Making progress in Afghanistan

How Mercy Corps uses Slack in one of the world’s most volatile regions

I recently visited the Portland, Oregon worldwide headquarters of Mercy Corps, a non-profit organization that aims to alleviate oppression around the world. I was there to give tips on using Slack, and it turned out that Ninette Adhikari, a project leader at Mercy Corps Afghanistan, was already using Slack to organize her teams—so I asked her to share what kinds of work they do and how they get it done.

Mercy Corps has a staff of 150 people working in Afghanistan on projects across five provinces. Their work covers several areas. There’s agriculture, helping with water management projects and training farmers to move away from the opium trade into crops like saffron and grapes. Mercy Corps also trains young people through skills classes — teaching things like woodworking, electronics, or sewing. They aim to train about 2,000 people each year across various programs in the region, and use technology to get work done in a challenging environment.

 

vocational training class
Mercy Corps vocational training course

Bringing teams together

Adhikari says Mercy Corps started using Slack internally to streamline communication between country provincial offices and the Kabul main office. They began with channels dedicated to data collection and analysis, starting small and growing from there. Use of Slack immediately cut down on phone calls and emails, which were overwhelming and distracting for team members.

 

“It amazes me how people are so open to new technology and trying out new things, which we would not necessarily expect in an environment which is so volatile and changing every day,” says Adhikari.

 

“Whenever we implement a new project, we have to track documentation to comply with procurement, finance, and all that,” says Adhikari. “Previously it was very ad hoc. We’d send out so many different emails! Now we have, say, an agribusiness US-funded program channel, and we just send in all of our approval documents there. People can have discussion there too, and it’s organized.”

Using Slack also aids the team’s transparency. Previously, a manager in Kabul would only be in touch with their team members in one province. Now, team members in other provinces can see all the projects in operation. Adhikari says this facilitates collaboration among staff, and eliminates duplicate work between province offices.

“It amazes me how people are so open to new technology and trying out new things, which we would not necessarily expect in an environment which is so volatile and changing every day,” says Adhikari.

Much of the team’s work relies on data collection in locations so remote that few data collectors have computers. They use phones and tablets, both for data collection and for communication, where Adhikari says the Slack mobile apps are particularly useful.

 

Keeping their work in the cloud has been critical given physical safety concerns, such as last fall when Kunduz, the home of one of their major water management programs, fell under Taliban rule.

 

Working realities of conflict zones

Program directors are mostly expats, based in the capital city of Kabul, and travel to the provincial offices can be dangerous. When they do travel, Mercy Corps staff use a #security channel to post updates. If someone is on the road traveling from Kabul to Kunduz, they’ll say, “7AM, I’m starting now from Kabul.” Then, when they reach their destination they’ll say, “I’m here.” To lighten the mood, sometimes they post selfies to #random while they’re on the road.

The team relies heavily on Slack and Google Drive for coordinating data collection and analysis, and ultimately, document storage.

Keeping their work in the cloud has been critical given physical safety concerns, such as last fall when Kunduz, the home of one of their major water management programs, fell under Taliban rule.

“Our office was raided and all our assets went missing: our laptops, our computers, phones and vehicles and everything, but we had it stored online,” says Adhikari. “It was not as much of a loss in terms of data, and we were able to quickly set up the program up again once the security situation improved.”

 

Going deeper into Slack

Mercy Corps also uses Slack to coordinate efforts between Afghanistan and their Portland headquarters. Funding organizations see real-time data collection and photos of project construction in channels.

Adhikari says other countries have also adopted Slack, with Mercy Corps teams in Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey picking it up. People are starting to use Slack to communicate across country teams too, as Adhikari’s team shares information with others looking to replicate their programs.

One of the Afghanistan team’s favorite apps for Slack is Geekbot. Every week, staff post what they’re working on, which gets reported into channels, giving visibility into projects across the organization. It’s also been helpful in scheduling travel, as team members can plan to be in the same place at the same time.

The Google Calendar integration is also in heavy use. Thanks to automatic message notifications in channels, everyone’s aware when people are out or traveling.

The team uses Slack’s star feature to track important documents and they’ve developed ways of using emoji reactions to deal with requests. Whenever someone makes a new request or asks a question of the team, people will act on it first by applying the 👀 emoji to the request. When they complete it, they use the ✅ to show it’s done and taken care of. Staff use search with Slack to track unresolved (with eyes, but no check mark) and resolved (those having a check mark) requests.

 

team meeting
Team leader meeting in Afghanistan

 

The work of improving thousands of lives each year is challenging, especially when it takes place in an environment that presents real danger and limited access to resources. But slowly and surely, Mercy Corps continues to do their work to improve the world for everyone.

 

Matt Haughey loves random chance meetings with Slack users like this one.

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.