Mission Support: a key enabler | David Penklis, Director of Mission Support

6 Apr 2018

Mission Support: a key enabler | David Penklis, Director of Mission Support

David Penklis, as the Director of Mission Support, a key enabler for implementation of a peacekeeping mandate, has been leading the efforts to close down what was once one of the UN’s largest missions. Previously, he served with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia in the 1990s then in the UN peacekeeping operation in Burundi and at UN Headquarters in New York. From 2011-13 he was the first Chief of the UN Regional Services Centre in Entebbe, a logistical hub for the peacekeeping operations in Africa. In a November 2017 interview, David Penklis talks about the challenges involved in supporting peacekeeping operations, from start-up to drawdown, and from closure to liquidation.

You came to UNMIL with years of peacekeeping operation experience from the field and from HQ. When you arrived, is it fair to say you hit the ground running?

Well, I’m a swimmer not a runner, so I think in terms of swimming against or with the tide. I came to Liberia with a parcel of expertise directly relevant to leading Mission Support, so I was able to immediately swim with the tide when I arrived. At that time, there was some uncertainty about the Mission’s lifespan but the general consensus was that it would be shut down. Having closed a couple of missions, I was able to start thinking strategically and practically about preparing for closure and transition.

UNMIL had been here for a long time. The Mission Support team I inherited was cohesive and working well together. It was easy to have conversations about what to do next and also to be challenged as the leader of Mission Support by people who had good knowledge of support procedures and operations. UNMIL staff had been through multiple downsizings already, so they were accustomed to doing things such as staff separation and site closures. However, closure was still a relatively new mind-set for the staff, Government and Liberian community.

When I arrived, I raised the idea of ‘lean and clean’ as part of the closure plans, and we later added ‘green.’ We needed to have leaner operations and level of assets, inventory and footprint. By having a leaner Mission, and a cleaner Mission – in terms of making sure our records, archives and any outstanding issues were in order – then I felt that, whatever happened, we would be in a good position to effectively move towards a closure.

When you close a mission, there is a huge amount work that normally must be done in a very short timeframe. You don’t have the luxury of spending a few months getting a legal opinion to resolve an issue. You need to have a framework in place that can deal with the volume of work that comes from the mass separation of staff and the surge in transactions. The idea is to prep and set-up the mission properly before entering those final phases.

My message to all Mission Support staff when I arrived was that the staffing size is the largest it will ever be until the point of closure. That was in June 2016. In December 2016, we received Security Council resolution 2333, that told us we were closing, with 30 March 2018 as the end of the mandate, and complete closure by 30 June 2018. Even so, one of the issues that caused uncertainty was the elections. The resolution stated that we should provide logistical support, although the Mission didn’t have a specific election mandate.

The goal of every peacekeeping or political mission is, in the end, not to exist. Doing a good job in the field means operations end as a result of achieving peace or political objectives. The elections and the transition of Government coming at the end of the Mission created some uncertainty, and instability was possible.

Before we talk about some of the transition challenges, could you offer a big picture look at what mission support work involves?

Mission support is a key enabler for the mandate. We recruit and deploy personnel and provide facilities, communications, transport, supplies and much more to enable the work of everyone in the Mission, hence its quite complex, and it covers multiple areas.

We facilitate and support many interlinked activities. For example, we have a civilian medical team linked to a military and civilian hospital that provides services from staff health care to medical evacuations. A medical evacuation may consist of patient site stabilization, helicopter pick-up, further stabilization in a military in-country hospital, then air evacuation to a neighbouring country to a higher level civilian hospital. All while continuing to keep the person alive. A different dimension is engineering. Our mixed military and civilian engineering units built bridges and repaired roads to make movement across the country possible. To communicate across the country we built towers, satellite and web connections.

We also deliver administrative activities, such as human resources, finance and budget, along with procurement of goods and services.

If it’s true that without mission support, there would be no mission, then would it also be accurate to say that a successful mission could be linked directly to its support function?

If you don’t have mission support, what you essentially have is maybe an individual turning up with nothing and with nowhere to go. When the military arrives, they can be self-sustaining for a week or two, but where will the fuel for their vehicles come from? Where will the supplies come from? Who locates and negotiates sites for them? Mission support is the backbone. A strong positive mission support team that understands the requirements of the mission mandate, and that works hand-in-hand with the SRSG’s vision, makes an enormous difference.

Looking back now, as the final DMS in UNMIL, what do you see as the major milestones or watershed moments over the years?

This Mission has been here for a long time, with a number of really good directors of Mission Support over the years. We are at this point now because of the successes of all of my predecessors: the early days and incredible challenges of the start-up; the hard work establishing remote sites; getting the troops to the right locations; and always working in very difficult conditions. Moving through those early days to supporting a full-blown Mission and its many challenges over the years has been a major undertaking. Across the board, there have been some excellent Mission Support personnel that have taken up the challenge here.

