“It’s not good enough to have a set of written standards, it’s how do you implement them and how do you do that intelligently.” Jim Kennedy, a shelter consultant, gives insight into his work

Jim Kennedy is a shelter consultant with ten years experience in disaster and conflict related responses in shelter and reconstruction. Before starting to work in the field, he did research in the area of world heritage, worked for an architecture firm and received a Masters degree in human settlements. His thesis was on the design and construction of refugee camps. He has not only worked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but in many other regions and countries.

Jim Kennedy speaks on communicating without words, his personal experiences he has gathered over the past ten years, funding appeals and having a sense of humour.

Bettina Frevert, Roland Berger Foundation: You’re a shelter consultant. Who hires you? Do individual NGOs have their databases, where they choose you and then send you off?

Jim Kennedy: Yes, that’s correct. It doesn’t make sense, in fact it’s pretty immoral, to use humanitarian funds just to pay me to sit around doing nothing in between humanitarian disasters. So the contracts are very much project and objective dependant. That is, I come in and either everybody’s in a warm shelter by the time the snow falls and in which case I did my job and here’s a plane ticket and thank you very much, or not. In which case I should probably be leaving as well.

Roland Berger Foundation: Is there a specific world region you are specialised in? As in, do you only get sent to the Middle East, for example, or can you also be sent to South America or Africa? Are there world regions that you are more qualified to work in or is that not an issue?

Kennedy: So far I’ve worked in Asia, Africa, the Carribbean, Middle East. I don’t think there’s any place I would necessarily not be qualified for. There are obviously countries or regions where there’s more constant repetition of natural disasters, like Bangladesh or Indonesia – I do think there probably are persons who for personal reasons prefer working in a region or whose expertise tends to be more narrowly focused on certain building techniques or materials. Therefore, if you are the mudbrick expert, it is not so likely that you’ll be working in a country where the predominant building technique is in bamboo or vice versa. But no, there isn’t any particular area where I wouldn’t be working.  Unfortunately, there is a growing number of countries where certain passports aren’t welcomed and the organisations have to be aware of that obviously. But that also changes.

Roland Berger Foundation: So nationality plays a significant role in aid work?

Kennedy: Yes. After the big cyclone in Myanmar in 2009, inititally the government said we’re not letting in any foreigners! Then they realised that it was so overwhelming that they said, well alright, but only Asians! So every NGO was scrambling to find the one Japanese guy who is qualified to do shelter and reconstruction (laughs).

Roland Berger Foundation: Talking about finding the people. Do you roughly know how many relief workers there are that are ready to be called upon in the case of a disaster?

Kennedy: I’ve heard numbers of 5000, which I have never seen substantiated. It depends how you look at it.

Roland Berger Foundation: And how many shelter and reconstruction consultants are there?

Kennedy: I’m not sure how many shelter people there are. I have to say for all sectors there is a challenge for NGOs in hiring new people and making sure there are enough people. Like a lot of other industries, often organisations are looking for people who have prior experience, but you only get prior experience by getting a job, so it can be very frustrating for new people. And also it poses severe challenges for the NGOs because of course every few years there’s truly large disasters like a tsnuami and suddenly the NGOs find they don’t have enough people and they haven’t done a good enough job in bringing people up or looking at their national chapters and seeing who are the people who have done an outstanding job in localised responses who should be given encouragement to be going further in their careers. So that is certainly a problem.

Roland Berger Foundation: Adding on to that question. How do you get to where you are now? I mean, you don’t study shelter and reconstruction at university, you can maybe study development aid or something political, but the hands on work that you do, where do you get that and how do you become what you are?

Kennedy: That’s actually changing in ways that are very interesting. It’s gone through phases. Certainly in the 1970s it was more common – for the more established NGOs at least – for those working in what would have been shelter and reconstruction, to often have come through ex-military backgrounds and often through a logistics channel, that is that they often would be logistics managers who were then asked to use their technical or engineering skills to figure out what to do about reconstruction techniques or shelter design. Then there are also a number of people like myself who have fallen into the profession as their second or third career. Now, over the last five years there really has been a move to professionalize the sector, to use the buzz-word, and this has been given more and more support through the initiation of university or post-graduate courses. Some of which are one or two year Master degrees, but also in recognition that some people may have some topics or skills that they feel they need to bump up. They don’t want to take out a year or two, especially if they are mid-career, so most courses also have modular components, so there are so-called “Master of Disaster” courses.

Roland Berger Foundation: Really?!

Kennedy: Copenhagen has got one, and the better ones are doing this very much in support with and in coordination with the humanitarian organisations, with the Red Cross, with the shelter cluster in Geneva. One of these accusations against these theoretical, sort of political development aid courses was that they were rather isolated in some cases from what practical experience was. So this is something that is also changing for the good.

