Michael Seawright: the humanitarian project manager

Adeline Teoh
September 1, 2014

When Michael Seawright trained as a marine biologist at the start of his career, he could hardly have imagined he would end up leading nutrition projects in South Sudan as a project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Although marine biology was his first qualification, Seawright actually began managing projects in the IT sector, from investment banks in London to telecommunication companies in Ireland and across the Pacific. It was his work in this sector that gave him the experience of working with a range of stakeholders in complex contexts that would come in handy later.

“The work involved project management implementing IT systems including extensive consultation with business stakeholders. This experience managing complex projects helped me considerably in my work with Médecins Sans Frontières,” he says.

Ten years ago, Seawright made a switch and headed to South Sudan to coordinate humanitarian projects with an Irish Aid agency called GOAL. It was there he encountered a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “I was very impressed at how well the project was run and in seeing a job advert for project coordinators I applied to work with them,” he recounts.

Working the field

Since then he has worked for other aid agencies but has spent the past eight seeking field work with MSF responding to health emergencies resulting from natural disasters, such as the 2010 Pakistan floods, and working in conflict zones such as Syria.

The Pakistan project was one that stands out in his mind. The previous year, Seawright had spent six months in negotiations with Pakistani officials to secure permission for MSF to operate in the region. It was this access that allowed MSF to quickly respond to the urgent needs of the population.

“Extensive flooding had displaced large numbers of people from their land into camps and onto elevated roads beside their land. They had little or no shelter and none of the necessities needed for daily living,” he explains.

Working with MSF’s Dutch team in East Baluchistan, Pakistan, he started with its 60 staff, which soon swelled to 160 as the situation escalated. Seawright’s role was to coordinate MSF’s efforts with the activities of the authorities, no mean feat in the fraught environment.

“Security was a significant issue not least because the distribution of aid to people often attracted large desperate crowds. This was compounded by an internal conflict between government forces and local separatist armed groups.”

Fast forward to today and Seawright is more than familiar with conflict after a 2013 project in which MSF provided aid to people in the North Syria warzone. “Due to the difficult operating environment, international assistance to the war-affected communities was extremely limited. I managed a small international team along with extremely capable national teams to deliver medical care to areas affected by the conflict. We also conducted emergency polio vaccination campaigns, distributed food and non food supplies to displaced communities and provided first aid support to the refugees fleeing Syria to Northern Iraq.”

His most recent assignment has been comparatively easy, though no less harrowing: setting up nutrition clinics and cholera treatment centres in South Sudan, his sixth assignment for MSF. “The project for which I was responsible provided medical care in the form of nutrition clinics and cholera treatment centres for communities affected by the civil war which started in late 2013. The conflict has led to large numbers of people who have been displaced which has resulted in camps of people affected by malnutrition and other diseases such as cholera.” MSF treated more than 800 cholera cases over 10 days, saving many lives in the process.

Humanitarian being

Different types of projects in different locations obviously require approaches specific to the environment and context but Seawright says there are some commonalities across all humanitarian projects. “This includes managing teams of international and national staff, negotiating humanitarian access with civil and military authorities and activity planning. In insecure settings, such as South Sudan, a significant amount of security management is needed. In short, keeping the team working and safe is the core role of the project coordinator.”

There are even many similarities between humanitarian and non-humanitarian projects, he adds. “While the issues encountered managing field projects are often different to those faced working at home the experience from managing projects is directly transferable. Staff, financial and project management are integral parts of any management position.”

The experience goes the other way as well, he acknowledges. “Good field management requires staff to be confident that you will make the right decisions often in difficult circumstances. However this is made easier with experience gained by working in regular, non emergency projects.”

So how do you know if you’re cut out for managing humanitarian projects? Seawright says a calm disposition and an ability to handle pressure and difficult living conditions are “an essential requirement”. He also warns that the highly rewarding work does come with a price: time away from friends and family. As such, undertaking field is not to be taken lightly.

From a technical perspective, Seawright lists “experience managing staff, finance and budgets, along with project management and negotiating experience” as useful skills. Most importantly, however, you need a desire to help others. “The job can be challenging at times and a strong humanitarian interest is needed to maintain the motivation needed to deal with difficult situations,” he explains.

One key thing Seawright has learnt is the difference between leading teams and managing teams. “Teams which are led well outperform those which are simply managed well,” he states. “This is especially true in field situations where teams rely on the project coordinator to develop new initiatives, push for positive change and look to you to make critical decisions.”

You don’t need to be medically trained to join Médecins Sans Frontières. If you’re interested in applying for a project coordination role, visit www.msf.org.au/join-our-team to find out if you’re eligible.

Author avatar
Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of ProjectManager.com.au. She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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