Interview with Marie Houel, inter-NGO coordinator of the humanitarian airlift

©Humanitarian airlift RHL, 8 may 2020, Lyon, Solidarités International.

Interview with Marie Houel about the humanitarian airlift financed by the European Union in the fight against coronavirus.

Alain Boinet: A first humanitarian aid plane left Friday, May 8 from Lyon for Bangui in the CAR as part of an airlift launched by the European Union in conjunction with France and NGOs. How did it happen and what did this plane bring as aid to Bangui?

Marie Houel: The first response and perception we can have of this flight is that it went very well and that it brought together many partners. There were 72 passengers on board, including the European Commissioner, Janez Lenarčič and members of his cabinet, about 45 NGO aid workers and French and European diplomats working in Bangui.

In addition to the closure of borders, the confinement in Europe has resulted in the closure of certain embassies and the halting of international flights. The consequence for the NGOs is that they can neither send their humanitarian staff nor bring back those who have accumulated a lot of fatigue in the field. This is a challenge for them in implementing programmes for the population: without human resources at full capacity, projects are at a standstill. We therefore need to renew our teams in order to respond to the health crisis, which is superimposed on the humanitarian crisis concerning people’s basic needs.

This plane was a mixed flight: we took on board both passengers and freight. The cargo consisted mainly of personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of the fight against covid-19 with gloves, protective masks, over-shoes, gowns, thermometers, but also more usual equipment for humanitarian responses, for example we have mobility equipment for disabled people and medicines.

What is the mechanism and how is it set up?

The European Commission has decided with Commissioner Janez Lenarčič and ECHO to release a budget of 10 million euros for this airlift. This should make it possible to operate around 35 flights over the next 3 to 6 months. The general mechanism is one of coordination between 3 distinct actors. The European Union is financing the airlift and mobilising its network with its delegations in the countries and with ECHO. The Member States will be involved in the diplomatic dimension, flight and landing authorisations and visas for departing expatriates. Indeed, as I mentioned, most embassies are closed in Europe and NGOs are sometimes no longer able to obtain visas. The third actor is the coordination of NGOs. Each organisation taken independently does not have enough passengers to justify organising a flight. But together we reach a number that justifies the flight. We had to coordinate among ourselves to consolidate our needs, both on the issue of passengers and freight.

Sending expatriates means bringing together more than 70 people, scattered throughout Europe but also on the African continent for more than a dozen organisations. Each passenger may have a different nationality, a visa may or may not be necessary, or sometimes a visa that has expired.

For freight, it is a bit the same thing. There is one tonne for such and such an NGO in Lyon, 2 tonnes coming from another country or 10 tonnes under customs control in Bordeaux.

This unprecedented “trouple” bringing together the European Union, the French State and the coordination of NGOs makes it possible to bring this real puzzle to life in the time allowed.

What was the genesis of this unprecedented initiative?

The project started after the observation of a transport blockage and a lack of solution to ensure the follow-up of humanitarian aid. It was as if we were paralysed while we had to continue the aid programmes while protecting our Covid-19 teams and, at the same time, developing new actions specific to the pandemic.

In this context, we were fortunate to have a structure that brings together the logistics directors of 9 humanitarian NGOs, the Humanitarian Logistics Network (HLN), whose main objective is to optimise humanitarian logistics and improve operational efficiency by developing a common strategy for pooling resources, advocacy and information sharing. Together our needs are greater, we are stronger, we can spread the effort and reduce costs. This is the mantra of RLH. On the fringes of this network, the directors of operations of several NGOs also exchanged views on the challenge of cutting airline lines to maintain staff rotations.

Faced with this stalemate, we have tried to be pragmatic. The directors of operations and logistics directors have expressed the need in their regular exchanges with the CDCS. Initially, the idea was to use Air France flights. These flights were leaving empty to destinations we were interested in to repatriate European nationals, and we wanted to board humanitarian passengers on the outward journey. One thing leading to another, this issue was shared by the CDCS with the European Commission and ECHO. The WFP airlift had not started when this process was initiated almost 6 weeks ago. It is on the basis of this very pragmatic approach that we have succeeded in setting up the current system, which allows for the chartering of aircraft.

The flight to Bangui is the first of the mechanism. It was supported by the Crisis and Support Centre (CDCS) of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, financed by the European Union, and coordinated by the Humanitarian Logistics Network.

