Africa – Where risk management really can be a matter of life or death (Part 1)
Last week De-RISK started a new engagement with Oxfam GB (Horn East and Central Africa Region) to look at how the risk management techniques we have successfully employed in big corporations might be adapted for use in their work programmes. This blog diarises our first visit to the “front-line” in Kenya and subsequent blogs will look at some of the ideas we came up with along with what the corporate world can learn from the projects that Oxfam undertake in situations where success or failure really can mean life or death.
Please note that the views expressed are those of De-RISK and not those of Oxfam GB.
Wednesday: We arrive at Nairobi (or “Nairobbery” as the locals call it) at 11pm. Driving through the dark streets, one gets the idea that this is not a particularly safe place to explore on foot. Even very short journeys have to be done by taxi after nightfall. The other side of this is that security is big business – all significant businesses and larger dwellings have big gates, security guards and electric fences. Most of the people we talk to have been robbed on the street (some multiple times) and stories of car-jackings and failed attempts are common. It is understandable that risk management is focussed mainly on personal security.
Thursday: Everything looks better in the sunlight and we relax into breakfast by the pool while the electric fence fizzes over our shoulder. A free morning so we head to the Nairobi National Park. This is the only game park that you can see big animals so close to a city. Unfortunately today it seems like “Giraffic Park” as that is pretty much all that we see. After a couple of hours we escape the heat and head back to the bustling city centre only 30 mins away.
In the afternoon we give our first presentation to the Oxfam “Talent” group – a bunch of very bright, hand-picked individuals who are being groomed for senior management roles. We tentatively introduce some of our tools and techniques, clarifying that we do not yet understand their “business” but all seems to go down well. A pleasant dinner around the pool follows and the local mosquitoes get to work on our fresh white flesh.
Friday: We go into the city to the Oxfam office. The traffic at rush-hour is just a bad as central London but with no-one giving way and no traffic lights. Chaos and close shaves are the norm. We undertake a series of interviews with the regional management team. The idea is to do an initial Strategic Risk Assessment of the current programme organisation, tools, people and processes. We use a “standard” template complete with “corporate speak”. This is deliberate to see what terminology works and what jars. Surprisingly most works with a little tweaking (e.g. End-users become Beneficiaries).
One of the managers jokes about not needing risk management – “We drill a bore-hole and if we strike water we call it a well. If we don’t, we call it a toilet”.
An overall view seems to be that the balance between planning and doing is difficult to achieve when you are faced with a humanitarian disaster. It was felt that people tended to “tick the boxes” in the project management processes just so that they can get on with things. Understandable, but they generally recognise that this not necessarily the best thing to do in the long-run. I noted that this was not unique to the humanitarian aid “business” and we have the seen the desire to do rather than plan rather too often.
Saturday: Very early morning flight booked to the north of Kenya but my colleague announces that she has been up all night firing from both ends! We make our way to the airport still not sure that this is a good idea. If we need medical attention we need to get it in Nairobi. We check into the flight to be told that it is a 3 hour flight in a very small plane with no toilet. Her face is a picture when told this but I am the one who will be sitting next to her if something gives. Thanks to the power of Imodium we both arrive in Lodwar clean and safe.
Lodwar is the capital of the Turkana region of Kenya and has an area comparable to that of England. It is a bit of a wild-west town in the dessert with very basic infrastructure – the airport terminal is no more than a bus shelter. We are met by our driver and whisked out of town, stopping briefly at the local “supermarket” to stock up on basic food and bottled water. It is now hitting 35 degrees plus and the temperature varies little here over the year.
We drive north on a reasonable road for a while and then head east on a very rough sandy track which progressively disappears until we are effectively making our own tracks across the dessert. Hundreds of camels wander from one horizon to the other (yes, camels in Kenya!) – each one branded uniquely by its owner. We are alone but never alone. Every time we stop to take photos a Turkanan seems to appear from nowhere and stare at us. They very rarely see vehicles in this area and are as curious as we would be if a space shuttle landed in our back garden.
The Land Cruiser handles the sand efficiently and we eventually snake our way through the palm trees and suddenly burst out onto a beach with Lake Turkana stretching in front of us.
Lake Turkana is the largest dessert lake in the world and approximately eight times the size of Lake Geneva. The water looks all wrong next to the desert and here lies the rub – it is very salty and undrinkable. Drought is very common in this area and the Kenyan government have been talking about desalination projects for a long time. Just talking but not doing.