In mid-2009, senior staff from Bioforce and RedR met in Paris to discuss how the two organisations might work together in future emergencies. Through that meeting it became clear that both engage in similar activities in emergencies. For example, both undertake learning needs assessments, recruit local trainers, contextualise training materials and procure office and training space. They also provide similar training to the same groups of people (entry- and mid-level staff working in emergencies) and share similar learning objectives and outcomes and complementary methodologies around experiential learning. In short, the meeting concluded that bringing together Bioforces and RedRs training resources, capacities and expertise would have far greater impact on improving humanitarian response than individual efforts alone.
Operationalising the partnership
In December 2009, RedR and Bioforce signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining how the two organisations would work together on what became known as the Disaster Response Support Service (DRSS) programme. This was based on the following principles:
- Traditional training is not appropriate in the aftermath of a disaster. An innovative approach, where training and support take place on the job, is essential in the initial period of the response.
- This training and support should concentrate on national staff. To that end, the DRSS programme includes an assessment process designed to certify nationals who have acquired relevant skills during the response.
The Haiti earthquake struck just weeks after the MoU was signed. A joint needs assessment team quickly determined that there was a huge need for technical training and support, generating immediate pressure to field a team and initiate the project. However, funding was available for only three staff at the outset. Given these constraints, the two agencies decided to send a country director, a logistics trainer and a finance administrator, who doubled as a logistician. Bringing the two organisations together in the field felt like a fast-forward mini-merger. Many decisions needed to be made before work could even start:
- How would decisions be made and who needed to know what, where, when and why?
- Whose job descriptions would we use and who would initiate recruitment?
- Which employment law legislation (i.e. UK or French) would be used when hiring international staff?
- Who would manage which staff and how would inductions be organised?
- What formats for training would be used? How did session plans and workbooks complement each other and differ, and how were they going to be presented?
- How would RedR and Bioforce brand ourselves as two organisations but one project?
- How would combined materials be branded?
- Which evaluation forms would be used?
- How would the two organisations databases and email distribution systems be consolidated?
- How would data be collected, maintained and reported on?
- How would marketing and communication work, and which agency would take the lead?
The two organisations also needed to formalise their agreement to host the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and Sphere.
Not having a dedicated logistics position meant that already overburdened programme staff had to take on these tasks, when and if they could find time. This piecemeal approach to logistics had a detrimental effect on the living and working conditions for staff; it also meant that the agencies being hosted (HAP and Sphere) received a haphazard service.
Ensuring sufficient quantities of appropriate, functioning and good-quality equipment, such as projectors, laptops, flipcharts and photocopiers, was a continual challenge; equipment was sourced from as many as three different countries, resulting in mismatched and sometimes sub-standard equipment and regular voltage problems.
- Employ a full-time dedicated logistician from the outset and ensure a good standard of working and living conditions so that staff can concentrate on delivering on their objectives.
- Do not bring additional partners or initiatives on board until the primary partnership is established and operational; most people look to be hosted so that they can easily and quickly get up to speed with their work.
- Source computer and electronic equipment from one place if possible, and ensure that systems are compatible.
The project team worked hard to recruit bilingual staff, including bilingual training staff. Despite cultural, organisational and linguistic differences and a highly pressurised and stressful environment, the team worked well together. Apart from some tensions around the use of English rather than French or Creole in staff meetings, grievances and irritations were no more pronounced than in most offices.
Trainers needed a wide range of competencies, including technical skills, learning and development skills and humanitarian experience, as well as proficiency in French and English. As finding people who possessed this full set of competencies was extremely difficult, the team had to intensively coach and mentor staff to help them gain the requisite skills. Headquarters staff had to temporarily cover some functions, backstop some functions, affecting the continuity and consistency of training. The turnover of staff both at HQ and country level meant that many important implementing principles got lost along the way, including data management systems.
- Create a roster of trainers available from a range of countries at short notice before an emergency. Having insufficient training staff poses the biggest risk to any project.
- Standardise inductions and develop summaries of important implementation issues, rather than handing over voluminous concept notes and documents which no one will read.
