March 16, 2015

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Dispatches, the MSF Canada magazine.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)’s ability to deliver emergency medical care in nearly 70 countries around the world requires the efforts of many dedicated people. In a new series called “How MSF Works,” we talk to some of those who help the organization reach the people who need its assistance most. In this instalment, we speak with MSF Canada’s field human resources manager Christophe Lefebvre.


What does a field human resources manager for MSF do?

I’m in charge of placement, development and retention for expats — that is, Canadians who work overseas for MSF. So I make the link between supply — expats who are available and have the skills necessary to work in MSF’s projects around the world — and demand, which is made up of the needs MSF has on the ground.

We try to meet those demands, but it’s not a perfect science. MSF works in so many places and requires medical and logistical professionals with specific skills and experience, so there will often be some gaps. That’s something we do our best to avoid, because it means that someone else will have to take on those responsibilities, in addition to his or her own work, until the right person can join the team.


'You have to be flexible to work with MSF! That should be the headline of this article'


How do you make those connections?

We work with partners in the operational centres. Rather than hire people for specific positions in the field, we recruit them and place them within one of four different pools: medical, logistical, operational or administrative. A pool manager at the operations centre is in contact with the field and knows what positions are needed.

So then we receive requests: There might be a need for a neonatal nurse to work in Haiti, for example. And if I know someone that fits that profile, I can contact them and make the recommendation.


Is it easy to make those matchups?

There often have to be compromises between the needs in the field and who is available. But there is a really low rate of failure, because most people are flexible. You have to be flexible to work with MSF! That should be the headline of this article.



What impact has Ebola had on staffing pressures?

There is always a time pressure in our work, because field requests often need filling ASAP, especially for MSF’s work in emergency contexts. With the Ebola crisis, the needs are immediate and the planning is still for the short term. The challenge is that, because of the specific risks of Ebola and the intensity of the work, the duration of expats’ field missions is only five to eight weeks. So each project is going through 30 expats or so every cycle. As a result, everyone needs to be extremely flexible — except that Ebola requires a certain amount of experience and professional knowledge, so only the most qualified are going.


Are expats from places like Canada the majority of MSF’s workers in the field?

Not at all. Only one in 10 of our staff members are expats. The rest are national staff — people from the country where MSF is working. It is the national staff who do most of MSF’s hands-on work, and it’s for them that we are also focusing on training and development to help them in their careers.


Is it possible to have a long-term career with MSF?

Yes! Extra trainings, whether internal or external, is one way to help our workers develop their own career paths within MSF. Part of our role is to identify those who will lead the organization tomorrow and to help them grow. We’re also developing mentoring programs to help people in this way.


What’s the best part of your job?

The fact that we are so close to what’s happening in the field. We stay connected with the day-to-day activities and operations, and we can really see the impact we have. It can make you feel very proud.


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