In terms of those watershed moments, I look first of all at the challenge of start-up as a major achievement. There was a short timeline to get complex infrastructure up and running. It's extremely difficult to do so when limited infrastructure exists. You need to rapidly recruit people into the organization and deploy foreign military into conflict-traumatized communities. You’re establishing those relationships, not just getting the right equipment and facilities set up. That is an enormous undertaking. I look back at start-up as a huge milestone, bringing UNMIL to a level of operational stability to have the UN flag flying in remote locations around Liberia.

The next big milestone for Mission Support was Ebola. It was a challenge across the globe, not just in Liberia. I was in New York when the Ebola situation started to unfold across West Africa. The deployment of UNMEER, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, was built on the back of the missions in the region. Dealing with this crisis was one of the watershed moments, one of the milestones. UNMIL did an enormous amount of work during the Ebola crisis. UNMIL staff stayed and delivered in the face of this terrible life threatening disease. The threat was not about people firing bullets; it was about touching someone and possibly dying. The number of cases in Liberia was very high.

As you can imagine, the Mission Support challenges were immense during the Ebola period. Material was being sent here to help, but there were massive logistics challenges in distributing it around the country. Liberian frameworks were overwhelmed, so UNMIL provided support.

"UNMIL staff stayed and delivered in the face of this terrible life threatening disease. The threat was not about people firing bullets; it was about touching someone and possibly dying."

One aspect of the Ebola crisis that’s also worth noting is that normally humanitarian operations don’t like working with the military. Here, the military and the humanitarians worked very closely together. There was a good connection. Although UNMEER was the official Ebola Mission, the

UNMIL structure enabled what UMEER needed. If UNMIL didn’t deliver,

UNMEER could not have delivered. In this connection, the UNMIL’s infrastructure made a huge difference in Liberia.

UNMIL transported huge quantities of incoming cargo from the airport and contracted warehouses to store material. We scheduled special flights, set up medical isolation areas, embedded logistics experts and engineers. The whole Mission had to reset its framework around the crisis.

At the time, the troops were going through another downsizing exercise. That was stopped. Instead they were used to support the relief effort.

UNMIL couldn’t complete its mandate and leave Liberia while it was dealing with Ebola.

UNMIL was one of many operations and organizations engaged in the crisis, but the Ebola period says a lot about what a mission can do when a country is faced with a completely destabilizing situation. UNMIL did what it needed to do. Those staff who stayed here in UNMIL, and those in Mission Support who dealt directly with the situation, must be congratulated to have stood with Liberia during that time.

What about some of the other challenges now, such as the strategy for the transition to the UN Country Team?

The December 2016 mandate set forth the key timeframe for us, with 30 March 2018 being the end of the mandate; 30 April being all uniformed personnel gone; and 30 June 2018 being the end of liquidation. So we’ve looked at those dates and worked back from there. We submitted a carefully considered budget with a practical drawdown plan. When the budget went through, we  unfortunately were cut by about 10 per cent of what we needed, which became quite challenging because we would no longer have funding to complete all that we needed to do.

"the Ebola period says a lot about what a mission can do when a country is faced with a completely destabilizing situation. UNMIL did what it needed to do. Those staff who stayed here in UNMIL, and those in Mission Support who dealt directly with the situation, must be congratulated to have stood with Liberia during that time."

With the severe cuts, we conducted a full review across all sections to gauge how we could make it work. We started setting out new parameters, including earlier repatriation of aviation services, earlier closure of sites and earlier repatriation of uniformed personnel. We had to take a much closer look at the logistics side. In remote locations, for example, it might take two months to close a site. We had to deal with the property owners, transport goods, eliminated hazardous waste, donated or gift our materials or equipment to the local community, and so forth. A lot of activities take place in a site closure, including separating personnel.

The UN Country Team will continue to support the Government after UNMIL closes, and some entities have moved to UNMIL headquarters. The UN Development Programme has already moved and is taking over management of the building so we have been working with UNDP as the next lessor, and assisting them to plan for the move of the Country Team into the premises.

In parallel, there are many other processes underway. One is related to the agreement made between the UN and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take over UNMIL Radio. ECOWAS also intends to move their offices into the Annex compound adjoining One UN House where the UN Country Team and the African Union are already co-located. It really does help for closer collaboration. It’s a good concept.

