While good communication between project partners is clearly desirable, communication is also crucial for team members who may be working in remote locations, says Sulic. “It’s very important for any staff we deploy overseas that there is a link back to here. We’ve found that regular teleconferencing, videoconferencing works really well because it keeps everybody on track and everybody is aware of what’s going on.”
Telecommunications technology is the backbone of interaction at this level, and it is also a method of conveying resources. However, technology can be a disadvantage if it doesn’t work or the project relies on it too much. “You assume that people have access to web based technology in remote locations and that’s not always the case, so we have to think about how else we will support our staff,” Sulic notes.
Although communications infrastructure is often damaged in a disaster situation, it’s rare that communication ceases altogether, due to satellite technology. But being overly reliant on technology can be a problem, Johnson agrees. “In some cases it’s back to first principles, working out on a sheet of paper in front of a team what are the gaps, shortfalls,” he says. “Nothing replaces the human call, talking to someone on the ground asking, ‘What do you need? How can we help you?’ We can’t hide behind technology because this is a human response.”
In an emergency situation, Johnson says it’s crucial that one agency takes charge of the communication and coordination via an information portal so other organisations can defer to it for updates. “There may be some confusion on information for the first few days but it starts to clear up as the training kicks in. Then it’s managing the information flow. What are the priorities?” he says.
Geography can affect projects in a number of ways. For disaster relief projects, access is a key issue, whether it involves dealing with distance, the condition of physical infrastructure such as roads, or the location’s environment. In much of Asia and the Pacific, seasons consist of wet and dry, for example. “Your planning considerations to deliver goods needs to take into account seasonal variations,” says Johnson. “During the wet season in southern Laos, to move 165 kilometres along a wet road took two days. During the dry season, it got down to a day.”
He suggests appealing for local help: “It’s better if you can work with a local partner to find the access points and have them suggest variations and alternative ways to get to where you’re going.”
For Sulic, geography poses a different sort of challenge in selling the appeal of remote locations. “Being able to deploy staff is always a huge consideration. It’s easy to get a whole group of people excited about going to a city like Shanghai, but not so much the remote locations,” she admits. Maintaining a connection not only reduces isolation for the deployed but assists in ensuring staff have adequate resources to deliver the project.
Sometimes geography is an advantage, however. Distance gives staff a different perspective on their profession and provides a learning experience for future projects, and being in-country strengthens partnerships. “It’s fantastic in terms of connecting people globally. They bring their experience back here to our colleges, universities and schools, so it’s win-win,” says Sulic. “It builds long-term relationships, so projects get easier.”