Roland Berger Foundation: And what were the first jobs you did?

Kennedy: The first job was Sri Lanka after the tsnuami.

Roland Berger Foundation: Which was 2004?

Kennedy: January 2005, I came in.

Roland Berger Foundation: What was that like? How did that go down, so to speak?

Kennedy: It was an interesting one. (pause) Sri Lanka, away from the civil war zones at least, was seen by some of the humanitarian actors as being an opportunity to bring in people on first missions, because it was a place which was relatively safe. And where there was good contact with the capital city, and where there was enough funding to have an internal mentoring system within the NGOs and humanitarian organizations. I think a lot of the NGOs there had their funding on a leeway, in some cases it was pilots for them to run an approach where there were some portions of the funds discretionary, or with a flexibilty of use where it wasn’t just for the procurement of shelters. You could use it for small-scale reconstruction within the communities. Whether that was employing people just to clean out a lot of the irrigation systems, whether it was rebuilding schools.

Roland Berger Foundation: So what was a project that you set up?

Kennedy: One project we did was actually just rebuilding the walls around one of the town’s crematorium. Which you think, uh, well, I’m not sure I want to get involved with death and crematoria, but you know, this is part of human life and certainly part of that community’s reestablishment: giving that community’s members, who are saying good-bye to their loved ones, the dignity, the privacy, the security, to do that as they wish.  And it was part of a larger reconstruction of that crematorium, and you think hmmm, maybe this isn’t what I signed up for. But again, it’s part of human dignity and it’s part of human life and it also plays a role, unfortunatley, in the sanitation of that community.

Roland Berger Foundation: How so?

Kennedy: If you are not able to cremate the bodies in a controlled environment, then you are doing it in an uncontrolled environment. The crematorium also does that in a way which preserves the woods, which was part of a high premium value during the construction phase as well. So you know, you don’t also end up doing what you think you signed up for, but I think it’s actually a good example of the openness and awareness you need to have in supporting communities and families reestablish themselves after a disaster. That sometimes it’s important to think about death again, that it’s important to think about all phases of life and it’s important not only to think what are the protections from the elements, the bear necessities, but what does it mean to families and communities to have their dignity and have their lives back. And that can be part of it.

Roland Berger Foundation: So how do you personally approach these scenarios? It’s your first mission, first field project, you’re on a plane to go to Sri Lanka. What does that feel like? What are those thoughts that are in your head? What are your worries? What are the personal things that go on with you?

Kennedy: In most of the cases there will have been a sort of briefing period beforehand. A lot of the NGOs actually first take you into their local or regional headquarters to make sure that you are getting all the situational reports. Depending on where you’re going, you may be carrying in a lot of necessary equipment or supplies that you need to pick up from there –

Roland Berger Foundation: Like what? Shovels?

Kennedy: Not shovels, shovels you can always get locally, or if not, you should be supporting the local economy with shovels! GPS-units may not be so readily available, laptops with particular programmes may not be so readily available, so you end up taking those things in for your colleagues. There’s also some cases where you need to get a health check up before hopping off. But then you read as much as you can and speak to people who may already have been in that area and now are coming back out. Most of the time nowadays, I try to sleep as much as possible, because I know I won’t be getting any sleep for the next few weeks.

Roland Berger Foundation: Because you’re working so much, around the clock.

Kennedy: Yeah, yeah. Other than that, I think trying to remember whom you might know, who’s already there whom you should be phoning as soon as you get there. You can bump into the same people a lot. Often working for different NGOs, which can be very confusing. (laughs) And in some ways it’s an advantage because there is the trust and openness to discuss some of the problems that you may be experiencing very early on.

Roland Berger Foundation: Like what? What problems might you encounter?

Kennedy: I can give one example from Pakistan earthquake 2005. There are internationally recognized minimum standards for emergency shelter in terms of how big they should be. What’s the internal space? There’s a minimum standard for how many square metres per person.

Roland Berger Foundation: Which is?

Kennedy: 3.5m2 per person. So I was going in to some villages, which had been very badly affected by the earthquake in northern Pakistan, and seeing that some of the families had either built their own shelters or had adapted materials given to them by the NGOs, and had built shelters that were much, much smaller than 3.5m2 per person! So we asked, well, why did you build things so small when you have quite a large family? And they were like, well, it’s really cold and if we build a large space we can’t keep it warm and we don’t have enough fuel, so we keep warm by having a smaller area. Which yeah, makes complete sense! It’s a point where there’s one international standard for living space and there’s another international standard that says everybody should be in a shelter that’s warm enough. So at this point, if you were stupid, you’d say there are these two conflicting standards, we don’t know what to do! But in this case there were a number of other people that I knew, working for other NGOs and we could talk through it and of course the most important thing is keeping warm! So then we adapted our programming to make sure that what the families themselves had identified as being their priorities also became our priorities and made sure that that was also clearly understood, not only in a sort of small group, but within a wider range of actors supporting those families. And also where necessary with local authorities.