The radio handover itself is a complex operation with many moving parts. We need to maintain a framework to ensure uninterrupted broadcasting while the Mission is closing its regional offices so are working closely with both the state-owned Liberian Broadcasting System and commercial providers. ECOWAS envision expanding the radio transmission beyond Liberia, to become a regional broadcaster so issues of resources, capacity, expertise, assets and staffing have to be resolved. UNMIL Radio has an excellent reputation as one of the leading radio stations in the country.

It is very important that it is set up for its continuing success. Mission Support will do the mechanics, but it will be up to ECOWAS to make sure it continues to be a success.

Are there other complex activities involved in the drawdown toward closure?

Absolutely. For example, we have been downsizing our main logistics compound, Starbase, located on the outskirts of Monrovia, on land owned by the Liberian port authority. The new Government is yet to decide on the purpose of the land upon our departure.

The Mission’s personnel capacity too has been diminishing quickly. We’ve been fortunate that UN Headquarters in New York set up COSMOS, a new framework, to identify personnel to go to new missions at short notice.

The problem was that we were losing key personnel at a rapid rate early on while we still needed their functions all the way through to June 2018.

The result of that situation has placed us in a position of needing to recruit rapidly for temporary staff. We have been looking for qualified people, but were not a very attractive prospect as a job opportunity because of the imminent shut down.

That’s a challenge, as our capacity continues to shrink. One day you have technicians that can fix radio equipment, for example, and the next day you don’t. There are all sorts of challenges in the drawdown, with tasks becoming more challenging as you move along because expertise diminishes and the volume of work continues.

Amid all these challenges, what is it you find most rewarding about the role you have played here in Mission Support?

In many ways, it’s a thankless job. When things work well on the support side, people are able to focus on their jobs. When things don’t go well, or move too slowly, we hear about it immediately. For example, separating staff consumed 80 per cent of human resources time for two or three months, which meant that when someone came forward to say they needed a replacement recruited, human resources was overwhelmed and simply couldn’t get to it. But from an individual’s perspective, they want service support, they want client-orientation. And that can be very challenging when capacity is diminished or expertise is lost.

I think what’s especially rewarding about working with mission support is that you’re in an enabling role. You can really see results. On the elections, for example, we can see that we successfully delivered, in a very short period, the materials for the elections. If we had not done that, there would have been real problems for the Government. Delays could have led to allegations, political manoeuvring and other serious issues.

When I see successes like that, I feel rewarded and full-filled in my role. Mission support is all about timely outputs and the right deliverables.

When it’s successful, it’s rewarding.

When you leave Liberia, what will you look back on and be proud of having achieved?

During the staff downsizing, I personally handed-out termination letters to international and national staff. The experience with the national staff stuck in my mind the most. Here we are closing, separating local staff, and I was thinking about their opportunities for future employment even though UNMIL has run job fairs and activities to build qualifications to help them with getting work. We even ran an entrepreneurs’ event so they have skills to start their own businesses. But the economy is not big enough yet. It’s going to be a tough environment for them in the future.

When handing out the letters, I was concerned that our local staff would be unhappy, even angry. Yet, I was surprised on several occasions by what they shared with me. One separated staff member said “I was in the bush. I was living in fear. UNMIL came. Peace came. I now have my family and a home. I put my children through school, and now I’m departing. Thank you.” I’ve had many moments like that, putting things in context for me. The period of employment with UNMIL has stabilized the lives of many local staff members. The situation in the country is now peaceful and normalized. UNMIL has provided a level of employment that has contributed to the economy and helped the country.

So when I look at the whole Mission and the work that has been done in so many different areas, Mission Support has been a behind-the-scenes enabler for all of it, facilitating, working together and collaborating to deliver with so many actors. When I look at what’s been done by UNMIL, I see a country that has enough stability to go forward into the future. It’s still a fragile peace here, certainly, but after the groundwork already in place and with the continued support of the UN Country Team, Liberia will develop and move toward the future without returning to violence.

"One separated staff member said “I was in the bush. I was living in fear. UNMIL came. Peace came. I now have my family and a home. I put my children through school, and now I’m departing. Thank you.”

What’s your sense of Liberia’s future? Do you have hope for the future of this country?

I have concerns about the economy, certainly, because if Liberia doesn’t have economic development, then the Government won’t have the money to continue to build infrastructure, and there won’t be employment. If the economy can develop and attract investors, and if Liberia can keep money within the country, then there is a lot of hope for the country. If the economy develops, it would help provide a backbone for the future.

We can’t underestimate the importance of the UN Country Team remaining as UNMIL leaves. The work in the area they’re targeting is to maintain peace and security through development. Also, several countries have representation here – the US, the UK and others – that will continue to support the country. China is doing development here too, assisting the Government. Those partnerships provide hope. I think the next step is the right leadership for the country. The new President’s political focus will be critical to consolidating peace and moving the country forward.

