Q&A: Phil Connors on leadership and training needs for the humanitarian sector

Phil Connors, director of the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, at the Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference in Melbourne on April 26. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

Leadership in the humanitarian sector is identified as a limitation and a problem that needs to be addressed — this was the message from Phil Connors, director of the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, to the audience of the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference in Melbourne between April 26 and 28.

It has been an ongoing problem identified in numerous reports since 2011. With humanitarian crises increasing at the same time as donor country focus moves to inward facing politics, it is a time for dramatic shifts in leadership approaches for the humanitarian sphere.

Speaking with Devex, Connor discussed the growing demand for leadership research and training and directions for both the center and the humanitarian sector — including the development of a new Graduate Certificate for Humanitarian Health. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

The center has grown rapidly over the past 18 months from a staff of four — what demand has there been from the humanitarian sector facilitating this growth?

There is far more recognition that capacity development is needed. There is a lot of really great stuff that happens in organizations — it’s just that so much of it is siloed. One of the big things was the siloed nature of training — people would do one day training in WASH that is not recognized or translated to anything else. And this limits the mobility of the workforce.

Part of the growth has been about research that informs and fills in those gaps. Another part of the growth we are seeing is that when you start to talk to people passionately about the humanitarian situation in the world, people get really excited.

The IKEA Foundation funds our leadership program, and has done so for almost three years, and we also now have GlaxoSmithKline who have stepped forward to fund a humanitarian health graduate certificate. Part of that funding is for setting up the course, which we do in conjunction with the School of Nursing and Midwifery. But we also recognize the need for teaching to be informed by research, and have PhD students and scholarships available.

The other thing we are focusing on, that seems to pay great dividend, is that notion that we will only ever work in collaboration — we don’t go off and do things on our own. Research we are doing on localization [of humanitarian response] in the Pacific is a collaboration between individual local consultants and organizations including the Humanitarian Advisory Group, Fiji National University and the Tonga Community Development Trust. This seems to be something that is relatively unique, especially coming out of a university, as academics like to do a lot of work on their own.

Phil Connors: Director, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

Can you tell us more about the graduate certificate in humanitarian health — what do humanitarian organization or health workers find that is missing in knowledge and experience, that the course aims to assist with?

There is an academic who has done some work with returned nurses who had helped out with Australian Medical Assistance Teams or with Médecins Sans Frontières or one of the health related agencies, asking them about what they found when they came back. What they said was: We didn’t know what we were stepping into.

Doctors, nurses and surgeons will come out of a very clinical well-functioning, well-resourced environment, such as Australia. They hook up with AUSMAT and do a little bit of training about what it might be like. But then to actually go and be dropped into the nether regions of Fiji — for Cyclone Winston, for instance — or for others who work with MSF in conflict zones, they were going in there, and coming back saying, “we were just not prepared.”

One of the examples that was given was someone coming back, walking back into a supermarket, and there being so much stuff around. All the shelves are loaded, and there is too much choice. How do we settle back into that?

Also coming back to their normal practice from a low resource environment. They come back in and they’re seeing patients with something like a sore toe that they could have dealt with very easily by themselves.

“How do you look after yourself? What is it about the mental prep that enables you to survive mentally, emotionally and physically within that environment?”

The graduate certificate is about preparing people, and also offering people that have gone and have come back the ability to try and locate what they’ve done within that humanitarian understanding.

Hopefully we are going to get people before they go, who are interested in going. And we can prepare them and say what is it about humanitarian understanding — what is it about the principles, the ethics that then underpin all the humanitarian work, what are the sorts of environments, what are the sorts of things that create the emergencies you will be going to.

And how do you look after yourself? What is it about the mental prep that enables you to survive mentally, emotionally and physically within that environment?

Even if you are there for a relative short turnaround of two weeks or four weeks, depending on the context, that could be a huge shock to the system if you have never had to work in that situation before.

Localization, and the importance of bringing in local governments, groups and individuals to provide leadership in humanitarian response has been an important theme of the conference. What are the drivers for this growing discussion?

This has been happening for a while, especially in the Pacific. There are a couple of things that are driving it.

Firstly, within protracted or conflict situations — when you look at Syria, Yemen and South Sudan — where organizations can’t get in. They are having to do remote management of staff.

“Affected populations and communities should be able to have as much control as they can over what is happening within their communities and to themselves.”

There is also a growing recognition over the last number of years that the first responders are not the humanitarians who might fly from Australia to Fiji or Vanuatu — they're there within 72 hours. The first responders in any situation are the local people. They are there, they are living it and they don’t get a chance to leave.

They need to be able to own what is happening within that response.

Not only are they the first responders, they are also the people that ultimately have to live with the outcome.

For me, it’s a no-brainer. They should have as much of a say as possible — affected populations and communities should be able to have as much control as they can over what is happening within their communities and to themselves.

There were some very interesting conversations in the Red Cross last week, where we were doing one of our visioning exercises. They were saying, “really it is not about localizing — it is about re-localizing.” People in the Pacific, for instance, have been dealing with earthquakes, cyclones and droughts for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s only been since the Second World War that there have been major responses coming in external to that. So this is about taking it back to where it has always been, and recognizing its value.

The donor challenge has been discussed in relation to a challenge for localization — humanitarian organizations concerned that donors are less likely to give money if they believe it is going to communities rather than the traditional and publicly promoted international response. Should the public understanding of a humanitarian response change to promote the importance of localization in a response?

Everybody wants to get their brand out there, because that is what gets the money flowing. Part of it is about educating the public. Part of it is about acknowledging what is already happening.

“The first responders in any situation are the local people. They are there, they are living it and they don’t get a chance to leave.”

Already, there is a growing situation where people, rather than giving to a well-known organization, are community-to-community giving. Or they are individual-to-community giving — people build a relationship with a community in an affected place and they then give directly to that community.

There is a cynicism that has grown in the donor public around how much money is going to pay for an organization to exist, and how much is getting to people at the pointy end.

But there is a notion of education — even though Australian dollars, for instance, are going into a response, it is better and far more effective to do that via a local organization that knows the context, that knows the language, that knows the political situation, that knows the locals — to do that, and have that recognized as being as valuable as sending an Australian to do the same thing.

From the work the research the center is doing, where do you expect to be the changes and challenges for leadership and response facing the humanitarian sector?

It is hard to predict where that is going to go.

Given the demands on the system and the political climate, the next five to ten years are going to be a very interesting and potentially difficult time for the sector.

I think there is recognition that the system cannot keep going the way it is. It’s unsustainable, both in the way it works with people and its efficiency — it just cannot accommodate all the things that are happening and all the things that are likely to happen.

It’s a time of both crisis and opportunity.

Crisis because the system is under extreme strain — limited resources and huge amounts of work. But that is also creating opportunity to rethink how we do it, why we do it, and part of that is how we lead.

It’s about expanding out that understanding of who should be involved, what sort of leadership is going to be there. And for us, how can we make sure that the leadership is as applicable to the context and to meeting the needs of affected populations as possible.

Devex is the media partner for the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference. Follow discussion from the conference on Twitter using #bethechange

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.