'You learn that there are so many more ways of looking at the world and doing the same tasks, and yours is not always the most efficient way.'





What did you do before joining MSF?

I’m a civil and environmental engineer and I worked at a water and sanitation company in the US, and also abroad, for about seven years before I joined MSF.

Why did you apply to MSF at that stage in your life?

I was reaching a point in my life where I was not getting any job satisfaction, and beyond that I always had in the back of my mind the idea of doing some sort of humanitarian aid work.

I did some work that was funded by the US government and that made me think that I wanted to work for an organization that does not have any sort of governmental ties or political involvement—some place where there was no other agenda behind what they do other than providing humanitarian aid.

I was simply at the point in my life—professionally and personally—where I was ready to be challenged a little bit more. I was comfortable with what I could do and who I was, so I was ready to do more.

What were your typical day-to-day duties in the field?

There is no typical day, but that is actually why I like working in the field with MSF.

When I was in China, a typical day would be to do a presentation in front of 50 to 100 people through a translator about using personal protective equipment for the SARS outbreak. I was training entire staffs of hospitals, all the way from cleaning people to the head of surgery.

In southern Sudan, we would wake up and go to a drilling site where we were training people who had never seen a drill or had never done construction or dealt with related safety issues. We had to make sure that everyone knew what was happening in order to get the borehole finished and working, so they could have a supply of water for the health care clinics.

In Liberia, it was really putting out fires every day. Every day you would make your to-do list and you would never get to it because there were so many issues that would come up with water supply, sanitation, or medical waste. So, you had to reprioritize throughout the day.

What specialized tools or resources did you lack?

It is completely different than working in the US. Arriving in southern Sudan, I had to make a decision on where to drill a borehole knowing that drilling would be quite expensive and everyone was waiting for our team to do this.

You don’t have any maps, sonar, or any of the geology history, which you are used to having in the US. So, you would have to learn new ways to find water from national staff—how to read the land and how to read the flora in order to find the water.

It is really old-school and low-tech as far as figuring that out. MSF has really well-established protocols for water and sanitation which are all very clear and very simple, so they are good guides. Between learning from national staff and relying on MSF protocols, you get by.

Of all your professional skills, which one did you find most useful in the field?

The most relevant are my organizational and problem-solving skills. If you can reprioritize, think on your feet and adjust to not having everything you are used to or having things go differently than you are used to—those are the important skills.

How is it different working as a water and sanitation specialist in the field?

It is really impossible to compare. What is the same is that you are still working with construction crews and still have to be clear about roles and safety.

So, what I was dealing with in the US was more chemistry—that someone does not like to have a red ring in their toilet. The issues you are dealing with in southern Sudan relate to the fact that people do not actually have water, which you have to find for them.

What are the challenges of being a trainer and manager of national staff?

Anyone who goes out with MSF is going to be a teacher and a manager. Usually, you are teaching and training with language difficulties and to different educational backgrounds. It is a challenge to transfer your knowledge in a way where it actually gets transferred.

Another challenge is managing large groups of people. In the US I would manage a team of five; in Liberia I could manage a team of 20 with a wide variety of skill levels and personalities.

You have the same work issues in the US as you do abroad. Sometimes you have personality clashes or job dissatisfaction issues. These are especially challenging when you are the manager of 20 people with different skills and personalities.

But you also learn that there are so many more ways of looking at the world and doing the same tasks, and yours is not always the most efficient way. I learned to be more patient and take some time to get to know people and how they worked. You are the visitor and they know their country better than you do. Usually, they had the best suggestions and I would learn from them.

What was the scope of your work?

With MSF, you really need to be ready to take on what needs to be done. There are always going to be gaps, where someone will have to step in and do a job that maybe is not in their so-called job description.

As a water and sanitation engineer in China, I also did the logistics. At the end, I also did the accounting. When I was in Ethiopia, I held a position called LOG-ADMIN, which basically means that you do everything non-medical, from finding the place where the international staff is going to stay, to what are they going to eat, to where we are going to have the primary health clinic or the vaccination clinic, to hiring staff and paying them, to watching the supply. You can do all of that and still have a primary function of water and sanitation. It is really whatever needs to be done.

What was your living situation like?

I have been on a pretty wide variety of assignments. In China, I worked in a city two hours outside Beijing. I lived in a hotel, not a fancy one, but one that had hot water and electricity at certain times of the day. And in southern Sudan I lived in a tent for nine months. The plane came every 12 days and dropped off food.

What pre-MSF experiences prepared you the best for your work in the field?

Working abroad and traveling and having things go wrong—language or transportation issues. Simply having things go wrong is a good experience to prepare you for the field.

What advice would you give a water and sanitation engineer considering applying to MSF?

Three big things. One is traveling outside your comfort zone. Go to a developing country—to work there is even better but otherwise just visit. Management—getting that experience, and, of course, learning French. It is not mandatory but it is a good thing to have when you work with MSF.