Addressing Expertise Silos in Humanitarian Assistance

Written by
Brett Cornwright
Published on
22 January 2021

In our latest expert interview, OnFrontiers CEO Brian Caouette had an insightful conversation with Eric Lundgren, Vice President of Global Operations at Blumont. Blumont implements relief, stabilization, and development programs that help meet basic human needs in times of crisis, such as shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene, and trauma support, while also helping communities rebuild after conflict. 

How does humanitarian assistance work, and what key trends are now occurring?

Eric Lundgren: Humanitarian assistance spans several phases. There is an immediate and prolonged crisis as communities struggle to get back on their feet. Humanitarian assistance covers all the different aspects communities might need support in as they respond to and rebuild after an emergency

The response often involves many different actors aligned with those of a coordination entity, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR is the UN agency responsible for humanitarian response when refugees are involved. The other relevant UN agency in this space is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

You'll hear people talk about clusters in the humanitarian space. There's water, sanitation, hygiene, health, and education. There's food and how people get food. There's also a cluster for NFIs or nonfood items encompassing basic needs people can't buy in a market because they don't have a job or the market doesn't function. For example, someone must distribute blankets, cooking fuel, heating fuel, and other items to communities in the winter.

Each cluster area has a group of organizations, like Blumont and other international NGOs, working to support that area in each crisis.

That's the general layout. However, the specific organizations and priorities will evolve over time - and will generally look very different in the immediate aftermath of the crisis than during a prolonged humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, six or seven years later, the conditions often still need to be created for people to get back on their feet independently.

At OnFrontiers, we're the experts on expertise. What expertise matters most across these clusters, and how does that evolve throughout the crisis-to-stabilization transition?

Eric: Every cluster is essential, and every emergency evolves in its own way. So, which clusters are the highest priority depends on the context. Still, a few key ingredients help ensure the response is successful.

The first one is being able to operate in these environments, which is about more than just having technical expertise. One of the clusters is shelter and settlements, but it's about more than just having expertise in shelters and settlements. It's about adapting effectively in contexts that are wildly different, and they often fluctuate significantly. How things work one day can look very different from one day to the next. 

The ability of an organization to be incredibly responsive, understand what's happening on a day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month basis, and then be adaptable as those things change is critical to a successful humanitarian response.

And that's where the humanitarian community does an incredible job. It needs more credit for adapting effectively to the context and learning as it changes. And then within that, that's the sort of sine qua non of humanitarian response.

We have teams of experts in topics such as camp management, security, shelters, and settlements here at our headquarters as well as on the ground: local experts who understand the local context and can respond with local solutions, are trained in those areas and understand international best practices and standards. So it's that balance of being adaptive and responding to context and having the expertise and understanding of the standards and how you adapt them to that context.

For the specific types of professionals that thrive in this environment, what organizational structures and practices can organizations adopt that make them more adaptable?

Eric: When we build teams locally to respond to these crises, we seek individuals who are comfortable operating in ambiguity. You don't always have all the information you need to make a decision.

It's a combination of being comfortable in ambiguous contexts and not being afraid to make decisions in those contexts. You often don’t have the luxury of waiting for more information before deciding on a course of action.

As we've discussed, the context is often urgent, and the needs are dire. We're talking about people who are often in war zones or the immediate aftermath of a war and don't have the means to meet their own basic human needs. 

You need people who have a bias towards action, are humble, admit what they don't know, and who are willing to learn from the context. If you cling to your priors about the context, your response will be less effective than it could be. So, that's what we look for in individuals.

How can organizations become more adaptable and agile in the humanitarian context? 

Eric : Organizationally, it's very similar. Adaptability is the foundation for what makes an organization successful in this space. A massive piece of adaptability is how organizations communicate internally. And a sub-driver of effective communication is psychological safety. 

We try to create a space where people speak up and talk to each other. They communicate between sectors and share. You could be providing cooking gas to tents in a refugee camp but see something else that needs to be addressed in that process.

We're talking about this strictly within a humanitarian context right now, but it also applies during the transition of communities to more long-term stabilization programs.

Describe the silos in the humanitarian sector and why they exist in the first place.

Eric: The cluster framework and involvement of coordination entities helps ensure everybody is connected, working together, and sharing information.

Ideally, the people working in humanitarian assistance (HA) aren't just thinking about HA, and those working in stabilization aren't just siloed and thinking about stabilization. They're working together to identify the community's needs, how they can be filled appropriately, and how communities can be managed through that transition.

But that doesn’t always happen. For example, in Northeast Syria where Blumont is involved, there is a protracted crisis involving humanitarian and stabilization actors, funders, and donors. Bridging gaps between these stages is challenging.

Silos originate from a good place. Aid agencies have separate humanitarian and stabilization teams with expertise advocating for specific sectors, forming and sharing best practices. There's much value in a silo that can build knowledge and learn and advocate in a specific area. However, these silos also get more and more embedded over time. Silos get reinforced by how the funding is allocated, earmarked, and managed. 

Do you have any strategies that implementing partners or humanitarian assistance organizations can do to reconcile those silos? 

Eric: Yes, we can think about it internally and externally; how we bridge those silos IS internal. The answer is the same. It's finding ways to communicate. It's finding ways to share information and learn. It's about being humble about the information you have and asking other people to come in and think about it with you.

Have you found ways to build communication skills in technical experts to make them more effective in the sector? 

Eric: One of the things we talk about is hiring for humility. If you're one of the world's leading technical experts in something, it's hard to remember that other perspectives are still valuable for you to listen to. 

We also hold many training sessions, discussions, and brown bag conversations to strengthen the mindset of curiosity in our expert teams. 

Once you've succeeded at creating those communications channels, there's a secondary need to capture and share that knowledge. How does that play out in an organization like Blumont?

Eric:  Well, it's always a work in progress. Our primary architecture for that is technical communities of practice. They're organized online and have resource libraries within each technical community. Then, we facilitate opportunities for experts on a particular subject to talk and communicate.

As an example, one recent post was on a fascinating impact evaluation one of our projects did on providing rent subsidies to refugees in Colombia. This study covered how rent subsidies work, how they don't work, and their advantages and disadvantages. This generated a discussion and interest from our teams working on returnee programs in our northeast Syria internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

Do you have any tips on setting up a community of practice?

Eric:  Building a community of practice required behavior change. If you are an engineer working in northeast Syria today, the majority of your focus is on your project and knowing the local engineering standards for the construction project you are working on. Sharing knowledge and engaging globally is a new muscle to develop. Behavior change is challenging in work or personal settings.

How do you engage with people to help get questions answered? How do you share what you're learning with other people?

One approach we’ve found that works is making it easy. Use the existing infrastructure you have. In our case, everyone in our organization already had access to Teams. By building our community in Teams we found it straightforward for them to get into their technical community to find the resources there and to connect with experts worldwide.

We are early in the process of building our communities of practice for our various clusters. We have a ways to go in terms of driving engagement, but the returns when we do have been very encouraging.

Further reading from our Expert Interview Series:

A Preventable Mistake that Could Kill Your Next Federal Capture

Harnessing Expertise Intelligence to Grow Your Federal Contracting Business

How to Decide Whether to Bid on a Federal Services Contract