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Matt Allen swaps inner-city Melbourne for Manila, as he takes on a HR role with a difference.

Alverez Emmanuel, Hannah Baldemoro, Matt Allen and Emmel Murray reviewing HR policies at the Philippine Red Cross. (Photo: Australian Red Cross / Gunther Deichmann)

Matt Allen expected to encounter disasters when he volunteered in the Philippines. However, it's the everyday challenges that are keeping him busy.

Matt is a human resources adviser with the Philippine Red Cross. His role is part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

In a country beset by typhoons, floods and landslides, the Philippine Red Cross responds to disaster after disaster - distributing relief supplies to survivors, setting up shelters, providing safe water and health services, and helping people re-establish their livelihoods.

Responding to so many disasters has left the organisation little space to focus on its own development. As Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang says: "It's high time to look at ourselves; to review how our organisation can become stronger and more sustainable. We have local expertise but we still need support in some areas."

Human resources is quite a challenge in such a diverse organisation, which employs over 1000 staff and aims to have trained volunteers in every village in the country. As a result, Matt found himself working across a number of tasks at once.

"My work is quite broad and generally within the human resources and organisational development sphere," he explains. "So far it has ranged from reviewing the organisation's structure to assisting board members and the board's HR committee."

Working within a small HR team, Matt began with a gap analysis of policies and procedures but was quickly asked to work with the Personal Management Association of the Philippines to advise on a new structure for the Philippine Red Cross.

"This work has been challenging in such a short time for a national organisation. I have so far been impressed by the drive for change by the Philippine Red Cross and their willingness to take on professional advice."

Natural disasters continue to cast stumbling blocks. When Tropical Cyclone Washi struck northern Mindanao in December, management capacity was stretched to maintain business continuity while responding to the disaster.

Logical and clear delegations, policies and procedures are necessary to ensure smooth functioning in such times, and Matt has now returned to this task. "The location of many policies and procedures is unknown. Some policies I have found date back to the 1950s. This is keeping me busy!" he laughs.

The greatest challenge is to develop the culture of a well-functioning organisation and this has to be led from the top: the Board, the Chairman and the Secretary General.

"It is like other organisations that struggle to align the values and behaviours of a professional organisation while at the same time responding to disasters and emergencies."

Only three months into his assignment, Matt knows that he and Philippine Red Cross have a long way to go. Yet he's pleasantly surprised by the way his colleagues can respond quickly to an unpredictable environment and the expertise they bring to their work.

"It is amazing what Philippine Red Cross achieves and makes a difference to the everyday life of Filipinos. I am working with great people with the best intentions - and that is what is making the volunteering stint worthwhile to a large extent."