THE BLOG

'Be Quick, But Don't Hurry'

05/20/2014 12:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2014

About two weeks after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I found myself working in a primary care medical clinic on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince. Having lost family members in the earthquake, I felt compelled to make my way to my parents' birthplace to do what I could to help. On our team of healthcare providers was a resourceful, seasoned orthopedic surgeon, "Dr. Albert." He worked methodically, treating bone breaks with the skill and prowess befitting his decades of experience. Although chaos swirled all around us -- no electricity, no running water, and countless patients willing to wait hours to be seen -- Dr. Albert delivered care calmly and professionally. His focus was singularly on doing things the right way. But why? Dr. Albert's simple response: a crisis means we move quickly, not hurriedly.

Apart from recalling that the famous UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said something similarly, my brain was too busy being harried and hurried. "Forgive me, doctor, but I am moving too fast to understand what you just said," I thought.

Four years later, I find myself working in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis. The causes and the stubbornness of this crisis are different, but this is a crisis no less. Like Haiti, many, through no fault of their own, now have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Quickly removing debris and rebuilding homes cannot quite make things better in this crisis. This one languishes. In the last couple of weeks, a new Syrian refugee camp opened inside of Jordan's borders. This new camp, Azraq, can host as many as 130,000 refugees. This is an addition to the more than 100,000 that reluctantly call Jordan's other major Syrian refugee camp, Za'atari, home. Clearly, this crisis will not go away speedily.

In the midst of this crisis, life goes on. It must. The three Za'atari camp kindergartens recently held graduation celebrations attended by throngs of proud parents. Days before, emotionally and physically weary humanitarian aid workers took time to play cards and dance at a picnic in a local park. And determined Syrian children find time to design "air conditioning" for overheated caravans (think big, hot metal container): one bed sheet strewn on an indoor clothes line; add vents to said sheet; spray sheet with water; add an oscillating fan behind the sheet... and voila, score one for ingenuity.

So, refugee life presses forward and essential humanitarian aid pours in. In the meantime, the crisis apparently claims a victim: quality.

Hurriedly composed assessments lead to conclusions that run headlong into reality. In one instance, a survey meant to assess need produces more responses than the number of people questioned. This "rapid assessment" lost credibility quickly.

"Be quick, but don't hurry" is now coming into focus.

Many humanitarian relief organizations here are fortunate to have passionate, hard-working young professionals working for them. They work long hours and, to be sure, it's not for the pay. But, many go unmentored. The crisis seems to have claimed that too.

One of these professionals spots a problem -- a number of young women at the camp seem to lack self-esteem and are idle. The professional wants to empower these women. She asks some of them what they might want to learn. Embroidery is a common refrain. So, now we're off to teach embroidery in the name of empowerment. But, wait. What if we taught these women the basics of being an entrepreneur? What if they not only embroidered but were savvy about how to efficiently produce and market their wares? What if we taught the young professional the importance of asking one more "what if?" question before pressing forward with her laudable intentions?

In the same context, we find reports to donors that should measure impact, but instead measure activity. If we distribute thousands of floor cushions to refugees but many are then resold in favor of good ol' hard cash, what impact did we have? Quickly reporting impact in terms of cushions distributed, checks a box. But, was it the right box?

Hurrying, it seems, could stand to benefit from less haste and a bit more intention.

In the midst of chaos, speedy solutions that do not sacrifice quality exist. They exist in places that balance urgency and diligence.

Because we are in a crisis, there is no doubt that speed matters.

The temptation to move about quickly from one task to another is everywhere. Meetings beget meetings; and bean-counting spawns more bean-counting. How does one in the midst of crisis -- which, by its very nature, begs for action -- refuse the easy road of activity? I am not sure, frankly. Surely, I have smugly proclaimed my self-worth countless times while staring at a finished to-do list that didn't have a prayer against my industriousness. Didn't Coach Wooden also say something about taking care not to confuse activity with achievement?

Crises have a way of swallowing quality and achievement when we allow them to justify haste. The antidote seems to be action that is strategic, reflective, and urgent. Exhibit A: the new camp at Azraq, which takes what we learned from Za'atari and employs a "village" concept, making it feel more like a city and less like a camp. This is what moving quickly and not hurriedly looks like.

So, here's to repetition -- the quick, steady variety.