What exactly is your role in this coordination mechanism and are there other actors as involved as you are? How long is this airlift going to last approximately?

So it is the CDCS and the operations and logistics directors who have advocated and triggered this mechanism. Once the principle was established, they then looked for someone who could manage a lot of information, relationships and coordination between actors, people logistics and strong skills in transport logistics. They thought of me. And I accepted.

Once the first destination has been decided, you have to choose a plane according to a lot of parameters. The European Commission puts us in touch with its “broker”, the entity that looks for available aircraft corresponding to our needs with the airlines. Among the criteria we take into account are the number of outbound and return passengers (the flights are also used for the repatriation of the teams, 144 in the case of Bangui for example), the quantity of freight to be shipped.

We then determined the departure airport. For Bangui, the choice was Lyon Saint Exupéry airport, where the aid workers have a partner of choice, Bioport.

It is an association to which humanitarian NGOs delegate part of their logistics. Bioport has storage space, they are used to working with forwarding agents and airport structures in Lyon where we had to transport the material, check the batches that could be loaded into the identified aircraft, consolidate the data from 15 NGOs.

The CDCS was involved in liaison with the embassy in the CAR to obtain landing permits and access to the territory in the CAR.

The CDCS also guided us in disseminating information to the border police (PAF) to facilitate access to French territory for passengers who are not nationals so that they can access Lyon airport and take the flight. The entire French administrative machinery has been mobilized, during the period of confinement, to enable these humanitarian workers to take this flight. In my role, I identified the hotel where the expatriates spent a short night before departure, set up shuttles between the station, the airport and the hotel, all in direct contact with the passengers to optimise the timing. Usually there is a travel agency, dedicated NGO staff who then make the link with the passengers.

Furthermore, during the preparation of this operation, we were in contact with the Logistics Cluster in Bangui to ensure that the needs of the partners aggregated at the level of the NGO headquarters corresponded to the needs expressed in the field.

I had never done this before. I learned as I went along, doing things and talking with the different stakeholders in this airlift. I have a coordinating role without being an expert technician in the field. I relied on the multiple stakeholders to obtain technical information based on their expertise, circulate and coordinate information to optimise each aircraft.

For Bangui, in addition to 72 passengers, we collected 40 tonnes of freight. Eight tonnes already left on 8 May and the remaining 32 tonnes will leave on 2 other flights on 12 and 13 May.

And what’s next, how are you going to organize yourself?

With the plane to Bangui, I’ve reached my limits in terms of workload with days from 8am to midnight. That’s too much for one person, especially since by the end of the month we hope to organize four more flights in three weeks.

There is a challenge for us to increase capacity.

The next destinations that have been identified are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Southern Sudan and Burkina Faso, knowing that this requires a member state of the European Union to carry the project. The diplomatic portage required for the flight will take some time. It is not easy because we must not offend sensitivities, there are strong diplomatic stakes, we have to inform the various stakeholders, know the constraints at destination, both on health aspects and on access to the destination territories. For example, in the case of Bangui, all passengers were tested on arrival by the Pasteur Institute. And our approach is to complement what the WFP is doing. We are careful not to duplicate opportunities, in coordination with ECHO.

In order to devote yourself entirely to this project, you had to get organized with the Solidarités International association in which you work. How did this happen?

If this airlift was made possible, it was because the whole Solidarités International organisation was mobilised. First of all, Thierry, the operations director, and Fabrice, the logistics director, were involved. Once the mechanism was launched and I was fully mobilized on coordination, the entire logistics department took over some of my duties to ensure the continuity of the activity within Solidarités International. I am in charge of purchasing and procurement and my colleagues, Jennifer Chemtob, our department intern, Mélissa, and my colleagues absorbed my workload because today I am totally dedicated to the airlift. Eventually, we will make sure that I take over part of my activity at Solidarités International.

© Alexandre Giraud, Director General of Solidarités International and Marie Houel, Inter-NGO coordinator for the management of humanitarian flights dedicated to the Covid response, with cargo departing the plane for Bangui, 8 May 2020, Solidarités International.

I do not recall a similar initiative in a previous crisis. And this is understandable, as this health crisis has paralysed us here and there, at home and in the countries where we help people to cope with conflicts or disasters. This is unprecedented and therefore we have had to adapt and find solutions. How is this going to change?

