Trust, patience, relationship-building skills: 3 must-haves for remote managers

Oxfam responds to the increasing population of refugees in Dadaab, Kenya by ensuring a steady supply of clean water in the camp. Managing humanitarian deliveries despite the distance, remote managers work with partners to set up targets, budgets, distributions and work plans to make each project a success. Photo by: Jo Harrison / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND 

During his nearly four years with Oxfam, Victor de la Torre Sans devoted much of his time to questioning and confirming what was going on with his projects in South Sudan and Somalia. His concern wasn’t traceable to an out-of-the-ordinary number of challenges — although there were many — but to the simple fact that he wasn’t actually on the ground to see and speak to stakeholders himself.

In both countries, Oxfam had decided that de la Torre Sans would operate the programs from afar — from Nairobi, Kenya. He helped build a remote management system for Somalia that “paid off largely once al-Shaabab expelled all international nongovernmental organizations in 2008,” he said, and did the same later for South Sudan.  

Managing humanitarian aid effort is a challenge in itself, but remote management ushers in an entirely new set of uncertainties and questions about what’s happening on the ground — and from a managerial perspective, it raises questions of what type of manager might be a good fit for the job.

It’s not uncommon for humanitarian operations in conflict or unstable areas to rely on this mode of operation. In the context of the protracted Somali crisis, for example, the past few years have seen expatriate and senior staff increasingly manage Somalia aid operations from Nairobi. In fact some officials are optimistic that remote management and monitoring — which entails a physical separation of international staff from the communities for which they work, ranging from full oversight by relocated international staff to a complete delegation of authority to local aid workers — can help continue oversight of foreign assistance programs in conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan.

But it was certainly a test of de la Torre Sans’ decision-making, trust and relationship building skills, he explained.

Devex spoke with this aid worker further to find out what some of the major challenges were — and what skills he learned from the remote management position that he still calls on today.

Remote management carries with it a high level of risk and uncertainty. How did you deal with this doubt?

There are a lot of questions you have to ask yourself along the way. Is the information I’m getting correct? Do I actually have enough information to take the remote management position? Especially if you work in humanitarian aid, there is no room for error. If you don’t succeed in delivering water to a camp, for example, the results are instant: People have no water.

The other level of doubt is the quality of your results. Maybe I am delivering water, but is it really where it’s most needed? I’m not there, I cannot see what’s going on. Are we doing the right thing? Who is working on the ground? How do I get information on the ground? How do I make sure that my people are coordinated with others on the ground?

You have to accept that there is a degree of risk you’ll have to manage and there will be a margin of error you have to tolerate.

Imagine we have the budget for water, for example, and we’re told that 1,000 liters of water by truck will cost $5 per liter, but we can’t be sure our partners are buying water at that price. Maybe they are getting it for $3, not $5. When you think about it, maybe they are making a profit, but you aren’t there to check. So what choice do you have? Instead, you have to consider whether $5 per liter is a fair price considering the cost of fuel, distance and lorry? If my price of $5 is fair, then it’s time to move on. I don’t have the choice to go there and change things.

Of course if I was in full control, I’d go to the water source, the fuel distributor and the lorry provider to work out best price I could, but in the case of remote management, you’re not there. If you find something that’s fair, take it.

You mentioned the importance of partnerships. What is it like to lean on a partner organization so heavily when it comes to remote management situations?

In remote management positions, partnerships are even more important than usual. Your partners are the ones who are there for you. You might have a team of local people on the ground, hired and directed by you. But in most cases, you’re going to partner with a local organization, and there is much more success with partners on the ground.

If you hire a project manager in-country yourself, there can be a lack of trust. You might meet the person for a few days, then head back to Nairobi. Suddenly you’re wondering: What is he doing? Maybe there’s no Internet there for a day, or one day you call and he’s not there — maybe for good reason, maybe not. It’s not a healthy relationship.

But with an established partner, you set up targets, work plans, budgets, distributions of responsibilities and the entire process can be a much more project-oriented.

For Somalia, of course the partners already were grouped in a consortium and held regular meetings, which are helpful to attend when possible, but you will also get an overview of the discussion in the cluster group. So if a partner says: “I’m delivering water in this refugee camp,” and it’s not true, the other partners will know and will report this to you: “Partner A is honest, partner B is not honest, this guy is cheating, etc.”

So now you already have three points to know if that water is being delivered: your own independent visits, recruited consultants to visit the sites and your partners.

It’s also important to have direct relations with other NGOs on the ground. Talk to your peers in other organizations — maybe they come and go more often than you.

What does it take to be a successful remote manager?

You have to be very patient. You have to trust people — if you cannot trust people, this isn’t the position for you. You have to be very good at information gathering and at creating many sources of information. Always seek a second opinion.

Form good working relationships. And remember you can destroy your relationships easily — they are fragile. So stay calm and consider the information you do have, then ask whether you should postpone your decision. But be comfortable seeking advice. In remote management, you are more likely to make mistakes, you just have to be aware of that.

In addition to collecting information, you should have clear work plans. You are not there to improvise. What is the budget? What is the procedure? The more things are clear, the less room for error.

There was also an issue of how you manage your employees. One thing you cannot do, you cannot just talk to someone in-country, as in “Tell Peter to come to my desk,” so you have to be more critical of what is a substantial situation that requires the need to meet in person.

You are no longer in a remote management position. But are there certain aspects from the job that have stuck with you?

When you leave this kind of work, you value information, you value that things are not always what they appear to be. Before you reach a judgment, you take a bit more time and try to consult.

Sometimes its nice in life, when you don’t have as many options or choices, you push yourself. If you really have the same vision and you share the same values, it doesn’t matter how often I talk to you or how far you are, we are both working for the same thing.

I developed very good friendships and am still friends with my Somali counterparts and those

colleagues I worked with in Sudan. You are succeeding despite the conditions, bringing people together. You can say “we did it” because there is no I.

When you think about it, everything is remote management. We create this fiction that we can be everywhere. But if you’re promoting livelihoods in rural areas, for example, you can’t be everywhere. It was one of the most enriching professional experiences I’ve had. You realize distance is an elusive concept. You can be next door and I don’t talk to you, or you might be 10,000 km away and we understand each other.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, 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.