Supply chain manager James Neeson: Life on assignment

11 Jul 2023

James Neeson grew up on a crop farm in rural Western Victoria and went on to study international business, where he majored in supply chain management at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He worked in a few rural areas as a supply chain focal point delivering farming equipment in Western Australia, as well as in Tonga as a procurement officer supporting supply chain systems for the Ministry of Health.  

He worked as a supply chain manager on two assignments in Nigeria and Malawi with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). He speaks four languages: Russian, French, Dutch and Tongan, which have supported his international work. He spoke to us about his experience working overseas and what drove him to work with MSF. 

Why did you decide to join MSF?  

I’ve always had wander lust and nomadic feet and I wanted to do something positive to contribute and share some of what I’d learnt through my work and travels.  With MSF what’s great is it’s a complete mixture of people so you get to learn to so much about other people and other cultures and you can foster these relationships.  You also learn so much about yourself when you have these experiences and it’s a good opportunity to grow.  


How do you juggle going on assignment overseas with regular work life?  

Everyone who works for MSF is trying to find that balance, you can find the right balance but often it's about having the right personality to be able to cope with the juggle. I met an Austrian psychologist who now lives in NZ when I was on assignment – and she was a great example of how to juggle it all. She’d put everything in a storage unit and off she’d go! Sometimes what is hard is waiting for the assignments and the uncertainty around those timings, I did my assignments during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns and that added an extra layer of complexity.  


Logisticians are essential team members in any MSF project. How would you describe the role, and why the work is so essential?    

Logisticians are essentially the backbone of a project they are the unsung and unseen heroes! As a logistician you are expected to find solutions for absolutely everything. Not only on the base, in the hospitals, in the camps, and in the offices, you must fix the air conditioner in the hospital and the Wi-Fi in the house where the teams are living. You’ve got to be flexible and adaptable. You need to know about how to put up giant tents and how to fix an air conditioner. The actual skill set is not so important as having an ability to adapt and learn and critically analyse. You don’t need to be an expert in water and sanitation, or to be a supply guru, or a carpenter. It’s good if you have an understanding in these areas or if not an understanding, then a desire to learn. One of the best logisticians I met was this petite Japanese lady, who was very softly spoken and used to work in Japanese embassies. What made her exceptional was her strong interpersonal skills and her adaptability.  

As a logistician you are expected to find solutions for absolutely everything. You’ve got to be flexible and adaptable.

James Neeson
Supply chain manager

Can you tell me about one of the best assignments you’ve done with MSF, and why?  

It would be in Maiduguri, Nigeria. What I loved is that no one day was the same, the challenges were broad and diverse. You just had to adapt. The best thing was the team spirit, the environment we were working in was touch and go, everyone was trying their level best, to be professional and considerate and caring.  We had such great camaraderie. What we got done was huge, it was very rewarding. The security situation was very challenging, we had to get military clearance for everything we did; we opened a new regional hospital, everything had to be helicoptered in. We had to respond to a refugee camp being flooded when some flood gates were opened because of a border dispute.  


What have you learnt from being on assignment with MSF?  

Be grateful for how things work and run in Australia. That you don’t realise your inner strength until you're challenged. Just how much you can adapt to new situations, that you can make decisions on the fly – it’s amazing how much adrenaline can kick when you need it to and how much you can achieve.  

Supply chain manager, James Neeson, overlooking Ndirande, Malawi.

Supply chain manager James Neeson overlooking Ndirande, Malawi.