The Woman at the Head of UNHCR’s Supply Chain
“Supply means more than just delivering blankets or tarpaulins. We are delivering protection, in many forms.”
Anna Spindler has dedicated her life to provide immediate aid and protection to refugees in need all around the globe.
If you’ve ever wondered how refugees receive life-saving supplies in emergencies, Anna Spindler can tell you.
She’s the Head of Supply Management and Logistics, in UNHCR’s Division of Emergency, Security and Supply. Providing blankets, tents and other core relief items in the early days of a person’s arrival are essential to keeping them protected. With teams as committed and passionate as she is, Anna ensures that refugees and other people of concern are protected. Anna is based in Budapest, Hungary, but last year alone, she assisted with humanitarian crises in Bangladesh, Syria, Uganda, Angola and many other countries, deploying staff and resources all over the world.
You’re the head of the supply chain with UNHCR. How would you describe your job in three words?
I would say delivery is one. Definitely a drive for results – I know that’s three words, but we really have to stay focused on the people we serve. Speed and efficiency are also essential. And I have a soft spot for teambuilding, so teamwork should also be mentioned. None of us can do what we do alone. It’s a huge chain – people talk about the supply chain, but there is a human chain too. If both systems are solid and in place, then many things can go wrong, but we can still deliver.
How do these chains work when it comes to emergencies, such as the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh – the fastest-growing refugee emergency today?
The first thing we did was ask: what supplies do they have in the country warehouse that can be deployed immediately, and what can they buy locally? We also activated shipments from one or more of our seven stockpiles, in Dubai, Nairobi, Kampala, Douala, Accra, Amman and Copenhagen. We also looked at our stock in the region and then, of course, we mobilized staff.
Bangladesh was a complex emergency to deliver to. The main port became congested very quickly. And when that happens, your containers and ships just sit there, and you can’t offload them. So we looked at other options, such as bringing supplies in by road, other ports and by air. We did a total of 21 airlifts to Bangladesh, with supplies coming from our stockpiles and suppliers around the world.
People often think, “Just get it on the plane and send it,” but that’s oversimplified. There are many steps that have to be well coordinated to do a successful airlift. For example, we need to know what size planes the receiving end can handle and if they have the equipment required to offload the planes. Then there is all the paperwork that has to be prepared and processed.
Supply means more than just delivering blankets or tarpaulins. We are delivering protection, in many forms. Our speed and timing are critical to saving lives.
You also mentioned a human chain when it comes to delivering supplies. How did that work for Bangladesh?
It’s a lot of teamwork. Supply staff, especially in Budapest and Dubai, were working tireless hours. We had to do many things in parallel or sequence. Such as coordinating the schedules with the aircraft and service providers. Making sure each aircraft was properly loaded and that the pallets were packed correctly so they fit into the aircraft.
And then, there’s the supply staff in the field. It’s extremely important that we have strong people there to coordinate and deliver. Their dedication and perseverance made the difference between delivering supplies in days or weeks.
As someone who often assesses refugees’ needs on the ground, you must get to know a lot of them and hear their stories. Who are some you’ve met?
When I was in Bangladesh last November, I noticed a man with a baby on his lap. They had just arrived a few hours before. His wife was in a chair nearby. He told me that she had diabetes and became paralysed six months ago. Later, I found out that she’d had a stroke. The couple had seven children, but they all got separated on the move. I asked the man about his journey. He told me he walked at night for 10 days over the hills, carrying his wife and child the entire way. He showed me his shoulders. The skin was so raw. And the muscles were in visible knots. He was 61-years-old. I saw him the next day and he had been reunited with all of his children. I was struck by this man’s courage, and really, the courage that all refugees have. Their strength and will to survive through horrible circumstances, to have a chance at a better life for their families. That always puts things into perspective.
When did you want to become a humanitarian worker?
I spent 13 years in the private sector, in manufacturing, mostly in the high-tech industry. I’ve always been in supply, in one aspect or another. At that time, I would go with my father, a physician, on different medical trips, to countries such as Mexico, Honduras or Kenya. In 2005, we went to Honduras, where we helped to build a wheelchair distribution clinic. My dad sent me off to the market to buy supplies. I had such an adventure that day talking to people and seeing my skills used in such a different way. I loved it. So I made a decision to do it full time. I’ve been working with different UN agencies for the past 12 years. I really love what I do.
What can people reading this do to help?
First, I’d like them to know that supplies do actually get to refugees because my teams are the ones responsible for getting it there. So I know it gets there because I actually see it happen. We’re at a time now where the world really needs empathy. We need it for each other and for displaced populations. We need it for refugees that may have arrived in your home country and need your friendly face and helping hand. Financially speaking too, even a small amount of money helps. It helps provide hope and security for people who crossed the border with sometimes nothing other than their strength, courage, love for their family and their will to survive.