An exclusive interview with Mr. Vinod Alkari, former Chief of Water and Sanitation Program for UNICEF in Nigeria

   1)  Please tell us more about yourself – your early years, your schooling and education?

I was born in a small town called Amravati and spent my early education in Wardha and Khamgaon, both small towns. Later, while doing mechanical engineering at Amravati and Automobile engineering at Nagpur, things were different, in the sense that the towns were much bigger than the small towns I grew up in. Nagpur was no match for Mumbai but we were happy to be in the second best town after Mumbai, the State’s winter capital.

2)  When did you join UNICEF and why? Tell us about your various stints across the world.

It was in 1986 when I moved from the corporate world of the Swedish company Atlas Copco where I had worked for 12 years, to UNICEF and in turn into the development world. Changing the outlook from pure engineering to social engineering wasn’t easy. It took a while to move into the new role. A major reason for the move was to be able to reach a larger audience and do different things while achieving personal growth. Money was not the motivator because the difference in salary was, to be precise, just Rs. 500. Moving up in the corporate world those days was often akin to moving up in a silo. One could eventually reach the top but where would you go from there? UNICEF was and still is a very open system that recognizes potential, skills and dedication where technical boundaries are not limitations. While in Delhi, I was supporting the Water and Sanitation program in UP and Seven Sister states in the north east.

In 1993 I was appointed Chief of UNICEF’s Orissa office. My stint there was an eye opener for me as the development issues went far beyond my engineering background. It was a fascinating world to work in. I was talking more about infant and maternal mortality, education of girls and child protection than about the drilling of bore wells and hand pumps. In 1998, I moved to Madhya Pradesh where challenges were equally daunting.

International assignments commenced in 2000 when I moved to Nigeria and was Chief of UNICEF’s north eastern region field office in Bauchi that covered 10 states. In terms of the operating parameters and social diversity, nothing rivals Nigeria. Living conditions were extremely difficult with electricity available maximum for about 4 hours a day and God forbid, if you had to get an ECG done, you’d have to travel 150 kilometers to reach the nearest hospital with a working ECG machine. Security was a major issue with armed robberies and roadside hijacking being common. But the hardships were compensated with an excellent team of colleagues and the people of the region. Getting a hang of Africa is a daunting task but if you spend 4 to 5 years in Nigeria, you could well qualify to work anywhere in Africa.

2004 took me to Albania where the setting was completely different. Emerging from the 40 year long communist ironclad rule of Enwer Hoxha, the country was finding its feet on a democratic platform and had the high goal of joining the European Union. My Albania stint lasted just a year when I was called for duty in Iraq in 2005. Iraq was going through a recovery phase with substantial financial support from the developed countries.  Besides leading the UNICEF supported Water and Sanitation program, I was also tasked with coordinating the UN’s infrastructure development program where more than ten UN agencies were collaborating.

2009 brought me back to Nigeria as Chief of the Water and Sanitation program. I retired in 2012 and am now settled in Mumbai.

3)  You’ve worked across India and all over the world during your UNICEF journey. What have been the most difficult challenges that you’ve had to face?

Each location posed challenges, albeit of different kinds. At times, these are not limited to the programs. Some emerge out of the working environment. And some pop out with no notice, like the bombing of the UN Hose in Nigeria. If getting the Salt Iodization program going in Orissa was difficult, coordinating the multi agency support in Iraq was no less. It was not easy to convince the then Chief Minister of Orissa Mr. Biju Patnaik. There were lobbies and vested interests that did not allow a ban on sale of non iodized salt for human consumption. But the Old Man, as he was fondly called, was very sharp in analyzing and when he saw logic in your case, he would accept it. It did not take long after convincing him to commence salt iodization in Orissa.  In Iraq, it was about coordinating the work of UN agencies with different mandates. Things get messy when funds are involved and we were dealing with millions of dollars. Donors were breathing down our neck to know the status of their contributions. As the Coordinator, I had to constantly manage the divergent entities. And that was quite a challenge.

A challenge of a completely different kind was to get into Baghdad and to meet the minister at his home.  It may seem easy on paper but to actually execute such a meeting takes a month of advance notice. We could not leave the Green Zone without the US Army support. On the day of actual travel into Baghdad, everything was open to change. Traveling in a convoy of four Humvees, surrounded by eight heavily armed soldiers, guns armed, accompanied by my personal security officer and a chopper on the standby just in case; is something you get to do once in a while and that too in Iraq only.