It’s unprecedented, I agree with you. If Solidarités International was strongly involved at the beginning, it is now a matter of sharing the portage with the RLH which brings together 9 NGOs and has opened up, with this crisis, to a dozen other partners.

It is an extremely federative project in which the aspirations of each NGO are reduced to the benefit of the collective. It’s quite incredibly intense and I personally believe in it deeply. When the plane left for Bangui, we were so moved on the tarmac, like kids, with Jean-Baptiste Lamarche, logistics director of ACF, with Maxence Giraud, logistics director of Handicap International, with Jean-Pierre Delomier of Handicap International and Alexandre Giraud of Solidarités International. Seeing our initiative come to fruition in less than 15 days with the constraints I mentioned, as you say, is unprecedented!

This airlift is a real asset for humanitarian actors faced with the coronavirus and the general paralysis of regular air transport. How is it organised in relation to the WFP, which is setting up support logistics platforms with pre-positioned food stocks and air transport?

WFP is implementing a transport mechanism on an unprecedented scale (see our article on this subject). This is not simple because, under normal circumstances, part of the international freight transits on passenger flights, which is no longer possible at present due to the cessation of passenger transport. All the demand is for cargo planes, which are in great demand worldwide, especially from China, which poses a problem of availability.

The strength of the European air bridge, in my view, is the direct nature of the flights and the diplomatic portage. We avoid stopovers with all the constraints that this entails in terms of the visas to be obtained and the risk of quarantine in transit, which would lengthen the arrival time at the destination of expatriates. Moreover, visa facilitation by the country supporting the flight is a real strength. While UN agencies often have diplomatic passports for their staff, NGOs do not. Finally, the idea is not to duplicate the efforts of the WFP. We are going to make sure that the flights are a complement to what the WFP is putting in place in order to have as much coverage as possible of needs, which are extremely broad.

All this is complicated and time-consuming on this scale. The cargo needs that NGOs have are nevertheless limited: compared to the mastodons of the United Nations (World Health Organization, for example), our volumes to be transported are of the order of groceries. Faced with this challenge, we have organized ourselves and the European Union has supported us to meet this need.

This airlift is therefore a pragmatic response to speed up relief efforts. How is it going to be able to step up in the coming months to fulfil its mission?

The challenge now that we have had a successful first flight is to expand this Franco-European initiative. We now have 900 humanitarian aid workers ready to leave and the NGOs need to reinforce their teams in many countries as a matter of urgency. While French NGOs have advocated and obtained the setting up of the mechanism, we will have to step up our efforts by integrating other organisations, in particular Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, Spanish, German and Italian NGOs, so that everyone can get on board and benefit from it.

In addition, we have strengthened the links with the Logistics Cluster at the global level to ensure that information about cargo needs and flight opportunities is disseminated up and down, always with a view to avoiding duplication while offering the service to as many members of the humanitarian community as possible.

To cope with the increase in the number of partners, we will strengthen the RLH operational coordination team dedicated to flights.

How can all these players be coordinated at the European level on departure and Africa for the most part on arrival, with flights also to the Middle East or certain other countries such as Afghanistan and Latin America?

All this is currently being considered and put in place. We need above all effective operational coordination alongside the usual coordination of NGOs that are more oriented towards advocacy. To this end, ECHO has written to all 200 partners to inform them of this mechanism. It will also be necessary to identify which EU Member States will be involved in order to make this airlift work at the right pace. On the NGO side, the RLH intends to continue to ensure the coordination of the flights, based on a transparent and inclusive governance system, allowing to respond to a maximum number of requests from humanitarian partners, whatever their size or mandate, and according to clear and commonly known prioritisation criteria.

Marie Houel

Purchasing and Supply Manager at Solidarités International since 2016.

Lawyer in human rights protection by training, experience in international transport / logistics and a Master 2 in humanitarian project management.

Trainee and then expatriate with Solidarités (Lubumbashi, DRC, Haiti – earthquake, Bunia DRC).

Passage through the private sector (Bolloré, Lafarge & International SOS) then return to humanitarian aid to support the Ebola humanitarian response in 2015.

Coordinator of the humanitarian procurement network Inter Agency Procurement Group.

Inter-NGO coordinator for the management of dedicated humanitarian flights / COVID response.