The last humanitarian response leader

Nigel Fisher visits the debris removal project in Nerette, Port-au-Prince along with UNDP Administrator Helen Clark and Regional Director Jessica Faieta. Identifying top-level humanitarian aid talent requires sharpening recruitment. Photo by: UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND 

Three things allowed Nigel Fisher to rise to the top of leadership in emergency response: his optimism, his sense of humor and his balance of authoritativeness and likability.

All three, coincidentally, have more to do with his innate personality than with his international relations education or the extensive experience he’s gained in crisis contexts with various United Nations agencies — though both helped propel his career to heights the likes of president and CEO of UNICEF Canada and head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, as well as leadership stints in Afghanistan, Mozambique and Yemen, to name a few.

“Personalities drive success much more than organizations and institutions,” the former U.N. assistant secretary-general told Devex. “When there’s a problem, people think of the organization ... changing the structure … but that probably won’t fix it.”

It always comes down to the people, said Fisher, who currently serves as senior adviser on humanitarian policy and complex crises for the aid organization health and effectiveness consulting firm KonTerra Group and chief operating officer for Allied BioScience Inc. Canada, a company that works to combat the spread of infection through antimicrobial coating technology.

Such a reliance on the right personality, though, only compounds the already overwhelming challenges of identifying top-level humanitarian aid talent. The sector has attracted criticism, mostly from within its own ranks, for drawing too heavily on the same limited pool of proven leaders, hoarding rather than sharing talent and doing both with a certain short-sightedness inherent in an industry mired in urgency.

It’s a trend the U.N. has made a concerted effort to reverse through talent-sharing initiatives housed under the “leadership” pillar of its 2011 Transformative Agenda and a shortcoming organizations like Mercy Corps and Save the Children are working to remedy through outside consultants and a heavy focus on training new talent.

As leaders find themselves spending more time in protracted, chronic complex crises, groups will end up in a tug of war over the last humanitarian response leader unless they band together to sharpen recruitment and widen the talent-finding net.

A shallow bench

Fisher’s first dozen years with the U.N. were in traditional development settings, but a post in Mozambique during its brutal 16-year civil war had him rethinking his strengths.

“The immediacy of crises and emergency appeals to me,” Fisher told Devex. “I can get things done, and the impatience in me found a home in crisis and response.”

He was posted to Jordan with UNICEF in 1990, arriving the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; Jordan suddenly had millions of refugees on its doorstep, yet Fisher excelled and began to develop a network, then kept getting called on by the U.N.

“I wanted to head up an emergency response, so the head of UNICEF said “you asked for it, off you go” — to Rwanda in 1994,” Fisher said.

He’d carved himself a career in emergency response, and it’s one he’d continue in a dozen countries for three decades.

Fisher isn’t alone in getting tapped time and again. The personality and will it takes to excel under such conditions isn’t common. When someone has the talent, they’re in high demand — and jealously guarded by whichever organization nabbed them, according to Claire Messina, senior coordinator of the Humanitarian Leadership Strengthening Unit at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The greatest challenge in hiring and building great teams in the field isn’t so different from, say, an office in Washington, D.C. — selecting capable, talented people who also might be able to reflect a view different than your own. The difference is that there is often a much smaller pool to draw from for emergency response — think kiddie pool versus ocean.

When you add requirements such as language proficiency, experience with a particular context or management capacity, the available number of talented individuals dwindles, though the sector has grown overall.

The bench of humanitarian coordinators, the senior-most United Nations official in a country experiencing a humanitarian emergency, for example, is not deep enough, Messina said — and it’s not only due to the rarity of skill set: “It’s because U.N. and non-U.N. organizations, understandably enough, want to keep their best leaders for themselves instead of nominating them for systemwide positions,” she said.

When Messina spoke with Devex, she was looking for a deputy humanitarian coordinator for the Central African Republic, for example, and “finding no one.” Agencies and NGOs alike suffer from a shortage of highly qualified French speakers, and they’re hanging on to them.

