A comment posted to one of my blog entries asked me just what does a logistician with MSF actually do? That is a fair question and I thought that I could maybe elaborate a bit.
When I tell people that I work for MSF, it is often assumed that I must, therefore, be a doctor. Here in Shamwana, we do have a doctor but that definitely isn’t me. His name is Auguste, he’s from Congo Brazzaville and on top of emergency surgeries, doing rounds and being on call from time to time, he is responsible for running a 60 bed hospital in, lets say, less then ideal conditions. He started his Sunday ‘off’ at 5:00 am with an emergency C-section and followed that by discharging 10 patients from the hospital because it’s malaria season and we just don’t have enough beds. That was all before noon and that is definitely NOT what I do.
…but MSF is more than just doctors. To complete the Shamwana expat team, we have an outreach nurse, a project coordinator, a mental health advisor, a lab technician, a water and sanitation specialist and me…the project logistician. In fact, almost 40% of expat positions in MSF are non-medical.
MSF is an independent international medical relief organization and logistics is there to support the medical programs. In theory, I do everything that is needed so that the medics can do their jobs. The reality is that MSF doesn’t have a ‘logistics’ program on its own; however, without logistics the medical programs would simply grind to a halt.
It really is a wide range of things that fall under my responsibility. Communications include VHF antennas and satellite phones. I manage a medical stock worth a considerable amount of money with approximately 500 items all having different expiry dates and consumption rates. We have 5 cars that need to be maintained, scheduled and, finally, driven. The supply chain in Katanga starts in Amsterdam, involves sea freight, takes 4 months to arrive and is more than just a little headache. We have refrigerators and coolers to keep vaccines cold. We are way off the grid and use generators, solar panels and battery backup systems for power and lighting. We have 7 laptops that seem to fail all too often and an expat team that knows relatively little about proper computer use. We also plan to construct a tuberculosis ward, a new fuel store and a water tower in the coming months.
As you can imagine, my To Do list is literally 3 pages long and there aren’t many days without something in them to keep things exciting!
In practice, it is more about management than anything else. Of the 68 national staff in the project, 25 fall under me. This is not only the guards and drivers, but also storekeepers, a construction manager, a mechanic, my supply wizard and a radio operator. I spent much more time delegating tasks and writing reports than actually getting grease on my hands and human resource management is a huge part of my job.
To borrow the words of a previous supervisor, it is my job to “get ‘er done”! If the pumps breaks (as it did yesterday!) and I can fix it, that’s great. If I can’t fix it then it is my job to find someone who can fix it…just get the damn pump working again! That, in a nutshell, is what logistics is all about.