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Aid Worker Profiles
Jane Coyne, Logistician/Project Coordinator/Head of Mission
'My project management experience in manufacturing and distribution taught me leadership, team building, organizational, reporting, and communication skills—all of which are critical for field work.'
Aid Worker Profile
What is your professional background?
I worked as a line manager in small manufacturing companies before I earned a joint engineering and business degree. Then I spent five years at a computer company in their logistics, supply chain, and distribution department. I was an MSF donor who became a logistician.
What prepared you to work as a field logistician with MSF?
My project management experience in manufacturing and distribution taught me leadership, team building, organizational, reporting, and communication skills—all of which are critical for field work. Also, I learned about engines, radios and other equipment on a six-month sailing trip. I took a logistics training course* with MSF before I left on assignment and that was key.
Describe some of your responsibilities.
I had a classic logistician job in Uganda where I oversaw a team of 50 people. We were responsible for maintaining the water supply, all the structures, the functioning of cars, radios and equipment, and the supervision of the watchmen and the drivers.
Nigeria was a massive malnutrition intervention, describe the challenges.
There were major logistical issues because we were handling large volumes of food shipments. One day, we received 120 tons of food which we repackaged in 15-ton lots and sent to various sites on trucks that kept breaking down.
Describe the challenges you faced in Central African Republic (CAR).
CAR is a French-speaking country and I didn’t speak French well. I did learn after a while but this was taxing on my team and me, especially since MSF France did not have a base in the country so I had to procure and do everything in French, from finding cars, hiring drivers, learning about local supply/vendors, and how to import products, etc.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), your role changed from Project Coordinator to Head of Mission over the 14 months you were there. Describe the program and what it was like going from a field position to a desk job.
In Kayna, a staff of 200 people ran a nutrition program, a hospital with surgical activities, and a center for sexual violence care. Halfway through my assignment, I was appointed Head of Mission with the responsibilities of managing the coordination team that oversaw three projects in North Kivu state. At first, it was difficult being far away from the patients, but the context in DRC is complicated yet fascinating. Throughout the year fighting became more widespread, which challenged our ability to access the population and keep our teams safe.
What did managing security involve?
The key is to have a clear understanding and analysis of what is happening on the ground, so we maintained regular contact with the civil, military, and medical authorities. As Project Coordinator, you manage this daily at the field level. As Head of Mission, you need an overview of the regional security situation through higher level contacts. Practically speaking, this meant deciding when you can move; whether the teams need to be reduced or evacuated; and preparing the teams to manage different potential security problems.
How was the second experience as Head of Mission in Darfur, Sudan?
My experience in the DRC surely informed my work in Darfur. I was able to build a cohesive team more easily with a laser focus on the most important priorities. Unfortunately, MSF France was expelled from Sudan, so our activities and my mission were cut short.
What did you find most challenging about your work in the field?
Like others, it was hard to balance work and life. In the DRC, I found the burden of responsibility as Head of Mission quite heavy. I struggled to figure out how to be effective and take care of myself at the same time. I made rational decisions, but when the outcome didn’t turn out well, I had to learn not to take everything personally.
Describe some of your technical challenges
In CAR, the hospital had an incredibly complex electrical system which made it difficult to isolate and fix the frequent short circuits. We had so many car and motor pump problems in Kampala that I ended up getting a lot of mechanical training. By my third assignment in Nigeria, my team was able to build a temporary building in about 4 and a half days—practice makes perfect!
Outside of work, what did you find most challenging about life in the field?
I have no problem with a bucket shower or sleeping on a floor, but I need more than an average amount of time by myself and this is impossible in the field. Also, there are inherent pressures when living and working with the same people over long periods when your movement is restricted.
What character traits are most necessary while in the field?
It’s necessary to have a sense of humor and patience. I am not particularly funny, but I have made tremendous progress in my patience. In many countries where I’ve worked you simply cannot raise your voice or confront someone in public—adapting to the local culture takes time and a real openness to see how others react to your behavior.
What type of professionals should apply to MSF as a logistician?
Logisticians come from all sorts of backgrounds. In the field, you need solid management skills and technical capacity. Nobody will know all the aspects of radios, cars, electricity, etc. but they should have a propensity for and an interest in technical things.
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