Roland Berger Foundation: When you say you talk to the families, what language do you use?

Kennedy: In Pakistan it was English with support of national staff translating into Pashtu or Urdu.

Roland Berger Foundation: How many languages do you speak that you use in your work then?

Kennedy: English and French. Particularly for Haiti or francophone West Africa.

Roland Berger Foundation: So rather French than English?

Kennedy: Except Pakistan, then it’s English! There’s different ways of doing it, of communicating with the affected communities. The most obvious one is working with staff from the local area, which you hope start off as your translators, but they then get to the point where they know the programmes and they can answer the questions, and then they don’t need you anymore! So then it’s time to say goodbye and let them do the good work. You always have to be aware that there’s more than one way of trying to communicate. You can build models of what a perfect roof-joint looks like, you can bring in a series of photos. There’s ways of doing teaching, which is not reliant on written words. There’s very effective ways of demonstrating earthquake resistance just by trying to push somebody over in the middle of a field. (laughs)

Roland Berger Foundation: So it’s truly hands on!

Kennedy: It’s very much hands on. And you have to understand, firstly that there’s lots of different ways of communicating around the world. You have to be very aware that the majority of communication is not speaking, it’s listening and watching. There are always people who ask me, what’s the most important aspect of my work, with the expectation that it’ll be some sort of engineering technique. And I say it’s not, it’s actually sitting and listening, taking the time to have a cup of tea, and then you’ll figure it all out. But you also have to be open enough to understand that some ways of communicating may not be the ones that you have come to feel comfortable with from your own background, and you have to jump over that somehow.

Roland Berger Foundation: What do you mean by that?

Kennedy: Coming from a northern European background, I tend to sort of keep my physical distance and not reach out and touch people too much (laughs). And I usually don’t expect for people to reach out and touch me! (laughs) But there are some perks in the world where as part of your general discussion about building tents, the village elder will not only be reaching out and touching you, but will also be rubbing your shirt collar for a prolonged period of time. And you should understand that and maybe do reciprocal reaching out and touching people. And in some cases it’s getting over your own comfort zone. You just gotta sorta jump over it, take a deep breath.

Roland Berger Foundation: Get over it, so to speak. Interesting. Are there any personal sacrifices you have to make? Things you have to give up? Or saying ok, I really have to get over that I don’t usually like people touching me at all, and that’s a big conflict for me. Or something more trivial, like saying six months of the year I don’t shower!

Kennedy: (laughs) I think I’ve survived not showering (laughs). No, the sacrifices are on a slightly larger scale – I mean, it is unpredictable. On a professional front, it’s not always easy to organise the trainings or activities that you need professionally, because you can sign up for a course and then something unexpected happens and you have to go in the field, you have to cancel. There are also the perennial problems, of having unpredictable chunks of time away from your friends and family. Missing people’s birthdays, things like that. I think that’s probably the largest strain. So I think you have to do your best to rebalance that as much as possible. I think that’s actually slightly easier if you are on these single project contracts, if you have the strength of personality to figure out your own balance and to insist upon that.

Roland Berger Foundation: So you would say that a strong personality and being able to cope with yourself and being able to balance yourself out is absolutely necessary to do what you do.

Kennedy: Hmm, I think so. I think being able to entertain yourself is a plus. Being able to entertain everybody else is also a bonus. There’s at least one NGO that I have worked for where on the official written job descriptions for these shelter manager positions, as well as describing the specific tasks for that project and listing what your main qualifications and main competencies or qualities should be, the last bullet point at the bottom of the page is “should always have a sense of humour.”

Roland Berger Foundation: Really?!

Kennedy: Yeah, seriously, that’s what they put! As well as like you need 8-10 years of experience in disaster response, a degree in engineering or an equivalent field, french language a plus, etc etc, last bullet point, sense of humour necesssary. And a good sense of humour! As opposed to a really bad sense of humour. (laughs) … But it’s true, maybe that should be the top bullet point, even in front of the engineering skills in some cases.

Roland Berger Foundation: If you go to Haiti you aren’t there to enjoy the cultural heritage or the beautiful beaches – you’re not on vacation. Rather, you’re there to work with people who have lost their family, have lost their houses, have lost their existence – how do you personally deal with that? I imagine it must be very hard to witness this suffering of others at such a close range.

Kennedy: In terms of my own personal feelings in coming in somewhere where there’s been a natural disaster. I think you have to, I have to, I do, look at it as a technical problem. The equivalent might be, if you are an emergency surgeon in a hospital and somebody comes in having suffered a horrendous accident, it’s not helping anybody if you as a surgeon start crying and wailing how terrible this is. And you have to start moving and thinking in a very efficient manner, and put that somewhere behind you.