Perhaps the last challenge I would mention is when the UN House got bombed on 26th August 2011. I was on the third floor in a meeting with a colleague when the whole building shook, some windows exploded and some imploded and the silence of death reigned for a couple of minutes. A vehicle based improvised explosive device was detonated in the lobby of the building killing more than 20 people. I managed to get the team together and we rescued several injured colleagues. Such occurrences, perhaps once in a lifetime, do present themselves as challenges that you have to overcome by the minute.  

4)   What are the biggest manpower and management challenges facing development organizations like the UNICEF worldwide and how do you think these challenges will be overcome?

Human resources requirements vary widely depending on the programs the organizations have in a country. It is also the non availability of local expertise that often ends up as a challenge. In the countries facing political disturbances or prolonged conflicts, the human capital flight is common. Iraq is a good example where the highly educated migrated over the years, leaving the country with limited human resources for recovery. UNICEF’s staffing in each country comes mostly from the local population. Absence of these entities is often a challenge. Other areas of concern are computer literacy. Here too, the local expertise varies to a great extent. The operating system is computerized in UNICEF and the same may be true for most organizations. Not everyone needs to be a computer programmer but basic knowledge and in some areas, an advanced knowledge of the software like MS Office is essential.

This issue is not limited to human resources within the organizations. It extends to the partners as well. For example the NGO communities with excellent ground level experience and expertise are readily available in South Asia but the same cannot be said for a country like Iraq or those emerging from long upheavals. Here it will take several years for the NGO communities to emerge and start contributing although now is the need of the hour for their presence.

UNICEF has a well laid out staff development portfolio. There are several on-line training courses which the staff members are encouraged to complete. A very good initiative in UNICEF is for compulsory completion of courses like Safety and Security, Gender Equality, Ethics, Risk management to name a few. A whole range of courses are available that meet the need of staff members at all levels. Staff members are encouraged to complete higher education with part time courses. Specific funds are allocated for training and skills development. In addition, one week staff time is allocated for training.

In a fast changing world where ‘perform or perish’ and ‘delivering results’ are the key words, organizations must endeavor to upgrade skill sets of their staff to meet the changing environment and constantly bring in new blood into the organization through external recruitments.

5)  In terms of people, how critical is talent management to the development and not-for-profit sector, especially an organization like the UNICEF?

That ‘People make the organization’ is well known. Therefore, how to bring in people fit for the job, upgrading their skill sets periodically and offering a creative environment are the key tasks for HR teams. This need is well understood in UNICEF. Consequently it has laid out well structured staff development initiative. A talent pool is created following the written and verbal tests. It encourages staff to aspire for higher level positions. Women are especially encouraged to apply for higher level positions with the idea to provide avenues for talent to grow in an open and competitive environment. Today UNICEF has a healthy ratio of women professionals in higher level positions.    

6)  It is a common and likely incorrect perception that organizations involved in developmental activities focus more on the policy and research side of work rather than on business management - like in the private and for profit sector. How misplaced is this notion and what can you share with us in terms of how goals and performance management is done in your area of work?

Each country program in UNICEF is different as it is based on country specific development parameters and MDGs. It will therefore be incorrect to say that UNICEF focuses only on policy and research side. Broadly, the countries are categorized as High Income, Middle Income and Low Income countries. The programs reflect these scenarios. UNICEF does not directly implement programs but rather it supports government programs. With its mandate for Children and Women, UNICEF’s support falls in the area of its comparative advantage. Typical low income country programs may include support to service delivery, an element one may find excluded in a high income country program. Thus, the program contents vary from country to country. There are no watertight compartments when it comes to programming. UNICEF’s work typically is a mix of advocacy, policy, research, capacity development and assisting in service delivery.

UNICEF had adapted a ‘results based management’ approach in addition to ‘human rights based programming’. The country program has a results matrix that defines the results that it aims to attain during the program cycle. One could always see a log-frame for programs that defines quantitative and qualitative time specific results with means of verifications. The log-frame is jointly developed with the government partners. While the progress is concurrently monitored internally, there is joint assessment with the partners at midyear and end of the year. The performance is monitored against the milestones. Course correction, wherever necessary, is done annually. Most countries have UNDAF – United Nations Development Assistance Framework, within which UNICEF programming is undertaken.

