Kilian Kleinschmidt

“Forget those perfect plans”

Words: Andreas Rottenschlager
Photo (right): Marko Mestrovic

The humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt has organised refugee camps and improved the lives of war victims. For this man, no problem is too big

Sudan, Yugoslavia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia… German-born humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt has been organising care for refugees in the world’s most conflict-affected zones for more than 20 years.

In his role as camp leader for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he has brought Google managers into tent cities and negotiated with Pakistani rebels over the fate of hostages. Kleinschmidt’s motto is that you can learn something from everyone.

THE RED BULLETIN: In 2013, the UN sent you to Zaatari in Jordan to set up a camp for Syrian refugees – the second largest refugee camp in the world. More than 100,000 people lived in Zaatari at the time, and whole streets were controlled by the local mafia. Violent demonstrations were a regular occurrence. What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: I went for a walk on my own. Most of the staff left the camp in the evening to go back to the hotel, but I stayed behind. I wanted to find out exactly where the violence was coming from. So I walked about the camp and asked around until I discovered who the ringleaders were.

That doesn’t sound like a very academic approach.

Most aid workers prepare meticulously for their deployments, but I never read reports. They prejudice you. I always want to get my information first-hand, and the best way to do that is through chit-chat.

Humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt, 53: “You have to create little islands of trust amid the chaos”

© foreign correspondent // YouTube

But you still had to find your bearings in Zaatari among 100,000 strangers. How do you get to grips with such a complex situation?

You have to create little islands of trust amid the chaos. After three days, I was brought before a man named Abu Hussein. He told me his men controlled the camp and that he’d already thought about having me beaten up. But we continued talking through the night. After that, we met on a regular basis. I got to know more and more people living in the camp and sought their input. The refugees wanted their individuality back, so we began to run Zaatari like a city. We brought in cashless payments. A traffic expert from Amsterdam helped us with street planning. And the demonstrations died down. Speaking to the mafia boss was the first step towards making that happen.

You’ve worked in the some of the world’s most conflict-hit zones for more than 20 years. Is there a general rule for solving problems?

Forget about those perfect plans. Most people spend too much time thinking about solutions because they’re afraid of mistakes. They form working groups, but valuable time is being wasted in the meantime. We have to accept that the imperfect can also be a solution and make quick decisions. You can learn from flawed solutions. No one benefits when a bad status quo is allowed to drag on.

Kilian Kleinschmidt

Two years ago, you set up an agency that connects poor people and war victims with start-ups and computer experts. Isn’t that rather an unusual combination?

My approach is that I can create synergies with anyone in the world. I learnt that in Zaatari. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, can provide help, but so can a Jordanian postman – the former because he has the power, the latter because he has the contacts. If you use all sorts of people’s know-how to solve problems, you achieve amazing results.

Is there an example that has particularly touched you?

There was a guy in Zaatari who had had both of his eyes shot out by a sniper. So we asked our specialists for advice. A nerd from the US sent the design details for an ultrasonic echolocation device with haptic feedback. The wearer straps the device onto their fist and it helps them judge distance using vibrations – a bit like the parking sensors on a car. We printed one on a 3D printer for €25. The blind man has been able to move independently ever since.

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