Lessons from the Third World

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As you read this over your morning coffee, think of Nicola Adams. At 24, this public-health engineer has been working seven days a week in 35C (95F) temperatures in Kukes and Tirana. During the Balkan War, she was part of a team which planned the roads, water, latrines and sewers in the tent cities lining the Albanian border.

As a member of RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) Nicola has taken leave from her job with engineering conglomerate Ove Arup Partnership. Firms like Arup that have seconded staff, on unpaid or subsidised leave, to Albania are not just being altruistic. Assignments in hardship locations overseas provide their staff with an unmatchable level of experience.

"Relief work is by definition a team environment," says Jo da Silva, chairman of RedR."There'll be a group of you from different aid agencies; you have to work out how you fit together in order to take things forward." Ms da Silva worked for 10 weeks in the Kagenyi and Murongo camps in Tanzania during the Rwandan civil war. She learned skills there which stood her in good stead when she joined Arup, a company which participates in construction projects all over the world.

In Tanzania Ms da Silva ran a workforce of 200 refugee labourers. "I had been trained in house construction in a certain way but had to to learn from the workforce how to make houses from eucalyptus and bamboo."That experience of surmounting cross-cultural differences wasn't dissimilar, she believes, from working on Hong Kong's new airport for Arup with architects Foster Associates and Chinese engineers whose training and background was very different from hers.

The enormous corporate advantage to be had from letting staff work overseas is one of the selling points of the Business Partnership Scheme of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). The scheme asks companies to place staff on short-term business-development assignments in the Third World. Although the first placements will not be announced until autumn, the interest shown by companies across the business spectrum has been remarkable, says Matthew Hall, VSO's director of communications.

Endorsing the scheme, Adair Turner, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, singled out the advantage to UK companies of gaining in-depth, hands-on experience in emerging markets. Working in a multi- cultural environment, able to make decisions informed by grass-roots experience demands new skills - in setting up teams, working in testing and unstructured situations, and using ingenuity and resourcefulness to keep an enterprise going.

Operating outside a corporate environment can increase one's sense of responsibility. "Something I learned in Tanzania," says Ms da Silva, "is to look after yourself. As aid workers we tried to come together each night and relax over a beer." Currently running a team designing the structure of the Portrait Gallery extension, she'll suddenly invite her staff to lunch. As they go, they'll spare a thought, no doubt, for Nicola who, as the Balkan war appears to be ending, may soon be home again.