7)  What steps does UNICEF take in the area of employee training, especially for enhancing personal effectiveness across all levels?

UNICEF has a well structured and planned staff development program. At the beginning of the year, each staff is required to identify, in consultation with their supervisors, the area that they will focus on during the year. The skills set improvement sought by staff members must relate to the work they are engaged in and which, when acquired, will help UNICEF programming better. Periodic staff/supervisor assessment discussions take place, at least twice a year, during which note is taken of the progress on training courses undertaken by staff member. Difficulties, if any, get resolved. Staff members can avail special time slots to complete the courses. Specific funds are available for staff development. On personal development front, the staff members are put at the forefront and deciding on where they need training. These skill sets, when acquired, provide the staff member with better avenues for internal placements and in reaching higher levels of responsibilities.

In addition, UNICEF mandates certain training courses like field safety awareness; human rights based programming, gender awareness, ethics and several others which are considered essential for every staff member.

8)  Please tell us about the efforts that are undertaken to train and re-tool employees for better performance management. Does an organization like the UNICEF face the issue of shifting paradigms that require re tooling of existing staff?

As true to corporate world and institutes, UNICEF programming too goes through periodic major changes. These are often visible at the time of a new country program development, which usually occurs every 4 to 5 years. Depending on the program focus shift, the staff requirements vary in number and skill sets. This often demands retooling of the existing staff and in some cases, induction of new blood. The experience amassed by the staff over the years cannot be simply replaced by hiring new people. Since the new country program development is almost an 18 month long process, staff members do get to know where the new program focus is. They can therefore self assess vis a vis the requirement and acquire necessary skills over a year or so. This is not to say that UNICEF does nothing to deploy existing staff with upgrading their knowledge and skills. Every possible opportunity is offered to staff members to make themselves suitable for new positions. As I said earlier, staff members avail of several available opportunities meeting the demand of new programs. The idea is retain as much as possible of the existing staff while also being open to induction of new staff.   

9)   How critical is cultural diversity management and what does an organization like UNICEF do for cultural sensitization of its employees?

UNICEF would not be where it is if it had not embraced the culture of managing diversities. Firmly believing that its staff across the world makes it what it is, UNICEF places great importance on its staff and the managers to ensure that all cultures receive equal recognition and respect. There is zero tolerance for cultural or gender discrimination. Any deviation from the norm is dealt with sternly with due procedures.

In any country office, the staff mix comprises of national and international professionals. Each one is required to respect local cultures and way of life. Recognizing that newly arriving staff from other countries need to know local culture, country offices hold special awareness meetings for newly arriving staff. It helps the new staff integrate in new settings. In addition, the managers and the HR team is always available to help a new member settle down in new working environment. Obviously it also necessary for the local staff to recognize that their colleagues from another country will have different beliefs and those must be respected as well. It is often for a manager to ensure that her/his team respects cultural diversities and maintains cordial working relationship. Should there be, in spite of all efforts, an unresolved issue; UNICEF has several avenues e.g. Ombudsperson or senior managers, to resolve tricky situations.  

10)   What part does technology play in the effective management and execution of your work and projects? How effectively is it being used?

Any organization that does not keep pace with emerging technologies and tools will find itself left behind the rest. In UNICEF we all are required to learn, adopt and operate the computerized financial as well as program management systems. Like any learning organization, UNICEF being one of them, it has kept pace with time and technology. Till a year back, its operations management system was decentralized. There were delays in compilation at HQ level as all offices were not able to synchronize data timely. To be able to have real time data, it has developed a new system and now all offices operate simultaneously. It took preparatory work in terms of getting the staff oriented with new system. UNICEF spent considerable time and resources in getting all staff on board with the new system. Finally the system went live globally on the given day.

With technology assistance, every member has access to most of the information. Exceptions relate to HR and some of the financial modules. It has brought in transparency and by extension, accountability. Managers can view/assess the financial and physical progress from any location in the world. By adapting to such technology, country specific barriers stand broken. The system is truly global. Earlier the managers were required to be in a country location to transact business. Now the managers could be anywhere and still perform all functions.

Reporting or report generation, a necessary tool for every manager; is now possible from any corner of the world. It has empowered the managers as the physical presence barriers do not exist anymore. Facts and figures are available to managers in real time. This helps better management.

11) What is your own personal style of management and leadership?

