Roger Llevat, ZLOG Alumni 2009, is currently working in a high-profile position for United Nations (UN), a job with demanding, requiring expertise in the field of decision-making for large areas and the safety of many different communities.
His master degree at ZLC was paramount in this journey, a crucial part of his personal career chain, to fill the logistic gaps in his overall knowledge and passion to do his bit.
Flicking through your resume, anyone would be surprised to see that your Major is not in Engineering or Business, as most of ZLC Alumni, but in International Relations and Human Rights. If we continue reading, we realize that studying the MIT Zaragoza Master in Supply Chain was just a starting point to further your career in the United Nations (UNHCR) after some years working with humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Oxfam. What have you gained from this career path?
There is no doubt that the MIT Zaragoza Master in Supply Chain triggered the most important change in my career path. Before the Master program in Zaragoza I used to work as field logistician for MSF and Oxfam in countries like Angola, South Sudan, Somalia, Chad and Mozambique. In both NGO I used to carry out supply tasks mainly related to procurement, warehouse management and international transportation. After some years of work in the field I felt the need to gain further knowledge in supply chain and logistics. At that time, the Zaragoza Master became my first option due to its recognized education and excellent reputation within the supply chain industry. The Master program offered me the possibility of acquiring further knowledge in logistics and supply chain as well as new abilities and skills related to business management. In addition to that, what really made the difference was the possibility of working on a thesis with the UNHCR alongside a great thesis advisor from the MIT Zaragoza. The thesis analyzed and suggested potential locations for placing worldwide stockpiles of core relief items. Fortunately, the thesis happened to be one of the finalists and I believe this made things easier for the subsequent path towards a career in the UN.
Working for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) automatically implied a move to Africa. How well did you adapt – any highs/lows to report?
A challenge, not least because directly following the Master program in Zaragoza I worked two years for Amazon in its European head-office in Luxembourg. As everyone knows Amazon is one of the most advanced corporations using cutting edge technology and very innovative systems and processes. My first position with the UNHCR after Amazon was in Nairobi, Kenya, the other side of the coin. Complete culture shock!. The first few days are imprinted deeply in my mind. This was out of the Ark and way behind the western world. Then there was my new employer, the UN, and my new life in Nairobi. So very different! I suppose what got me through was familiarity, applying the latest methods and best practices learnt in Amazon and observing the massive transformation. An incredibly rewarding experience.
Staff in humanitarian organizations work in chaotic conditions. A good, although devastating example of this is the recent earthquake in Ecuador, April 2016. In the north, safe water and food were scarce, many roads, bridges destroyed making access often impossible. Faced with unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions such as these, how do logisticians get the right goods, to the right place, at the right time?
Unpredictability and lack of infrastructure is precisely what makes our jobs so challenging particularly in developing countries. In these catastrophes, the main, most immediate goal is to save as many lives as possible by offering with shelter, safe water and food. Contingency plans play a major role to respond effectively to these humanitarian disasters, particularly in all the areas where earthquakes are recurrent. Thanks to these contingency plans and eight global stockpiles of core relief items strategically distributed around the world, the UNHCR was in the position to quickly airlift tents, jerry cans, blankets and other core items in less than 72 hours. Generally speaking, logisticians in UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies adapt and work with whatever available means in the field. In terms of procurement and in an effort to reduce the risks related to unpredictability, UNHCR establishes Frame Agreements for most of the commodities procured, thus the supply is not interrupted due to the required tendering process. In addition, white stocks at our suppliers also play an important role to prepare for unexpected events.
Back to 2012, you join UNHCR, the UN refugee agency which primary focus is to lead and coordinate international action to protect and assist displaced people around the world and to help find lasting solutions for them. Considering all your experience so far, has this been your biggest challenge to date?
Yes, most definitely. Unfortunately the refugee crisis is far from over and is now a darker, yet integral part of modern global society. I remember very well when I started working in the humanitarian arena back in 2005 with MSF. At that time, most of the humanitarian crises were mainly clustered in Africa and humanitarian organizations were able to cope. Nowadays, things have taken a massive turn for the worse. Incidents occur worldwide, the most drastic examples in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, Libya and The Ukraine. All that in a context where international terrorism has reached unprecedented dimensions rendering the work of the humanitarian actors extremely challenging with all the logistic implications that this entails. Since 2012 the number of refugees helped has shot up from 21 to 60 million.
Even in Europe these statistics have soared due in large part to war in Syria and Iraq, as well as conflict and instability in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. What happens at the border when people say “I want to seek asylum in Europe? And how are the experts in humanitarian logistics tackling the situation?
What is happening now in Europe is extremely complex and a real challenge at every level. Due to the advances in technology and communication, country borders have become blurred. Nowadays with smart phones, refugees and migrants have better access to information making their journeys slightly less unpredictable. This fact together with the instability in the Middle East due to the war in Syria and Iraq, has triggered a massive flow of refugees seeking asylum in neighboring countries as well as in Europe. The real logistic challenge of the refugees crossing Europe from Greece or Italy to the northern countries was precisely the fact that the refugees were constantly on the move, something rather new for all aid organizations. UNHCR and the other humanitarian agencies had to adapt all their modus operandis in order to fulfil the special needs of these “travelling” refugees. Bulky blankets discarded, the UNHCR now washed and redistributed them. In September 2015 I was asked to go to Athens to open UNHCR procurement department. It was a nightmare. New controls restricted the vendor’s base and refugees were arriving in Greece from so many different entry points scattered around hundreds of Islands. Nowadays, the flow of refugees arriving from Turkey has decreased compared to the figures of summer 2015 however; unfortunately it seems that Italy is now picking up. The challenge is ongoing.
If you could go back to the day of your graduation, would you return to choose this career path a thousand times?
Absolutely! Without doubt! My time in Amazon right after the graduation was very intense and often rather stressful and painful. However, I learnt a lot and it was like a second Master. My job here with the UN Refugee agency is where I’m supposed to be. I love it. I learn new things every day, I am surrounded by smart colleagues from all over the world and it gives to me a strong sense of purpose. To be honest, when I turn back and see all the great things that happened to me after the Master in Zaragoza, I can only say thank you.