Preparedness: planning for the future
Although basic checklists were prepared for the joint operation, many things were missed. For example, no thought was given to how the joint project would handle decision-making around sensitive issues like management problems, disciplinary action and security breaches. What degree of involvement did each organisation expect to have in decision-making, and at what levels? How would urgent decisions be handled? In the first weeks of the project, the country director finally found an office but needed to sign a years lease to secure it. Even though she did not have the consent of both agencies as agreed, the director went ahead so as not to lose the premises. While this turned out to be the right decision, the episode highlighted flaws in the decision-making process.
- Prepare checklists as thoroughly as possible; include risk assessment questions and contingency planning.
- Create a field handbook for partners outlining agreed systems and processes, paying special attention to decision-making parameters, processes and timelines, and providing lists of key tasks and those responsible for carrying them out.
- Ensure that decision-making processes do not hamper or delay operations and are flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances.
Partnership and Identity
One of the biggest challenges for the DRSS project was establishing a clear identity and communicating that identity to others. How did staff, partners and beneficiaries identify the partnership as DRSS, RedR, Bioforce or RedR/Bioforce? This was clearly an issue despite repeated attempts at clarification from HQ to Haiti in-country staff that RedR and Bioforce was a joint project, that DRSS was not a legal entity and that both agencies needed to be jointly named in correspondence. As staff had been recruited from both agencies, they tended to identify with one or the other, causing confusion for anyone coming into contact with them; some local staff even wrongly believed that DRSS was the agency name. Clearly, a new identity cannot be created in such a short space of time. Because the initiators understood and identified so strongly with the project, it was assumed that, with good induction of new staff, the new identity and how to communicate it would be easily established. It was only when a staffer from HQ visited the office that the problem could be identified and miscommunications addressed.
- Make sure that the architects of the project are in touch with the implementers on a regular basis to ensure that the concept is upheld and the project develops in the right direction.
- Ideally, introduce a separate communications post or have one person in charge of communications this sounds obvious, but in a partnership with multi-way communication with multiple players there are numerous additional ways communication can go wrong.
Working with HAP and Sphere
With communication already a problem between Bioforce and RedR staff, it was not surprising that HAP and Sphere were not always kept informed of what training was being delivered and what the project was all about. Despite joint security briefings, there was insufficient information-sharing and HAP and Sphere were not able to contribute in the way that was originally envisaged, as project partners and sometimes joint deliverers of training; this was partly due to the highly technical nature of the training delivered in the project and the lack of funding for humanitarian and people/project management training, areas in which HAP and Sphere could have made a more obvious contribution.
- Provide detailed précis of all agencies involved so that all staff are informed and aware of each agencys mandate, and hold information-sharing sessions on a regular basis to keep everyone abreast of developments.
- Involve hosted agencies from the outset and encourage their participation in the projects evolution.
Despite the challenges, the DRSS project in Haiti delivered the training as planned. An internal evaluation, evaluation forms and meetings with managers in agencies all showed that this training was greatly appreciated. Over 1,400 humanitarian staff got access to training. HAP and Sphere were hosted, as was an inter-agency security forum. Had funding for the project continued it would have been possible to start to embed the process of assessing and certifying staff, which had started towards the end of the project, so that local staff skills could be recognised and transferred to future emergency responses. The impact of the project was only beginning to be felt as relationships bedded in, agencies became aware of the training being delivered, trainers became more confident with the courses and materials and the project as a whole gained local respect.
Partnering in the Haiti emergency enabled RedR and Bioforce to combine capacities and resources and avoid competition for scarce management and training staff and duplication of effort. More humanitarian staff were trained as a result, and arguably a greater positive impact was made on the quality of the humanitarian response. Hard-earned lessons from this experience were identified and analysed at a workshop in Paris following the end of the project, and ways were identified to incorporate them into future partnerships. As in all lesson-learning exercises conducted in the humanitarian sector, the challenge is to ensure that these lessons are implemented.
Catherine Russ is former Learning Programmes Director for RedR UK. Rory Downham is Director of Training at the Institut Bioforce Développement, France.
 Hosting entailed providing accommodation for office and home use, logistical and administrative support, transport and security and, with one agency, line management.