘rest and restoration’ schedule. There is a kind of growing optimism here.”

Initially, the aid effort was all about emergency relief. Now it is increasingly about rehabilitation with a growing emphasis on managing staff who will help with the longer term regeneration of the entire tsunami-hit region over the next five years, Lonton said.

“Moving so quickly to a longer term strategy might seem strange but it is important from an HR point of view because we are there for the long term,” she explained. “We also need to plan because we are working in a different market.”

About 1,600 people applied for jobs in the six weeks immediately after the tsunami struck last Boxing Day. More than 100 national staff were recruited. At first, successful applicants were taken on for three months. Now they are more likely to be recruited on one- or two-year contracts.

A leadership development programme, which has focused on the charity’s senior managers across the world, has also paid dividends. It has given people the management ability to cope with the disaster and those managers are now passing on their skills to local people, Lonton said.

Emergency response personnel are deployed alongside local staff to train new recruits as the rebuilding of the region continues.

“One of the skills we have been looking for is the ability to build local capacity, so we are really looking for people who are ultimately going to do themselves out of a job,” Lonton said.

In many parts of Indonesia, children accounted for more than half of the fatalities in the disaster. This means the proportion of parents who have been reunited with missing youngsters has been low – something that is particularly poignant for a charity working with children.

Managing local staff has brought further challenges. The disaster covered such a wide area, and local employees helping others deal with the psychological trauma of the tsunami are often fighting their own psychological battles.

Because many people lost everything they owned, employee selection has had to go back to basics – especially when vetting people to work with children.

“We have stringent child protection policies and yet we are recruiting people who haven’t even got an address, let alone any other paperwork.”

But there are ways of meeting this particular challenge too, said Lonton. “This has raised recruitment issues, so we are asking more questions at the interview stage to ensure that we recruit the right people while remaining true to the Save the Children ethos.”

Lonton acknowledges that it is an unusual situation. But Save the Children has managed to recruit people from across the entire tsunami area and those who have joined the organisation have praised the charity’s team ethos, she said.

HR stands up to the test

Robust HR structures gave Save the Children a head start in the effort to rebuild South East Asia following the tsunami, according to local aid agency staff.

Recruiting experienced people was made easier because the organisation had already set up the right personnel structures, said Thailand-based Mark Capaldi, Save the Children’s regional office co-ordinator for the South East Asia and Pacific Region.

“Having strong HR systems and procedures before the emergency hit meant we could quickly compile relevant and comprehensive job descriptions and vacancy announcements for the new emergency positions and circulate them among the key regional HR networks and publications,” he said.

“In Thailand, there are already very strong and capable local charities that, if appropriately supported, can respond well to the disaster. The recruitment needs for Save the Children in Thailand have, therefore, been very specific.”

This includes finding staff that have particular technical skills – for example experience in psychosocial care and protection – as well as people that have experience of capacity building that can support local partners.

Over the past few years, Save the Children has built up an Asia Emergency Response Team from within its existing staff. This has enabled the organisation to get qualified people on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster strikes.

“Keeping this roster of staff up to date, with sufficient numbers, and back-stopped with regular training and learning opportunities, remains a key organisational priority,” said Capaldi.

Robust structures

Robust HR structures gave Save the Children a head start in the effort to rebuild South East Asia following the tsunami, according to local aid agency staff.

Recruiting experienced people was made easier because the organisation had already set up the right personnel structures, said Thailand-based Mark Capaldi, Save the Children’s regional office co-ordinator for the South East Asia and Pacific Region.

“Having strong HR systems and procedures before the emergency hit meant we could quickly compile relevant and comprehensive job descriptions and vacancy announcements for the new emergency positions and circulate them among the key regional HR networks and publications,” he said.

“In Thailand, there are already very strong and capable local charities that, if appropriately supported, can respond well to the disaster. The recruitment needs for Save the Children in Thailand have, therefore, been very specific.”

This includes finding staff that have particular technical skills – for example experience in psychosocial care and protection – as well as people that have experience of capacity building that can support local partners.

Over the past few years, Save the Children has built up an Asia Emergency Response Team from within its existing staff. This has enabled the organisation to get qualified people on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster strikes.

“Keeping this roster of staff up to date, with sufficient numbers, and back-stopped with regular training and learning opportunities, remains a key organisational priority,” said Capaldi.



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