Between her return from Pakistan and her departure for Lebanon, Adelaide-based Shelagh Woods shared some reflections as Head of Mission, or country representative, with Médecins Sans Frontières. Shelagh joined us as a nurse and has now worked as Head of Mission four times.
Why, or how, did you become a Head of Mission?
I did my first placement as a nurse and then for my second I went straight to Field Coordinator, which was quite tough as it was a very big project. So I went back to being a nurse, to gain more experience, in Darfur in Sudan. Then I went back to the Field Coordinator role; then I was identified as part of a push to steer more Field Coordinators into Head of Mission positions. That’s when they proposed Somalia. I did politics at university and have since done a Masters in Public Health. I’ve always been interested in the big picture: the context, where Médecins Sans Frontières sits in a country, and how to operate and cooperate, what works and what doesn’t work, and finding a way. So it was a natural progression.
"I’ve always been interested in the big picture: the context, where Médecins Sans Frontières sits in a country, and how to operate and cooperate, what works and what doesn’t work, and finding a way"
Where does Médecins Sans Frontières ‘sit’ in Pakistan?
I’ve worked in Malawi where most of the population is poor and there is little infrastructure and economic development. In comparison Pakistan is a lower middle income country but in terms of health indicators, it’s comparable with much poorer countries. There is a lot of inequity. The biggest needs are especially in the areas where there has been conflict, along the border of Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas—and for other reasons, in Karachi. These are areas where it has historically been more insecure over the past three decades, and they are difficult to access. In the border regions we are the only international non-governmental organisation with international staff still present in the field. All the others are either running their projects through national staff or implementing partners. So I still think it’s a huge achievement for Médecins Sans Frontières to have retained independent access.
How would you describe your role?
It’s like being the glue that holds everything together and keeps everyone moving in the same direction. If you have good people in your teams that you support when they need, then your job is ensuring good communication and collaboration, sorting out legal issues, representation and other high-level activities and strategic issues. A great part of the job is that you do get to move around—as do all the coordination team—especially when you’re doing assessments and exploratory missions. You can enjoy spending time with the teams in the field, and then it’s also nice to be back in the capital. My time felt like two and a half months. No week was the same. There was not one day, or one minute of a day, when I was sitting there going ‘what am I going to do next?’. It was challenge after challenge. It wasn’t the sort of day-to-day stuff; it was the issues preventing you from doing the day-to-day. That was probably the biggest role I played as Head of Mission, just trying to ensure that we could keep the operations going, sorting out the things that weren’t working.
In Pakistan it turned out to be a period when there were a lot of bureaucratic issues, issues with access and our legal status that were hugely time-consuming. Then there were the usual human resource things. In 2014, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Ebola response had a huge impact on human resources and for eight months I faced huge gaps in international staff especially at the coordination level. But luckily we had very strong teams in the field which was the only way we managed to keep our head above water.
Was there an interest among some of your colleagues about being female and a country representative?
I’ve heard that some people wonder whether it’s appropriate or not for women to be in management roles or in senior positions due to the perceived place of women in Islamic societies. But for most of the Pakistan authorities it didn’t make any difference at all, and you have to remember that Pakistan had a female Prime Minister way before many western countries, and even today there are women in high-level positions. When I was Head of Mission in Somalia too, I met a lot of the high-level religious people in meetings and it was never a problem. You could say that as a woman from outside the culture, you’re sort of in a special category. I’d encourage any other women who want to be Head of Mission to not self-select themselves out—there’s absolutely no need to do that!
"I’d encourage any other women who want to be Head of Mission to not self-select themselves out—there’s absolutely no need to do that!"
What sustains you on these long placements?
It’s the staff, the team, the people you meet in the field. All the Pakistani people I met were delightful. You get to meet lots of interesting people, go to interesting places. It’s also having a challenge, and being engaged—that’s what keeps me motivated, keeps me moving. When you almost have too much work the time goes so quickly. I have a good network of friends that I keep in contact with, and I’ll sometimes meet them on holiday during breaks. It is many years since I have worked and lived in the same place. I’m just used to it now, and all my friends are used to it.
What are your expectations for Lebanon?
I’ll be living in Beirut. Lebanon is such an interesting country on its own. And in terms of the region, I know the broad strokes of the politics and dynamics, but it will be really interesting to get a more in-depth understanding. As Head of Mission for Médecins Sans Frontières I’ll be overseeing projects that support Syrians in the region. When you look at the extent of the humanitarian needs, it’s so catastrophic. So it’s important that we have adapted our ways of working to be able to reach people in Syria as well.