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Updated August 13, 2015

Tips for staying in contact with remote staff in developing countries / conflict zones

So many, many factors stand in the way of trying to stay in contact with field staff at projects in rural or conflicted areas in developing countries:
  • poor communications infrastructure
  • poor transportation infrastructure
  • lack of communications skills - lack of literacy, lack of public speaking skills, lack of reporting skills, etc.
  • lack of value for reporting - no perceived benefits by local staff or reporting on time, accurately and completely
  • a culture that fears communicating failure
  • lack of a common language
  • changing political circumstances
  • cultural resistance
  • family obligations
  • conflict
  • corruption
  • competing work priorities
and on and on and on.

Working in developing countries, places in conflict, post-mass disaster sites, etc., you will have to re-imagine how you communicate with remote staff every time you arrive in an office - and often, from year to year. Circumstances will always be different from country to countr
y: what worked in Afghanistan won't work in Ukraine, what didn't work in Egypt turns out to be perfect for Ghana. And circumstances will change; a friendly local official might be replaced by a corrupt one who has an interest in your field staff not communicating complete information. 

The two things I determine first when I'm charged with communicating with remote staff is: what information do I need, absolutely, and how often do I need it? There's information that's good to have, and there's information that is absolutely VITAL to have, and I have to figure out the difference, quickly. I try to boil my communications needs down to the absolutely most critical, specific things. Then I determine how often I need that most-critical information. Knowing the answers to these two things helps me determine my course of action.

That said, keep this in mind: your information needs will change. Just when you get in the groove, your own HQ back in London or New York or wherever will decide there's a new piece of critical info they need. Or everyone in your field office may be replaced. Be ready to be nimble and adjust quickly!

Also, remember that the majority of field staff are not trained communicators; they are water and sanitation experts, school administrators, mid wife trainers, clinic supervisors, construction chiefs, farming experts, etc. Written communications are very difficult for even native English speakers.

Other things I have to determine once I start in a job where I will work with field staff regarding information-gathering- and it requires asking a LOT of staff a lot of questions to get answers:
  • How much do field staff understand regarding the communications needs of the organization? They probably understand that you want the information and that you will be annoyed if you don't get it, but do they understand how sharing information regularly with you benefits THEM? Do they know how their information is really used, beyond just showing up in a report they believe no one reads?
  • Do field staff like people in your office? Do they see you as allies, as supportive, as friendly, or as standing in their way, as throwing up roadblocks, as being arrogant? Bad blood between field staff and HQ staff can be a huge block in getting needed information.
  • Do you communicate well with field staff regarding what's going on at HQ? Do you live the example that you want them to emulate when it comes to communications?
  • How are the communications skills of field staff? Are there challenges regarding literacy, public speaking skills, reporting skills, etc.? Do you need to help staff improve these skills?
  • Where is the nearest Internet access for the field staff? Is it feasible for them to go to such a point even once a month to do a Skype call with you?
  • Is there phone service? Could you have a call with field staff once a week, one-on-one? Every other week?
  • Does staff come into HQ even once every three months? Or even twice a year?
  • Does staff from HQ go into the field? Could you go on some site visits? Or could they gather information for you?
  • Would field staff be willing to keep field diaries that they would turn into you once a quarter or even biannually?
Getting answers to those questions takes more than just asking staff for answers; observe what happens and have conversations with different people as well. I find that, often, an administrative assistant will give me more honest answers to these questions than a department head.

Your answers to those questions will determine your plan of action - if you are going to have weekly, monthly or quarterly telephone meetings one-on-one with staff, if you are going to create a reporting template, if you need to train staff regularly visiting field staff to gather information, etc. And be prepared to adjust your approach; circumstances will change, communications will change, some tactics won't work, and on and on.
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Your guiding principle for whatever tactic you take: you've got to make gathering info as rapid as possible, getting you the most critical data that you need. Also, you have to make it crystal clear EXACTLY what information field staff MUST track regularly - daily, weekly, monthly, whatever. So many field staff aren't ever told, in clear terms, what data they need to have immediately available, and WHY it's crucial to have that info available.

Some ways to encourage information is properly communicated from field staff:
It's more difficult to overcome things like:
If you are going to name any of these circumstances as blocking you from gathering the data you need, be prepared to prove it. These are the kinds of circumstances you cannot solve alone; you will need all HQ staff to work together to overcome these challenges.

Also see:
I'm not sure I can recommend the Peace Corps Volunteer Report Forms, for PC members to use to report on their projects. They are, in my opinion, way too complicated for most local field staff - in fact, for most international field staff. But I link to them, just in case someone might find them helpful.

What am I basing this advice on?  I'm a consultant for organizations working in development, aid and relief overseas.

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