Humanitarian response leadership is also about confidence and risk taking, persistence and personal resilience, said Michael Bowers, senior director of strategic response and global emergencies for Mercy Corps, who began his career in Kosovo.

“It’s tolerance of ambiguity,” he said. “We get a lot of people stewing in that for so long — in South Sudan, in Syria, surrounded by a bombardment of challenges. It’s not just thinking quickly, it’s something that’s protracted years … with no end in sight.”

That “durability of solution thinking,” as Bowers described it, inevitably gives out; it’s becoming harder to meet the increasing demand for seasoned and flexible team members who are available and willing to deploy repeatedly. Often the age someone has matured as a leader is also when they want to take fewer risks and start a family, Messina noted.

When pressed, people in hiring positions tend to fall back on what’s familiar and what’s comfortable, but “the worst hire you’re going to make is someone who sounds familiar but at the end of the day can’t do the job,” said Allan Freedman, adviser for public-private partnerships and innovation for the International Rescue Committee.

What you do want is a diverse skill set that’s tested by the context you’re working in — which can lead right back to an over-reliance on leaders who have already been cycling in and out of crises for years, a dangerous practice when considering the potential for post traumatic stress.

Widen the net

If the first step is admitting you have a problem, the humanitarian sector is deep into recovery. OCHA has been working to build a larger pool of humanitarian aid talent, Save the Children and partners have launched an institute dedicated to training future leaders and iNGOs like Mercy Corps are increasingly looking outside the sector for inspiration.

“The fact that it’s a difficult job for us as a community is not an excuse for not being more proactive and intentful in building a new generation of leaders,” Messina told Devex, adding that there has been “tremendous” support from donors and the humanitarian community in righting the problem.

Already Messina, originally directing most of her effort on selecting the right coordinators, has now turned her sights on proactively identifying and attracting potential candidates to the coordinator pipeline through the Humanitarian Coordination Pool. By the end of summer 2015, 55 percent of humanitarian coordinators will be drawn from the pool, as compared to 13 percent in 2009.

OCHA launched the Building Inter-Agency Field Leaders pilot program in 2014, where high potential women at the P5 level are seconded for one year to another agency to increase their leadership skills and expand their network. Four women have been deployed so far and a second cohort of participants will be deployed in early 2016.

Several INGOs have also made an attempt to widen the net — of their own thinking of who might be a good fit and of their hiring techniques.

In March, with Save the Children at the helm, representatives from donor agencies, humanitarian organizations, the academic and the private sector launched the Humanitarian Leadership Academy. The cross-sector initiative aims to train more than 100,000 aid workers and volunteers across 50 countries who can be tapped to respond to a crisis situation in their own countries or neighboring countries within 72 hours of an emergency.

Still, though the “pool” of leaders has increased, it hasn’t kept pace with the duration, frequency and complexity of emergencies the world is experiencing, Bowers said. At Mercy Corps, he tries to stay open-minded about candidates who could challenge their decentralized culture.

If a potential hire comes from a centralized organization that typically has more directives from headquarters, “I’m not afraid to be looking at this person thinking maybe this type of environment is so chaotic and fluid that we need someone with that firmer background,” Bowers said.

The organization also invests in future leaders through their Entrepreneurial Leadership Program based on the principles that drive both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises: critical thinking, business analysis and emotional intelligence. And in order to look up from the constant logistical and operational pressure of emergencies, Mercy Corps occasionally embeds people who don’t sit in the culture of the organization or partner with well-known technology firms from Silicon Valley to further expand the leadership base.

Increasingly, the humanitarian community is internalizing lessons learned from private industry and adopting key tenets of adaptive management in an effort to attract talented individuals who might otherwise choose professions outside of the humanitarian sphere.

Complex crises aren’t letting up, but neither, it seems, is the humanitarian aid sector’s drive to ensure there are enough nuanced, skilled leaders ready to respond.

Devex plans to continue this coverage, so now is your chance to weigh in. What other initiatives are being hatched to address the shortage of top-level talent in humanitarian response? Please leave your comments below.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.