Spotlight on… humanitarian aid

The aftermath of natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Java, demonstrates the huge logistical constraints faced by humanitarian aid workers co-ordinating a response.

Whether it’s aid workers for charitable organisations or employees from the commercial sector volunteering their expertise, these ‘humanitarian logisticians’ are the unsung heroes responsible for getting relief to victims in affected areas.

But since the circumstances of each crisis are so unusual and extreme, the services they might expect from a formal HR function – such as training and career management – tend to be ad hoc.

“In dealing with any logistical situation, you would normally have the ability to sit and think about what you’re going to do; you know how many goods or people you’re going to transport,” says Dorothea Carvalho, director of professional development at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). “But in a humanitarian aid situation, you have a great number of things that can’t be planned.”

Now a new qualification will offer employers operating in the sector the ability to benchmark their workers’ skills, the end result being a more structured approach to aid work. In developing the new Certificate in Humanitarian Logistics, the CILT has worked in partnership with the US-based Fritz Institute, which specialises in addressing the operational challenges in delivering aid, as well as aid organisations themselves.

The qualification will ensure that those already in the sector are working to a common standard while also providing a route into the profession for new entrants. The qualification will also enable HR to take a more formalised approach to career development in the sector – a need that applies equally to employers sending staff on voluntary sabbaticals to areas in need of humanitarian aid.

Make placements work

“You can’t just parachute experts in and expect them to be effective,” says Carvalho, adding that employers should take a structured approach to ensure the placement not only ties in with their corporate social responsibility agenda, but provides personal and professional development for the employee as well.

Third-party logistics provider Wincanton, for example, provides volunteers for the aid organisation Trans­aid, which works to improve transport management in developing countries. The development can be more personal than technical, but it still meets a business need, says group development manager David Cartwright.

There is also a role for HR in ensuring the ‘home’ office provides all support possible. Wincanton volunteers working in Sri Lanka following the Asian tsunami in 2004 were able to draw on business development modelling information back in the UK, which they accessed remotely via e-mail.

“To send [staff] into those situations where they don’t have a lot of support, the people skills are important,” says Cartwright. “It’s a lot to do with influencing people and overcoming difficult problems.”

Making aid placements deliver

  • Ensure placements have career development potential as well as delivering technical expertise to relief efforts.
  • Staff going on secondment should be the right people with the right outlook – highly motivated achievers.
  • Their career must be at the right stage to take time out, and they should be identified as having future potential in the company.
  • The business should provide whatever technical support possible to back up those on secondment.

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