I have worked with WFP Logistics for two years from 2006-2008. I was based in HQ, but did a couple of missions, to Mozambique in 2008 and to Myanmar later that same year. Last week I returned to WFP and to Logistics after a year and a half away, doing a Master's degree in Holland. Upon return, my boss, Peter, asked me to write a post on what it was like to come back, what remained the same and what had changed. This is that post.
I'm going to take my cue from an email that Peter sent to colleagues here in WFP Logistics, announcing my return. He started with a quote from the Eagles: "Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." That is quite an accurate description of what it is like around here. Once you get a foothold in this department and this organisation, it is really hard to sever those ties. And, when you come back, you realize that you didn’t really leave, you just checked out for a while. It would actually be interesting to see how many people that leave humanitarian organizations end up returning at some point later in their careers. My bet is that it would be a majority.
So, what are my observations of the past week? There are a number of things I immediately noticed. The most striking of those was how little things seemed to have actually changed. Ok, a few aesthetic changes have been made to the building, quite a lot of faces are gone because people have changed duty stations, while other people are new since I left. But the atmosphere of the place, the esprit de corps if you like, remains the same. And, as before, we still seem to be in the middle of a never-ending cycle of improvement projects.
It is fun to see how projects I remember being initiated that are now fully implemented. However, it is frustrating to see how other projects that were initiated and that should have been started, are still struggling to really take off. In spite of all the energy that has been put into those projects, they are still not quite where they ought to be. It makes you wonder if the efforts were worth it.
That is a thought that has come to my mind a lot during the past week. We do make a serious effort to renew our way of doing business but are our efforts to improve worthwhile when some projects take so long to translate into real time improvements in the field? Or, are our struggles to modernize actually undermining our core task - to bring the proper good to the right place at the right time?
My humble take on it is that we should be cautious not to resist using available means to help us do our job, in a better and more efficient way, just because implementation sometimes requires radical change. Some of our projects might fail, and some might take a lot longer to complete than what they should, but that is not a reason to say that we shouldn't have started them in the first place.
What's important is that the inspiration to initiate change is a sincere interest to get better at our job because we think that the job in itself is important. I think, or I choose to believe that, for the most part, that is the case around here. That's the constant that hasn't changed much since I left; the esprit de corps that makes this place a meaningful place to be. Once you've partaken in that spirit, that desire to do a good job, it is really hard to let go. You get addicted. Or, as the Eagles would have said – you can check out for a while, but you can never really leave.