Construction logistician and deputy head of mission, Sally Thomas: Life on assignment

12 Jul 2023

Sally Thomas has done 10 assignments with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). She has a degree in architecture and a diploma in project management. She started her career with MSF by working as a construction logistics manager on a project in Nairobi in 2009, and then went on to work in Nigeria, South Sudan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen. She then took the position of deputy head of mission in Syria and her most recent assignment was in Libya. She spoke to us about her work overseas and what the role of a logistician involves. 

What motivated you to work with MSF?  

I had been working full-time as an architect in Sydney for about seven years and was a bit disillusioned about the unfulfilling nature of the work and that the focus was on money, output and 12 hours a day behind a computer.  I studied architecture to create spaces and environments for people to interact and engage in, but I found myself in an industry dictated by developers. I spent almost one year searching for overseas work with an organisation and was finally accepted by MSF as a construction logistician.


How do you juggle going overseas on assignments and your regular work life?  

With difficulty, but it’s possible with generous friends and family who supported with accommodation and stored my belongings (which was reduced to almost nothing). I maintained good relations with past workplaces who gave me temporary work between field assignments.  


Logisticians are essential team members in any MSF project, but’s it’s a role that people outside the organisation may not understand well. How would you describe the role of a logistician, and why is their work so essential?  

Generally, logisticians make everything happen. They allow the medical staff to focus on their work and not waste their time on finding supplies, creating a workspace for themselves and the patients. It is often said that when you do not notice the work that a logistician is doing then it means they are doing their job well! They are always thinking ahead of the needs of the team and the project, and quietly working in the background to create an efficient project.


Can you share one of your highlights during your time with MSF so far?  

My assignments have all been my favourite for different reasons, but building a 400sqm maternity hospital for a village in South Sudan in six months was amazing from a construction perspective. On that project, the changes we were able to make for the community in a short period of time helped ensure safe medical services for pregnant women. There were many social benefits for the village and the people including increased attendance at high school, and a realisation that if a woman was able to build a hospital in the middle of South Sudan, then almost anything is possible!  


What lessons have you learned from being on assignment with MSF?  

Never assume anything! I will never stop learning from different environments, cultures and people.  There are so many ways to accomplish one thing and it’s fascinating to learn the different ways to complete tasks. 

Sally Thomas on construction site in Haiti

Construction manager Sally Thomas on site.