It’s been almost half a decade since Julie Vanderwiel first met Fiona Lithgow.
“She rocked up at the office in Juba in May 2014. Off the plane, straight to the container with all her luggage ready for her move to South Sudan.”
“I remember being stressed out, we had a workload up to our ears, and here was this friendly Kiwi. She was confident - cool, calm and direct- but not in an arrogant sense, you know? It was excitement. She was ready to go; ready to get moving.”
And she did.
For the past five years, Fiona has been the Logistics Cluster Coordinator in South Sudan. Impressive, not only for what her and the team have managed to achieve in one of the Logistics Cluster’s largest operations, but also because Julie’s first impression seems to have remained largely unchanged.
Fiona’s attitude wasn’t just first day excitement; it’s who she is. It only takes one conversation to pick up on it.
“The reason I come to work in the morning is because there’s still a lot to do here, there are still areas we can become better in, there are still areas we can become more efficient in. We’re not perfect, nobody is perfect. There is a drive to be better at what we do, a drive to keep fine-tuning, a drive to keep striving towards a better response,” says Fiona.
Since Fiona took on the role as Logistics Cluster Coordinator the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan has deepened and spread. Ongoing insecurity combined with limited logistics capacity and poor transport infrastructure means humanitarian access remains a day-to-day challenge. Last year’s numbers speak for themselves: the Logistics Cluster reached 135 destinations across the country, facilitated the air transport of 5,132 metric tons of lifesaving cargo, and doubled the number of barge movements.
2018 also brought new challenges for humanitarians in South Sudan, with its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, recording its second largest and second deadliest outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease, kickstarting pandemic preparedness activities across the region.
As I read out the figures, I can hear Fiona on the other end of the line confirming each number with me. Her response is direct and unwavering.
“There are always challenges. We need to be flexible.”
“It is a big operation and there is still a need for a coordinated logistics response across the country. The key thing is a) developing a team; b) developing a reputation that we deliver on what we say we’ll do; and c) always looking at new ways of doing things.”
There’s a brief pause. “All that, while at the same time building a team of Logistics Cluster Coordinators of the future.”
When we chat, there’s no doubt it’s in Fiona’s nature to empower those around her – building skills in her own team to improve humanitarian responses now and in the future. A trait recognised by staff, both past and present.
“She thinks big and makes it happen. This is how we managed to train 334 logistics staff in South Sudan last year and have a goal of training an additional 1,000 humanitarians in 2019. She realised there was a need for strengthened logistics capacity and set out to do something about it. I think that’s Fiona in a nutshell – she grabs the bull by the horns and makes it happen” says Jessie Cochran, Logistics Officer with the cluster in South Sudan.
The cumulative effects of war in South Sudan, combined with an extremely poor physical infrastructure, reduced crop production and livelihoods, underdevelopment and displacement, and communities’ weakened abilities to cope with protracted crises and sudden shocks add up to one of the most challenging operational environments for a humanitarian response worldwide. For many organisations, the Logistics Cluster’s support with storage and transport is vital to reaching affected populations with life-saving relief items.
“To provide the logistics services needed in this context, to coordinate and plan rapid emergency responses along with the other clusters, humanitarian actors, and UN Peacekeeping mission, to train internal staff and strengthen logistics capacities in partner organisations, and the myriad other responsibilities of a cluster coordinator in South Sudan requires a dedicated, inspiring, creative leader, which the cluster has in Fiona” says Jessie. She continues, “When Fiona hired me, she told me she could teach someone logistics, but wanted a hard-worker who was willing to learn. Looking back, the amount I’ve learned over the past two and half years is pretty incredible. She has taken it upon herself to give her staff “Cluster Coordinator School” to ensure that we learn about all aspects of an operation.”
As I chat to more people they, like Jessie, agree. Across the sector, in South Sudan and beyond, Fiona is praised as a manager, mentor and humanitarian. But more than that, I get the feeling that it’s her authenticity that stays with people.
“She’s the bluntest woman I know. She says it like it is, there is no falseness. She’s the real deal,” laughs Finne Lucey, who’s previously worked as a Logistics Cluster Coordinator in Syria and is now based in Juba to support the operation.
“The best way to work with people is to mentor them and to bring them up to speed, bring them up to a point where they’re working way beyond what they realised they were capable of. That’s what Fiona does. She brings the best out in people. When you’re working in an operational, inter-agency context like South Sudan this is incredibly important.”
This support has been particularly important when championing female staff.
“Because of Fiona’s motivational and nurturing nature, she got me trained on the Relief Item Tracking Application (RITA). Now I’m in the Juba Country Office performing all tasks under RITA, as well as planning air transport under the Logistics Cluster in South Sudan. This shows how my role, responsibilities and career has grown under Fiona,” said Diko Amariah Khor.
Back with Julie, and five years on from when she first met Fiona, you can tell that the friendly New Zealander who rocked up at the Juba office, luggage in-hand has had a lasting impact.
“That team, that operation, the way it was run was perfect. In the cluster meetings she raises the issues that people don’t want to raise on their own and comes up with creative ideas to overcome the day-to-day challenges that pop up in an operational context like South Sudan.”
“I remember I was really stressed one day and she calmed me down. Through a couple of decent life lessons she made me rethink what stress was and I remember thinking, wow, thank you for the reality check. That moment has stayed with me.”
She stops for a brief moment, smiling. Now working out WFP headquarters, for a second it was almost as if her mind drifted back to Juba.
“I still recall that chat. I don’t know if she does, let’s see.”