Lessons from the frontline of development

Take a look at Tony Banbury’s Twitter page when you get a chance. Normally it’s the tweets themselves that catch your eye. In Banbury’s case, though, it’s the header image – more suited to a James Bond movie than a public servant, but nonetheless an accurate rendering of his 25 years in development and public service.

Banbury, you see, is not someone who opts for the quiet life. Instead, his career saw him on the frontline of the humanitarian response to global emergencies such as Ebola, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti – to name but three – as well as stints for the UN World Food Programme in Asia and several years at the National Security Council in the White House.

The Twitter picture was taken of Banbury just after he had landed in Voinjama, Liberia during his time as head of the UN Ebola emergency response mission. For Banbury, the memories of those high-pressure months remain all too vivid. “When I got tagged for the role, I remember being amazed that there was no plan to end the crisis,” he recalls.

“There was a lot of activity and a lot of people and organisations running around, but there was no clear strategy to actually end it. I had to quickly throw out the rule book. As a result, the UN response was unlike anything we had done before: the composition, the reporting structures, all very different. It is so important not to be constrained by previous plans or experiences when responding to such a high-risk crisis – you just need to tailor things to the specific circumstances.”

Early ambitions

Banbury always wanted to work in crisis response. His interest was sparked during his time at college and, post-graduation, he packed his rucksack and booked a one-way ticket from his native Boston to Bangkok. “I had a very strong interest in human rights, as well as a very strong interest in the conflict in Cambodia,” he explains. “A good friend of mine had graduated a year before me and was living there, and I knew I could go stay with him.”

At the time there were lots of refugees living in camps on the Thailand-Cambodia border – a legacy of the Khmer Rouge – and Banbury was fired up by his determination to work there as a human rights officer. Things didn’t automatically fall into place, however.

“I got to Bangkok and started banging on doors, and the UN folks – in retrospect not at all surprisingly, but at the time it was surprising to me – wanted to know if I had any engineering skills, as there were a lot of issues with water and sanitation, or if I had had medical training,” he admits. “I hadn’t – I had studied political science. I was a little discouraged, but kept banging on doors and tried to enhance my value by learning the local language. They only had one human rights officer for the six camps, and eventually they decided to create a second position, and I was there at the right time and place. So it was a combination of luck and perseverance, and it was an early lesson about the value of being clear about what you want and sticking to it.”

That particular role opened the door to many which followed, including peacekeeping roles back in Cambodia, Bosnia and then at the UN headquarters in New York. The roles, however, were not the only thing to change. Development and crisis response, too, have evolved hugely since the time he started working in the sector in the early 1990s.

“When I was doing my graduate degree, I wrote my thesis on the links between human rights development and security,” recalls Banbury. “Back then, there were very few scholars or practitioners who saw much of a connection, particularly the security folks, who saw their work through a hard-edged national security lens totally disconnected from development work. But now, and for the last decade or so, it is widely accepted that you cannot separate development from issues of human rights and security. When it comes to peacekeeping and conflict resolution, the UN has changed its approach to fully recognise those links.”

He goes on to say, though, that there remains more to do – especially around the connection with the economic and financial dimensions of a crisis. “In my experience, one of the roots of so many conflicts is the competition over resources,” he says. “Political power for a lot of people in conflict settings is a means to financial wealth – personal benefits for themselves, their family and their supporters, whether it is ethnic, tribal, religious or whatever. Unfortunately, very often financial motivations are not factored in enough when it comes to addressing a conflict situation or a development challenge.”

Mindset matters

Having clocked up so many experiences in hotspots around the world, Banbury – perhaps understandably – has developed some deep insights on how to hit the ground running. That said, he believes there are certain approaches that work in any given situation, crisis or not, and ideally they are done in an orderly sequence.

“First, you need to get smart on the situation and understand what is going on,” he says. “People, in all different contexts, often take action without adequate information, but I’ve always been a strong believer in the importance of understanding before taking action. You should do the necessary analysis and then, based on this, come up with a clear set of strategic objectives in the form of one or two sentences that fundamentally sum up what you are trying to achieve – and that everyone can sign up to and understand.”

These objectives, which can be just a few bullet points, need to be clear and gain universal acceptance and understanding from those on the team, as this helps to bring everyone together. “It is then you should execute, based on a very clear plan with agreed deliverables, roles and responsibilities for everyone,” he continues. “This clarity is very important. As the leader you need to set people loose to work and not micromanage. It’s not about telling people what to do, but asking them what support they need. This is the same model in virtually every context. Unfortunately, the nature of a global emergency means that leaders and teams need to do all of these steps simultaneously.”

Banbury, however, is keen to stress that while the process is vital, of even greater importance is the need to recruit a good team to address the problem. “They need to be smart people willing to roll up their sleeves and get around a table,” he adds. “I’m a big believer in getting a large room with a big table and having everyone sit around it – everyone has an equally valuable contribution to make about different areas, not necessarily their focus of expertise. They all need to be empowered, regardless of age or seniority.”

Learning the lessons

Banbury – as a veteran of crises aplenty – has inevitably been keen to lend his thoughts to the commissions and task forces that analyse responses to global disasters and identify what could be done better. Take Ebola, for example. Here he says that there have been some practical steps taken, which should – hopefully – enhance the response the next time a pandemic strikes.

“Remember that the fact the UN secretariat had to get involved with Ebola was an acknowledgement of the failure of the system. They had to create a UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response because the health crisis was allowed to get out of control, and so it became much more complex and multidimensional. Everyone now recognises the importance of early detection and early response. My personal lesson that I took into the crisis was the importance of tailoring the response to the specific circumstances.”

Banbury is taking the need to share such lessons into his new life as a former crisis response professional. Having left the UN after several decades’ service with a passionate call for it to undergo substantial reform, he is now pursuing something of a portfolio career, including a role as a board member at the Centre for Public Impact.

“I now finally have the chance to step back and reflect on these experiences and lessons,” he concludes. “I spent my career going from one high-pressure role to another, taking copious notes in each of them. I now have time to dig out and dust off all my notebooks and share what I learned along the way.”

With a global readership assured, the journey from notebook to printing press or web page can’t come soon enough. Watch this space.