When Lucy Stoner, head of HR for Care International, flew to Pakistan after last year’s earthquake, her people skills became essential tools for helping to rebuild trust in the devastated community.
As 2005 turned into 2006, the authorities in Pakistan warned that heavy rain and snowfall were badly hampering relief efforts in Kashmir, where three million people were left homeless by a massive earthquake last October, which caused 75,000 deaths.
It was unwelcome news for charity organisations such as Care International, which had done so much to help the relief effort during the aftermath of the disaster in extremely testing circumstances.
But while admitting that the recent bad weather had made “all relief efforts very difficult”, Lucy Stoner, UK head of HR at Care International, insisted that the aid agencies were rising to the challenge – just as her team did in the weeks following 8 October.
When she arrived in Kashmir after the earthquake, Stoner was tasked with recruiting an entire office of employees amid a climate of hefty aftershocks and the threat of riots and kidnapping.
“I was having to recruit people to do a dangerous job where there were many risks, and it made me very fearful,” she told Personnel Today. “There were a huge number of issues to take into account.”
Stoner’s first move was deploying staff on a short-term basis to get the project up and running. “You have to prioritise and ask really dumb questions like ‘what exactly are you doing?’,” she said. “It can be tricky, so you need confidence.”
Care International needed to recruit around 50 locals who could mobilise the community and build shelters. But at times the pool of people Stoner had to choose from became very small, as she had to find men who spoke Pashtu or Urdu and understood the terrain and the culture.
And with everyone keen to focus on emergency relief, recruiting experts in areas such as distribution, logistics and procurement was difficult, Stoner said.
“With people dying, rarely does HR stuff feel important,” she said. “You have to get people to think laterally.”
Because a lot of local families had been affected, the usual working processes went out of the window, Stoner admitted. “Day-to-day becomes important as people don’t want to leave the job,” she said. “The adrenaline is part of these situations – the challenge is to get them to slow down.”
Another major challenge, particular for someone with a firm belief in diversity, was dealing with cultural issues – hiring a Western woman, for instance, to work in some areas of the Allai Valley could have caused a riot.
“As a white European woman, I didn’t have the freedom to act as I would in the UK,” Stoner said. “It would not fit into the culture. You have to be mindful – to behave in a certain way can be counter-productive. I found quickly that I needed to work through the nationals with interviewing and negotiating.”
And it didn’t end there. “There were many issues to take into account, especially possible conflict between the survivors of the earthquake, who mistrusted the government and the West, fearing they would not receive the help they needed as part of some plot,” Stoner said. “Fortunately, Care International is well trusted, but things were still hard.”
Despite all these difficulties, Stoner was still inspired by the work and would go “like a shot” if anything on that scale happened again.
“You need people in place to deal with an emergency as soon as it happens,” Stoner said. “Having the right staff to do it is one of the most important things.”