Some thoughts from two GPG years

Abdal-Rahman Eltayeb was a member of the GPG team for over two years, during which he mainly focussed on our work in Sudan – in particular its anti-modern slavery strand. As he leaves to move on to the next step of his career, he looks back on two years of working in unpredictable and complex environments.

“Okay – it’s midnight and Turkish airlines just cancelled my morning flight from Khartoum to London because news just broke out about a Covid strain… That can’t be good. Let’s review my options in this case: do I take the next Ethiopian flight out of Khartoum? It’s two hours from now and I haven’t even packed yet. If I quickly start packing now, I will likely forget something important… Also, do we report on this to the donor as a risk? This is my first GPG trip, I don’t want to come off as the guy who can’t handle international travel. I mean, I could stay in Sudan a little longer and try to play it cool, it’s my home after all. But then again, I might flunk my Masters exam in two weeks’ time because I don’t have my books on me…”

It’s no secret that development work carries a lot of uncertainty with it, along with the expectation to always prepare for the worst – or, at the very least, prepare for a sudden and drastic change of plans, a tell-tale sign of resilience which you quickly learn to develop. I found that an internal monologue like the one above is also something we experience at an organisational level, meaning that whenever something happens to disrupt an ongoing project (given that most of our work is delivered in complex environments) we are presented with the choice to either take a step back and react calmly, or lose the plot trying to control the situation from all angles.

I dropped into the UK office for my first interview with GPG in November 2019. Back then, the Sudan programmes team were getting ready for a visit to the country to provide support on two projects that had recently kicked off. At the time, Sudan had just come out of an uprising that culminated in the removal of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir – the aftermath of which I actually described in a previous blog of mine, Life After Bashir. During the interview, I had the chance to hear more about GPG’s approach, which centres around creating partnerships with officials (usually at the policy-making level) in project locations while simultaneously delivering high-level support to areas where policy-makers identify help is needed. GPG’s Associates are an integral link in this part of the work, both for facilitating access to decisionmakers and for providing expert input from years of service in the relevant sector. Later into my work with GPG, I came to realise that working alongside Associates was one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

Two months after I joined GPG, the world went into lockdown. Like most organisations in our field, we had to navigate the fallout of the pandemic while dealing with the mounting pressures of having to deliver our work in regions that prefer in-person interaction. Frequent travel to project locations has long been part of our delivery model, so this was a test of how ‘agile’ our response could really be. It’s easy to use buzz words to describe an organisation when times are good. To back it up with action is what sets it apart when things get difficult.

Things quickly started looking up when we began producing online courses that catered specifically to the end user. Online sessions, YouTube videos, WhatsApp conversations became the norm during the early months of Covid. Challenging as it was, I learned to be more optimistic about what can be achieved together with our stakeholders. It was also interesting to see, at the same time, how the civil service in Sudan was transforming from observing how our stakeholders were becoming increasingly open to challenging long-standing policies.

Over the following two years, I became more involved with GPG’s modern slavery work in Sudan and another project aimed at supporting future parliamentarians. As I had mentioned, Sudan was going through a tough time, and my early assumption that our projects would go largely unaffected was challenged in a steep learning curve. From visa delays to Covid-19 and military takeovers, each obstacle tested how flexible we can truly be. As it turned out, other colleagues experienced most of these issues in different projects at some point. Often, the main takeaway was that as long as transparency in communicating with the donor was maintained, making small tweaks to project design here and there ensured we always landed on our feet.

Returning to that internal monologue, I ended up taking an uneventful afternoon flight that day, but these intense moments of quick thinking became a reoccurring highlight of my time at GPG, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. After reflecting on my time at the company – and two and a half years is by no means a long time! – I discovered that an underappreciated project management skill is the ability to allow yourself to observe your mind as it races with these thoughts and to not get carried away with them. Of course, everyone has their own way of dealing with pressure, but understanding the unpredictable nature of the job is the key. Despite the challenging aspects of being a project manager, every moment became an opportunity to grow and create lasting memories. But the guidance and support I received from colleagues and Associates, whether on trips abroad or sitting behind my computer screen at home, is what made it all worthwhile.

There are more than a few words I could use to describe my time at GPG. Mundane is definitely not one of them.