graduate plus: What you don't know can hurt you

Young managers heading overseas should be warned they are rarely given enough information before leaving, says Joanna Gibbon
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The Independent Online
When I arrived in Zagreb last July to work for the International Federation of Red Cross Societies, I was astonished to find I had a staff of eight and a smart office. The image of a single typewriter and a telephone in a tiny office instantly evaporated; this was laptops, Internet and e-mail. After the long briefings in Britain and Geneva, I knew much about the operations and the political situation in Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia - the countries I was to cover as information delegate - but the staff was never mentioned.

It appears I am not alone. A report published last week, funded by the ODA with help from the British Red Cross, Save the Children UK, the International Health Exchange and Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief, suggests many aid workers feel they were given inadequate information before setting out.

Paul Emes, international personnel manager at the British Red Cross, agrees that all is not perfect. "Those who are recruiting do not necessarily have in-depth knowledge of the programmes unless they have visited the country recently. And that's a heck of a job: we have 101 delegates working in 37 countries at the moment." One recent innovation is the country information sheet, written by individual delegations. It is part of a profile of each country which a prospective employee can read before deciding whether to take the job.

When asked how open the information would be (for instance, would it mention Croatia's prevailing post-Communist and entrenched chauvinist culture, which certainly affected the manner in which the local staff worked?) Mr Emes pauses.

"It is difficult. We are selling jobs to people, we have a bums-on-seats pressure, and we want to send out high-quality delegates. But when it comes to an emergency, where the work is highly dangerous, I would advocate putting people off. However black we paint a war zone here in London, it will definitely be worse out there," he says.

The report, Room for Improvement: The Management and Support of Relief and Development Workers, also found that a major cause of stress among overseas workers is relationships with colleagues and poor management. "It was quite a revelation," says Mr Emes. And almost in anticipation of this finding, the British Red Cross has radically changed its own selection procedure during the past 12 months.

"There was a saying going round that people were employed for their technical skills and dismissed for their interpersonal skills. The failures always seemed connected to lack of team skills, failure to communicate, inability to co-operate or lack of personal care, such as exhaustion or heavy drinking from over-working," says Mr Emes.

Whereas I had an in-depth interview, lasting about one and a half hours, with two personnel officers - which is designed to test technical and professional ability - prospective candidates now spend the whole day with the organisation. After the morning interview, the afternoon is spent participating in an observed group discussion and then, still in the group, building a Red Cross cargo plane out of Lego.

"It's all about teamwork, communication, co-operation, analytical skills and problem solving. It's a scream to watch but incredibly revealing: there might be a senior surgeon, a nurse, an HGV driver, a mechanic and a warehouse worker all together. People standing on their dignity are no good out in the field," says Mr Emes.

Another plan, not yet in operation, is a single set of selection criteria for all delegates throughout the national societies. These will include being able to speak either French or English, being aged over 25 and having a driving licence. After that there would be specific details such as the finance delegate having an accountancy qualification.

Before and after a mission the British Red Cross now sends workers for a thorough health screening. Although there are no psychological tests beforehand, doctors are sensitive to vulnerability factors such as recent bereavement, divorce or separation, which might make candidates unsuitable for such work. After a mission, there are opportunities to discuss stress and exhaustion with a trained psychologist. Post-traumatic stress disorder apparently affects very few returning delegates: mostly they are suffering from burn-out and need a holiday.

With humanitarian aid now commanding massive amounts of money, the sector - as the report recommends - is in acute need of its professional body to ensure a level of professionalism and accountability. Since the British Red Cross receives 5,000 unsolicited applications for jobs overseas every year, it cannot happen soon enough.