I always believed in leading from the front and by setting examples. My competition was never a team member; rather I placed myself as a self competitor. It helped me do better. If my team has to perform and come true on ethics, I will have to set example. I always thrived for perfection in my work and by extension, expect it from my team. A manager must be above the board all the time, in all instances, without fail. Example setting does not come easy or cheap. You have to put your heart and soul into it. It is difficult but rewards are several.

Respect for divergent views is mandatory. The best team is where different views exist. A skilled manager is one who brings these views together for attaining a goal. Getting each member of the team to ‘own’ the goal is key ingredient. That is the only way to ensure that everyone works towards an owned goal. People go beyond the norm, put in extra hours, forego holidays and make adjustments to their own styles, just to attain the goal because it belonged to them. And publically recognizing the contributions of team members is like icing on the cake. The best part as many would say. The manager often gets the credit for project completion but a good manager is one who understands and recognizes that without her/his team members, nothing could be achieved. In publically recognizing the team does not cost monies. A good word for the team is worth millions of rupees.

From experience over the years I can say for sure that it is possible to transform a simple team into an enviable team, a team every other person would like to be on. Getting a team to a level where neighbors envy it and the owner’s have pride applies. I have managed to do this time and again, nationally as well in international settings.

12)   In your opinion, how significant are soft skills in your area of work?

Soft skills are necessary at all levels but are more pronounced as you take on higher level positions. Senior managers in UNICEF may interact with experts from other UN bodies, Secretaries, Ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors, NGO Heads and Development Partners periodically. The discussions tend to be less technical as the discussions are more about advocacy for children, about what UNICEF brings to the table and at times UNICEF capacities in assisting the programs. Interactions are more about problem solving, introducing new ideas, generating resources and sharing experiences. It has more to do with human skills. In the development world, it is unlike the corporate sales pitch where one tries to sell a fridge to an Eskimo. It is more about getting the counterparts to recognize that there are problems to address, there are opportunities to correct the imbalance and that there are development partners ready to assist. One needs the skills to convince them in a non threatening way that, say for example, the situation of children in a country is far from desired or development indicators are really poor.

On the team front, managers need to adapt non threatening approaches in resolving issues. You will always find a colleague or two who are out of sync with the rest of the team. While everyone is entitled to a different view or take on a subject, these are resolved during the ‘storming’ stage. Typically a team goes through four stages, namely the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Once the storming and norming stages are through, there should be no ‘I did not agree to it’ from any team member. Should such situations arise, the manager has to get the errant team member on track by a convincing and friendly approach. In scenarios like these, soft skills are more desirable than pure technical skills and especially so for the managers.  

13)   What advice would you have for HR experts and organizations that are involved in the area of building competitive and competent workforces for the not-for-profit and development agencies across the world; and especially in India?

I am not a HR professional and therefore must tread with care in voicing my advice. HR business has become a science by itself and therein rests the folly. In science, things happen according to the laws of physics or chemistry. Mix two ingredients in certain proportion, apply heat and there is a definite reaction. You can predict the outcome. That is the science part. But human beings are not ingredients for science. There are no fixed quantities or proportions of ingredients for human beings to react to a situation. You may find almost opposite reactions from two sets of people for the same setting. Essentially, humans are unpredictable when it comes to situations. With this as the background, how would one get a set of divergent people into a competitive and competent work force?

I believe we can get the workforce to be competent relatively easily by analyzing skills gaps, designing training/skills development programs and linking those to the organization’s goal. This way, one could, over a short period build a team that is competent.

More difficult will be to develop a truly competitive team because unless you define what ‘competitive’ means, you may end up developing a ruthless, unethical and ‘will do anything’ to remain a competitive team. I would like my team to be fiercely competitive but not like a team that will sacrifice ethics, break rules and adapt dubious ways just to remain competitive. Such workforce may bring in quick results but those will be short lived. An organization will have much to lose if latter type competitive workforce is created.

HR should therefore consider including ethics and fair play in their organization’s culture. It has to begin at the very top.There never was a level playing field and perhaps will never be one, but the organizations who made the grade are the ones who had a competent workforce that was ethically competitive. It is easier said than done but building the very culture of ethics in competition is mandatory for any organization, not for profit or otherwise. Only those organizations which are built on solid foundation of ethics are destined to last long.


© 2012 Avant Learning Private Limited. All rights reserved.