20. Logistics, nimbly

30 May 2008 Comments

Much of the work that we do out here is focused on the final act: the prenatal exam, the psychotherapy session, the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of disease, supplements and monitoring for the malnourished. In a very real sense, the good people in Berlin and Amsterdam support the administrative Country Management Team (here in Abéché), who in turn support the logistics arms of the many projects all along along the eastern border of this godforsaken land. And they, in turn, support the medical people. Us nurses, doctors and midwives are left with the task of patient care, pure and simple. Food is on the table, pantries full, land-cruisers to transport, medical centers running triage, pharmacies stocked, electricity flowing, water delivered.

Organizing anything in Chad is no mean feat. This is a place where no opportunity for misunderstanding goes unexercised. Where negotiations often start with a stalemate or a threat and progress from there. Where everybody is needling and clawing for money and kickbacks. Where the security situation hangs over you like a thundercloud in the distance; you never know when it’s going to break.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the murder of Pascal Marlinge, the Head of Mission for Save the Children (StC). That day, all NGOs stopped providing non-essential services and retreated to the safety of their respective compounds. StC, understandably, never resumed. Within a week it was unofficially known that they would, again understandably, suspend all their activities and most likely leave the country. This left Breidjing Camp, with 30,000 refugees and 12,000 local IDP Chadians with no organization providing medical care. A vacuum.

This is the story of how MSF took over services and within two weeks, were up-and-running at full capacity.

People. Jochen, our mobile clinic nurse with many years of field experience, stepped up to the Project Coordinator position (PC). With a solid handle on both the medical and logistics side of things, he hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped since. Jean-Marc, the technical logistician also stopped on a dime and headed that way, as did almost all the national staff on the mobile clinic team. Ivan, our PC here in Farchana (but he basically likes to do everything, and would if given half the chance) got to planning. Since ground transport has been declared unsafe, Breidjing would need an airstrip. Ivan called up Karline (our Head of Mission in Abéché) and asked for authorization to build one. On the phone, at that moment, she said yes, and within two days 159 local workers had been hired and were on the job. Within six days the first flight landed and took off, notably bringing Ivan back to Farchana.

A full complement of staff were hired and given contracts. Stock rooms were inventoried and new medications and supplies ordered. Endless meetings with local authorities, and long conversations into the night about what to to the next day. It was, as Ivan calls it, “E-team mode,” which stands for Emergency-team. If there are locks on doors and you can’t find the keys, you cut the locks. You don't think of overtime costs for national staff, you just work till the day ends (although notably none of the staff even asked for extra pay). Administrative authorization lagged behind implementation. Often. The lines of communication were open throughout, but decisions were made on the ground.

Notably absent from this story is the call for funding. In most organizations, it would take months of proposals and oversight to fund a project that effectively costs about a million Euros a year to run. It’s an onerous, paper-heavy task, leading to what could best be described as administrative fatigue. MSF, however, is independently funded. This means that beforehand they do not need to knock on government doors, UNHCR doors, or whomever, to ask for the means to provide health care. There is minimal lag. The airstrip, which incidentally had been “in the planning” for three years, and was built by Ivan et al. in five days, cost about 2000 euros. This is the cost of doing business out here. Health care for a population of 42,000 people for a whole year. Fantastically reasonable. In my view, administrative fatigue is rather low in this organization. Every cent is accounted for, of course, but money in MSF, at least from my vantage point, is not a “power-grab,” it’s just grease. My guess is that everyone over the age of six knows how rare this is. It likely would not escape the purview of an astute six-year-old, either.

I include the numbers because they interest me, and I figure others may want to know as well what things cost. Money is important.

This is a proud moment. (I was on vacation, so I feel justified in beaming without seeming the least bit self-congratulatory.) On the day that Pascal was killed, Ivan, Jochen and Edith (our logistics administrator) sat under the mango tree and spoke about what it meant for them to work out here. It hit them hard. But the conversation went from personal reflection to planning. What if StC left Chad? What would need to be done to keep primary health care services in Breidjing. It had to be MSF. Literally, nobody else could do it, given the administrative fatigue of other operations. They sat down with paper and pencil the next day and started mapping it out: a proposal to make it happen ASAP, for about two to three months, until a long-term solution could be found.

Group identification is a funny thing. I hear people all the time saying of their favourite football, hockey or basketball team that succeeds: “we won!” This is absurd. In the words of Chris Rock, a comedian, “no, six black guys, who would hate you if they knew you, won.” This is not absurd. But it does highlight the extent to which people ignore every register of class division and common sense to feel associated with something winsome. All of a sudden my friend who works in a bank, from a sheltered, privileged and rather sanitized petit-bourgeois childhood is character-identifying with Shaquille O’Neil. “We won!” Pointing out the absurdity does not mean it shouldn’t happen. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, it’s mostly just amusing. But it does tell us something. That we want to be a part of something bigger than us, a community, a team, a movement that means something, that does something of which we can be proud. People buy products because some pretty face or talented athlete endorses them. And even the humanitarian world is on this: I see the faces and read the words of cinema- and rock-stars on the plight of those suffering oppression and its hardships all over the world. And why? I’m not arguing that it’s not pragmatic, but it's strange, too.

I see many faces of MSF, but for me, this week, it is Jochen, Ivan, Edith, and Jean-Marc (three of whom, incidentally, are Canadian). They did not win a football match, nor have they been shortlisted for an oscar nomination. But they did work non-stop for two weeks to fill the vacuum, to enable the provision of emergency health services in a large refugee camp in Eastern Chad. No newspapers picked up the story, of course. Can you imagine what would happen in Montreal if medical services were stopped for two days? What about two weeks? It would topple governments. It would be a national state of emergency. Well, it’s an emergency here, too, but look who did something about it. My team.