Having spent the last 17 years living and working in Abuja, Mary Ellen Havlik has a wealth of knowledge of Nigeria’s landscape and the humanitarian crisis which has affected the West African country. A Canadian national, she started overseeing CTG’s operations in Nigeria back in June 2021, and over the last 17 years has worked and volunteered across a variety of sectors. She talks about how CTG supports projects in Nigeria and what it takes to do this kind of work in a country that is faced with many challenges.
1. How does CTG support humanitarian projects in Nigeria?
We’re currently working in all 36 states as well as Federal Capital Territory where I am based. CTG recruits and manages humanitarian staff supporting programmes such as Vaccine Security and Logistics (VSL), Education, Communications for Development (C4D) Polio, Nutrition, WASH and Child Protection. A key focus for us is employing local nationals and we currently have just over 400 local nationals and 3 international staff. We’ve just launched a project focusing on Explosive Ordnance Risk Education (EORE) Training, where a team of international and local consultants are working together to develop and deliver training to 80 recipients. They in turn will go out in the field and deliver the training at a local level. We have also implemented a rigorous Duty of Care programme for staff and consultants making sure their safety and security is a top priority.
2. Why is CTG able to deliver humanitarian aid in hard-to-reach areas in Nigeria?
Our Nigeria management team and security office are made up of 99% local staff which means they know all areas of the country very well and how we can access them safely. They are stationed across Nigeria in Abuja, Kano, Sokoto, Kaduna, Niger, Borno, Bauchi, Ondo and Enugu. Our local knowledge and networks with the country make it possible for us to support the delivery of aid safely and effectively. Hiring staff who are familiar with the local terrain can also help us to deliver on our objectives for various projects. Relationship-building with key interlocutors is also very important to successful programme implementation.
3. What does a typical day at work involve for a CTG Country Manager?
With any managerial position, you have to be a part worker and part strategist. You have to be willing to work hard and at the same time, look ahead. While I am doing my work and helping staff get their work done, I am also looking at how to make our team more efficient, trying to be as strategic as possible and making sure we deliver on what we promise. One of my key focuses is our Duty of Care. We have two Field Security Officers based in Enugu and Borno, who manage our emergency response planning and movement tracking protocol. Due to the nature of the armed conflict in Nigeria, our staff are likely to face security threats, unrest, crime, and possibly kidnapping and so we pay a lot of attention to coordinating CTG’s Duty of care and risk management. We ensure that staff get their quarterly security briefings which are supplemented with daily security notices and periodic SOPs, their daily tracking is set up, and make sure medical claims are being processed quickly, amongst other things.
4. How long have you been working for CTG and what is your background?
I am coming up to my 10th month with CTG! This is my 17th year in Nigeria. My background is with the Federal Police Force in Canada where I worked for 17 years in multiple areas including Media Relations, Criminal Operations, IT, and Corporate Services. After that, I was employed by the Government of Canada, first in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and later seconded to Foreign Affairs Canada and deployed to Nigeria as the Counsellor, Administration, Consular Office and Head of Security for the Canadian Government in Nigeria. Since then, I have had many interesting work experiences in Nigeria and elsewhere across Africa.
I see the best that Nigeria has to offer and I believe that the country is capable of developing to become the powerhouse of the continent with good governance.
5. What drew you to humanitarian work?
I enjoy meeting new people and learning about their experiences. I am fascinated by Nigeria and strive to understand the country and its culture through relationships with my many Nigerian friends and colleagues. I see the best that Nigeria has to offer and believe it could rival other economies that have an abundance of oil and other natural resources. I believe that the country is capable of developing to become the powerhouse of the continent with good governance. Throughout my time in Nigeria, I have volunteered extensively in the education, agricultural and environmental sectors. It is deeply rewarding to know that a single person can make a positive difference in someone’s life.
6. What challenges do you face in your work and how do you deal with them?
Daily challenges in Nigeria can sometimes hamper our best effort to work through our daily ‘to-do’ list. These might include poor communications due to technology failures, a lack of reliable power infrastructure (no electricity), a lot of manual processes to carry out simple tasks and weather delays. Many states in Nigeria have logistical and security challenges and many locations are deep fields which make access difficult. In the South region, for example, some areas are only accessible by boat, and these may be areas where militancy is a risk to programme delivery. In some areas, there have been huge issues with criminality, and in response to this the government shut down the communications network for 4 months. As you can imagine, this made communication with our staff challenging. In response, our Security Manager visited all our staff to conduct health checks and we’ve built a database of NGOs that can help us keep tabs on our staff and make sure we have some line of communication. We also experience seasons of Harmattan. This is when the dust blows off the Sahara desert and a haze settles over the country. Harmattan causes problems of poor visibility which affect road and air travel. It also affects people’s health.
7. How does your work make you feel and what are you most proud of?
It makes me feel really satisfied knowing I can deliver what I promised to CTG when I started working as a Country Manager. Knowing that I am part of a larger team of people who are aiming to lift millions of Nigerians out of poverty keeps me focused on my objectives. Also, knowing that we have a focus on employing women underscores the importance of the work we are carrying out here. We are leading our Female First commitment in Nigeria to increase female representation in humanitarian jobs. We have already achieved 36% female representation in project-related roles and we hope to increase that number as we go along.
8. What kind of person do you think is suited to this kind of work?
The best person suited for this job is someone who knows the country, has a love for it, and wants to better it. A curious, business-minded, patient, thoughtful, and deliberate person. When you are working in a different country with a different culture, it’s important to be observant and respectful of its citizens and their practices.
You need to stay updated about the country and its happenings, so this requires you to read a lot of newspapers, business journals, and online news to stay afloat. It’s good to network with a cross-section of people from different walks of life to get a good understanding of the operating environment too so ideas can be bounced off each other. There is sometimes a temptation to compare what you observe to what you know but it’s always best to have an open mind and be prepared to learn new things.
During Mary Ellen’s spare time, she manages volunteers who help run the online newspaper she started during lockdown. The newspaper is called Kingsville Times and boasts an impressive 20 000 readers with the paper providing daily updates from Monday to Friday. Find out more about it here.