Roland Berger Foundation: Have there been incidents where you were very emotionally affected?

Kennedy: The instances where I have been most emotionally affected, were those incidents where I wasn’t able to do anything. And one example would be in one of the large refugee camps in northern Kenya, primarily for Somali refugees. At the hospital in the refugee camp, there’s a ward for severly malnurished children. I was given an explanation that in some cases the mothers are delibaretly preventing the full nurishment of the child, because if one child is severly malnurished there’s extra food supplies for the rest of the family. And that becomes a really tough ethical decision and because me coming forward being a shelter guy it has nothing to do with shelter, housing, reconstruction. I was there incidentally, because there were termites in the hospital building and they wanted me to look at what to do for repairing it. And otherwise I may never have visited that hospital, that ward, and that was something, which I couldn’t do anything about and for which there probably never was a good solution. And that was probably that sort of moment where I felt very badly affected.

Roland Berger Foundation: We’ve now already talked a bit about Haiti, Pakistan and Somalia. Could you name all the places you’ve been to?

Kennedy: I’ll try. Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Haiti. Also to various places where it wasn’t disaster response but disaster planning, like Kyrgistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Romania, Georgia as well for post-conflict, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, I think that’s it.

Roland Berger Foundation: What’s disaster planning?

Kennedy: Part of what I do is actually not just looking at what you do when it’s all too late, but actually how can you work with countries or communities where there is a higher risk of natural disaster. And there’s various statistics which say, depening upon which number you want to take, that for every dollar spent before disaster, it’s the equivalent of 15 dollars spent after the disaster, or 10 dollars, or 7 dollars, but it’s a massive multiple. And it makes sense, why not spend funds in making sure that houses are earthquake or flood resistant before they fall down, save lives? Why not invest in building the capacity to respond with the local government, the local Red Cross, the local community before the disaster happens, rather than afterwards? There is always an element of coming in too late, closing the barn door after the horse has fled. So I’ve been involved in programmes where there is a high level of risk.

Roland Berger Foundation: That seems like a very smart approach.

Kennedy: It is! It’s a thoroughly underfunded approach, unfortunatley.

Roland Berger Foundation: Who does fund this? Who does this pre-planning?

Kennedy: Disaster-risk reduction, contingency planning. There are a number of organizations involved in that, certainly the UNDP is involved. There are NGOs like Habitat for Humanity who traditionally have been very much involved in construction or housing improvement for low-income families around the world, but who understand that you aren’t really giving people a sustainable foot up if that house is at risk for a natural disaster, so have started to come forward to disaster response and seeing from a very good perspective how that looks. You want to get to sustainable housing, now you know how to end, but how do you walk forward where you start from? So there are organizations involved, but of course there isn’t that high profile media that you would have after a natural disaster.

Roland Berger Foundation: Which helps, right?

Kennedy: Yes. So it is inevitably underfunded, you can say. In terms for appeals for high profile disasters. I think the highest profile disasters will always get enough funding.

Roland Berger Foundation: By the public? By these funding calls?

Kennedy: It’s a mix between public appeals, which always go up in the weeks after a disaster, or whether it’s a release of government development aid funding or the United Nations funds which are specifically ear-marked for the release for first phases after a disaster. But there will always be the very generous financial response to a large scale disaster. Often the problem is that the funding and the intention goes so massively to these high profile disasters that all the so called forgotten disasters around the world get even further neglected. Their most senior staff are succonded into the new disasters, funding may be redirected from them to another country, the intention which was there beforehand, vanishes.

Roland Berger Foundation: Which has a negative impact.

Kennedy: Which has a negative impact, yes. I mean, to a certain extent if somebody were to ask me after the next high profile disaster, Jim, where should I send my money, I would be very tempted to say don’t send it to that disaster. Either wait at least a year if the dust has settled and there are still identified need. Or if you want to send money now, go to one of these lists of most underfunded emergencies, or most neglected emergencies –

Roland Berger Foundation: There is one? There’s a list?

Kennedy: There are periodic lists, it’s not updated every month.

Roland Berger Foundation: Is there something else you would still like to share with us? Maybe an appeal to the public?

Kennedy: I think always to remember that we blog-readers, we international shelter consultants, are always the guests, always the observers, that however much we want to help and however much we are enthusiastic for jumping in and rolling up our sleeves, it’s actually the families who themselves have been affected who will be the ones who are the first to help themselves and are the first to help their communities. Who will be the ones who bear the consequences of any badly done reconstruction, or the ones who can enjoy the results of something that works out well, but it’s their decision, it’s their action, their better understanding of their own situation and their own priorities. And whatever happens needs to come through those communities, those economic networks. Without that I think it’s very difficult to say that anybody else has done a good job.

Roland Berger Foundation: Thank you very much for your time!

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