"Having lived for a decade in peace, Liberians want to keep it."

I’m an optimist. I don’t like the idea that so much work may fall apart nor so much investment wasted. But I’m also optimistic because it’s clear that Liberians don’t want to return to conflict. Demonstrations around political rallies have been peaceful. The police have dealt with things very well. We haven’t seen any mob violence, as such. People seem to want to live a peaceful existence. Having lived for a decade in peace, Liberians want to keep it.

Speaking of peace, what do you think about peacekeeping itself? Looking back, over the Mission’s history, do you think UNMIL should have been configured differently?

During the period of UNMIL’s existence, there has been a change in thinking about peacekeeping. The UN has assessed many different models. The strategy that produced the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe was developed by seeking answers to questions about whether we needed to have certain support elements on the frontlines.

"The quicker we can pull the peacekeepingoperation out of a country, the better."

The role of peacekeeping in establishing security is of course vital. Countries that we move into need help. We need that peace making frameworkin place. But I think we need to look more closely at how quickly we can remove a peacekeeping operation. The quicker we can pull the peacekeeping operation out of a country, the better. Peacekeeping should focus on security, not state-building or institution-building and exit as soon as possible leaving institutional building and development to the UN country team.

You’re talking about breaking out the functions of security from the other functions that have become associated with peacekeeping and political missions?

What I’m looking at is who does what and why. For example, I believe human rights activities should be performed by the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR). The peacekeeping operation of course needs to comply with human rights, but in my view, OHCHR should take the lead and deliver. If you look at the timelines, the UN Country Team will continue into the future in developing Liberia. Human rights will still be an issue here, and the peacekeeping Mission will be gone. If, at the start of the Mission, the human rights component had been performed by OHCHR, and the peacekeeping Mission dealt with the peacekeeping side, then you would have a natural perpetuation of the human rights programme beyond the closure of UNMIL.

When we start a peacekeeping mission, we need to have more than just a mandate implementation plan. We need a 10-year vision that spells out how and when the peacekeeping mission will leave, and how and when the transition will take place. A 10-year vision, of course, could dynamically change each year, but at least it would mean we’re all delivering as one, and with long-term integrated goals.

Peacekeeping today certainly tries to work through the ‘One UN’ concept but it only works to a certain extent. In the early days of UNMIL, there were working problems between UNMIL and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and that appears to have been caused by an absence of clearly agreed and understood roles. If those roles were already pre-set, there may have been a better UN partnering in the early days of this Mission.

Today, within the UN, there is also a shift in thinking about programmatic funding. A decade ago, no one would have thought of requesting to use programmatic funding for projects such as capacity building in peacekeeping, which is funded by assessed contributions. Such funds intended for capacity-building were previously only available to the development sector, not to peacekeeping. Now we can partner with the UN Country Team or civil society organizations to complete mandated activities. That door has begun to open, and it’s been successful as part of a broader shift in mind-set about how to do peacekeeping today.

What recommendations do you have for the UN entities remaining beyond UNMIL’s closure?

The UNMIL and UN Country Team transition plan has identified the problem areas and capacity gaps. However, there is a step required to ensure that there is a more integrated plan at a higher level. We need to get other actors, like USAID, China Aid, etc., to offer more clarity about their undertakings and planning so we can see how that fits into the framework of the UN Country Team and then, in turn, complement each other toward sustainable peace.

A more integrated approach would help. I know that’s very challenging. It’s also very challenging to have the UN Country Team integrated and working together as one under the Resident Coordinator. The next step would be bringing everyone on board with what we are trying to achieve in Liberia and what areas we should focus on strengthening? That next step is important for the future of this country, recognising that there’s already been a capacity-mapping exercise and a full transition plan put in place.

Of course, it’s important to point out that whatever is done today may be challenged during the tenure of the new Government, and no matter how positive any change may be, it is change nonetheless. Although we’re transitioning UNMIL out, and although we have a great transition plan in place, the entire transition framework will need to be revisited to make it compatible with the vision of the new Government then map that to the next 4 or 5 years of work.

What message would you give to Liberians themselves?

Be positive. Be optimistic. You have achieved relative peace for yourselves. Maintaining peace means that you can build the economy. I would like to see many Liberian entrepreneurs develop micro-businesses, export businesses, all kinds of businesses, and you can only do that in a peaceful environment, working with each other and investing in Liberia. Without investing your time, your effort, your funds and your resources in building Liberia, you can’t move up to the next level.

Aerial view of the UNMIL logistic base in Monrovia, known as Star Base. Photo: Albert G. Farran | UNMIL | 24 Jan 18

Photo: Christopher Herwig | UNMIL | 10 Nov 08