07 September 2016

"We take care of the rest so that doctors can get on with treating people they’re assisting," MSF logistician, Yann


MSF's logistician, Yann Geay, talks about what brought him to MSF, the challenges and rewards he has eperienced.

What brought you to MSF?

I started at MSF in 2001. I’d done lots of jobs. The explosion on 21st September at the AZF plant in Toulouse brought me to MSF. The atmosphere had been fairly tense so I went to visit friends in Bordeaux. We talked about what I wanted to do and a very good friend said, “You have the profile for humanitarian work.”  I told him I wasn’t a doctor or nurse, that MSF, for example, wouldn’t take me on. He answered, “but they have logisticians, and you have exactly the right profile.” That’s how it started.

How long have you been with MSF?

I was hired in 2001. I went to the field in 2002, worked until 2005 and then took a 10-year break. I came back last year, in 2015, and here I am.

What does an MSF logistician do?

MSF logisticians support the medical staff. Our job is to help them deliver medical treatment. Concerning operations, I’ve always said that the doctors’ task is to look after patients. We take care of the rest so they can get on with treating people they’re assisting.

What’s your specialist area?

I don’t really have one. I happen to have worked for the emergency desk and 10 years later they called me back. Emergency logistics suits me. Short missions, clearly defined objectives, an efficient modus operandi established from the start, a clear-cut strategy, etc. We have a job to do and we do it as best and as fast as we can, whatever the skill required. It’s rewarding when you manage to get a good job done efficiently and quickly. It sounds a bit super hero but it’s cool.

What’s rewarding about your work?

When we distributed NFI kits and tents in totally destroyed Nepalese villages to people who were overjoyed to receive them, the feedback was instant. Our aid was well targeted and their joy and emotion were our reward. That’s one of the really positive aspects of emergency aid. You see what’s been accomplished really quickly even if there are other things that make a bigger impact. Water and sanitation are the same. Providing clean water to people during a cholera epidemic produces rapid results.

NFI kit distribution in Nepal. Photo: Yann Geay/MSF

In these types of intervention, you don’t spend ages asking yourself if you did the job well. It’s there in front of you. If the job’s been done well, it shows, and fast.  

An example?

Let’s take Nepal again. A very small team — two logisticians, one nurse and competent guys in Kathmandu handling supplies who had to deliver around one hundred tons before the rainy season set in — and helicopters, trucks, effective supply and warehouse management and identification of those in need. The mission was accomplished in six weeks. It was successful teamwork and efficient supply chain management. Technically speaking, it was precision in action.

Any particular problems?

The worst setback during that specific mission was when we lost a helicopter and an international staff member, two Nepalese medical personnel and the pilot. It was horrendous. But aside from that tragic incident, from the technical point of view, the operation ran like clockwork.

What strikes you most when you go on mission?

What I like about the job of logistician is that we work with national colleagues. We meet people with amazing energy and a huge capacity for work.  Some can be a bit questionable but that’s all part of the human experience. There’s an enormous amount of team management — watchmen, cleaners and storekeepers — and lots of teamwork to ensure everyone fully understands the procedures and are on board with what we’re doing. That’s what’s interesting. And then there’s the more informal aspect, like new friendships, which are quite simply fabulous. It shouldn’t be a source of frustration as it’s always really energising to get to know a new team. We don’t know each other at the beginning, but by the time we leave three months later, we feel we’ve lived ten lives together.

What does MSF mean to you?

I think MSF is a perfect mix of technical expertise and professionalism, which cannot be faulted from the medical and logistical perspective, and a humanist philosophy that perfectly matches what I was seeking. This independence from state, religious and political powers enables us to be effective as do the resources we have to accomplish our work, so we’re right on track. MSF’s been around for 45 years and it’s evolving. It can seem rather unmanageable at times but it works. It must keep on changing, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re emergency workers with the know-how required to solve a problem while maintaining our independence. We must try to not change too much. It would be great if it could stay that way.

Any advice for a logistician going on a first mission?

Wherever you end up on a first mission, you’ll be integrating technical know-how and processes. Look out for your staff, stay close to them, respect and learn from them and don’t start reinventing the wheel. They’ve been there a lot longer than you and they’ll still be there when you leave, so listen to them.

We don’t rely enough on national staff?

Although it depends on the personality, we all want to bring our personal touch. But humility is also needed to see what works in what our predecessors set up. But most importantly, we have to be aware we’re not on our home ground, that there are codes we don’t necessarily understand. And from the technical point of view even, there are things we can learn from local people. How to use certain materials we wouldn’t give a thought to, structures we wouldn’t have imagined, formatted as we are as Europeans. And then, when a mission goes on to last several years, we’ll only be there for three or six months, whereas most of the local staff have been there much longer than us so they’re familiar with the whole history. They embody the missions. They know where they’re going, so really it’s them who should be relied on. They need to be taken care of. Managing them isn’t something to be undertaken lightly.

Any advice to give to logisticians involved in emergency assignments?

Be professional, stick to the desk’s instructions, be prepared to think out of the box when there’s a problem, be clear in your own mind, and give it all you’ve got.