Oxfam’s Brian Lund on distance management in East Asia

Leaders in international development respond to multiple and, at times, competing demands on a daily basis – from management and staff, for instance, as well as beneficiaries and partners.

Add to that the need to coordinate across cultures and time zones, and it’s easy to see why keeping a global development organization well-oiled and moving forward requires a combination of skills, experience, guts, passion and, not least of all, a sense of humor.

Brian Lund, director of Oxfam America’s East Asia regional office, has helped lead his organization’s humanitarian and development work in seven countries for the last five years. He is constantly on the move, but Devex caught up with him via Skype as he made a pit stop at Oxfam America’s regional base in Phnom Penh.

Here, Lund shares what has helped him arrive at his current position, how he keeps instructions from Oxfam America’s head office in Boston in sync with realities on the ground, and how he recruits local staff.

How important was networking in landing your current job?

The starting point for me was that I actually built my skill sets, my experience, my ability. I’ve worked in agriculture and natural resource management in Australia for nearly 20 years before I came to Southeast Asia in any substantial way. I kept in contact of course, but I set about making sure my skill set was appropriate from a very long way back.

When I came to Cambodia – before that, I was in Indonesia – I started in a small way. And yes, you have to do a lot of work in terms of building networks and such, but not only because it will improve your career prospects. But it certainly does, particularly if you’re starting from a consultancy background and a career of that nature.

But you’re working in a different environment. It’s ludicrous to think that you have all the insights needed to actually help anything in those environments. So, it’s a question of making sure you connect with people simply so that you’re actually on the right page to start with. That is quite critical.

I think what’s important in whichever direction you go is that you take the time to actually understand as much as you possibly can how all the actors in that particular sphere are engaging. So, if I was talking about public health, I would want to know how all the implementing agencies in a country in, say, HIV – what they’re doing, where they are, who the development partners are that are supporting them – speaking to them where possible, but at least checking websites to know what their strategies are. So, that networking aspect is absolutely critical.

Somebody that comes to my office now that says that they’re interested to work in the region, or in a country, if I can see that they’ve done a good deal of investment in understanding the environment that they’re talking about, that’s pretty good. And if they’ve got experience to boot, obviously, that’s much better.

But if you’re coming cold and saying you want to change your lifestyle and all and say, and think, “this is where I want to be” – that’s about you, not about the environment that you want to work in.

How do you reconcile instructions coming from Oxfam America’s head office with what you think needs to be done on the ground?

Actually, it’s an easy answer because when you’re in senior management, one of the things that are really important is to recognize that your modus operandi is distance management. So, in order to do distance management well, you have to have very good understanding of what your head office is thinking and doing: what risks they’re concerning themselves with, what resources they can pool together for you, and how quickly calls can be managed so that you can move on decisions and stuff, particularly risky decisions.

The connection with your head office has to be as strong as you can possibly make it. That sort of internal communication often is sort of left to one side. For this office here, because we sometimes do need to react quickly, we work pretty hard on making sure that connections stay strong.

So all of my senior management, for example, use Skype. So I can see two or three names as I’m talking to you now. Some of them must be doing field right now because its 10-12 hours away. My head office is in Boston (USA).

Years ago – it wasn’t so long ago, I suppose – communications was much more difficult. But now it’s so easy to be literally on the phone with each other at a moment’s notice. Long-distance communication, that internal communication, that distance management stuff, there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t be able to keep on top of that.

What solutions have you found to the challenge of hiring, training and maintaining local staff?

As an entire organization, all of the Oxfams, wherever we possibly can, recruit locally. My team is almost exclusively regional nationals. Unfortunately for Oxfam, I’m the exception (laughs). So I’m getting myself in a lot of trouble here.

It can be challenging. And that’s one of the roles of [international non-governmental organizations], in that you can bring international expertise as an organization, and obviously as individuals, into an environment where that expertise might be lacking. But then the role of an INGO, too, to be mindful of here, is not simply to deliver a service or to come out with an output. It should always be mindful that its role also is to make sure that competency is imparted locally.

So at some point in the day, you don’t have the international NGOs in a developing country. There’s local civil society, government and private sector who will absorb whatever competencies are there and you turn around twice and realize that, “OK, I don’t actually need to be here anymore as an organization, let’s start thinking about moving this investment.”

So when it comes to staff, what we do is recruit locally. And we always invest in the development of our staff. So that if, for whatever reason they move on from Oxfam, they’ve got this skill set that they can take with them that’s going to move them along in their career path or whatever they’re doing. They’re not just staff to be used in an assembly chain for 12 months or two years or something.

In Southeast Asia, as an example, we’ve got this fantastic base of young professionals coming out now. So the whole complaint that it’s hard to find the right person is going to wear a little bit thin now. If any organization is prepared to make that investment, they’ll find the right people in-country these days.

About the author

  • Che de los Reyes

    As a senior staff writer, Che focuses on international development breaking news coverage as well as interviews and features. Prior to joining Devex, Che handled communications for local and international development NGOs and government institutions in the Philippines.