Recipe for Success
Christophe Vial has filled many a passport throughout his career travelling the world as a logistician, but this wasn’t always his plan. Ahead of World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, we sat down with Christophe to learn more about his path into humanitarian logistics and why he continues to seek out the road less travelled.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My initial dream was to become a chef: I spent 20 years in the restaurant and hotel business and then in the catering business, mainly as an expat and in very remote locations. When I was sixteen, I left school and worked my way up from waiter to hotel manager. It was a fantastic experience as a hotel comprises about all the types of management there is, and it provided me with tools and techniques that I still use a lot today!
The catering business taught me about logistics. Every day we had to figure out how to reach remote sites: in 2011, we would feed 6,000 people in the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. In 2009 we served 27,000 meals a day in Madagascar.
In 2013, I took a one-year break and worked in the Central African Republic (CAR) with a French NGO. That is where I became co-facilitator for the Logistics Cluster. With the start of the widespread outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa, the Logistics Cluster coordinator in CAR told me about a position with the World Food Programme, the lead agency of the Logistics Cluster. In 2014, I became a logistician in Guinea. I stayed there for two years. I was then deployed to Haiti during the Hurricane Matthew response, worked for two years as a coordinator in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and took part in the Cyclone Kenneth and Idai responses in Mozambique in 2019.
One of the main roles of a Logistics Cluster Coordinator is to give advice. Giving advice is always nice, but it comes with a responsibility. We have to make sure that we are aware of the reality we are advising on.
So, I decided to take this 3-month break and join a Swiss NGO in Goma, DRC, to check that I was still attuned to the reality of the field and to the NGOs’ needs. In March 2020 I came back to the Logistics Cluster and was deployed to Gaziantep, Turkey, helping to coordinate the cross-border operations between Turkey and Northern Syria.
Do you remember how you felt before your first mission?
My first mission with the Logistics Cluster was in 2013, during the Western African Ebola epidemic. I was afraid of Ebola, just as everybody was but I was very impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of my colleagues. I also remember the feeling of admiration toward the rapidity of the response, where great means were deployed in a very short period of time: from storage to transport, telecommunications to construction…
What would be your advice to aspiring humanitarians to help them manage the stress of an operation?
I would suggest to utilise the resources available to you. The medical team of the World Food Programme provides field staff with stress management techniques that are very useful and well designed. It is imperative to remember that your health is your most precious ally, especially during a crisis when it is easy to forget. You have to make sure that you eat, exercise and get some sleep. Otherwise you affect your performance and efficiency, so what’s the point? Communication is also essential. We are lucky that – unlike ten years ago – it is easy to keep in touch with friends and family located thousands of kilometres away. When you are in the field it is key to communicate with your friends and family. But when you are on the ground your colleagues help and support you. They are the ones who will notice changes in your normal behaviour, and you should listen to them. I can only reiterate the importance of communicating with colleagues and performing regular stress management self-assessments.
What was your proudest moment as a Logistics Cluster Coordinator in DRC?
I had a lot of favourite moments! There is a Congolese saying that if you drink from the Congo River you will come back to DRC. I believe it to be true; you easily fall in love with the magic of the country. I arrived in DRC when it was one of the highest-level emergencies. It was a very challenging environment: the size of the country amounts to about two thirds of Europe. We were operating in the Kasai province (which is about the size of Portugal) with only six trucks! Still, I am very proud of our work during the Kasai response. The Logistics Cluster and its partners were able to deploy very fast and provided common services solution for storage and transport to the entire humanitarian community.
What do you prefer about the job? What do you regret?
Logistics is a fantastic area of work because it makes you see the impact and result of your efforts. For instance, I remember the hurricane response in Les Cayes, Haiti: we started with free land and we ended up with a busy hub with helicopter operations!
I do not have any regrets. This said the nature and location of the jobs sometimes put you on the fringe of major family events. You can't always be present at pivotal moments such as a wedding, a birth or a funeral. I could not be with my family when my nephew was born.
If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would have joined the Logistics Cluster earlier.
Do you have a hobby that you manage to practice while in the field?
I have a passion for cooking, and I practice it as much as I can. Working in remote locations has given me the opportunity to discover new products, techniques and dishes. And it is a great way to discover the local culture!
The theme of World Humanitarian Day 2020 is Real Life Heroes, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of humanitarian workers and the heroic acts they undertake every day in service of those in need.