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Put me in any new situation and I immediately start looking for the solutions

Put me in any new situation and I immediately start looking for the solutions

Franziska Fuerst and Kelvin Hui © GIZ

As Kelvin Hui moves on to pastures new, Healthy Developments looks back at his 20 year career with German Development Cooperation, spanning many different countries and diverse roles.

Growing up in Malaysia, the concept of development cooperation was not a familiar one for Kelvin Hui, who started his career as an IT and systems development consultant. When he took on his first assignment with the German development bank Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) in 2003, little did he imagine that he would go on to have a twenty-year career with German Development Cooperation.

Kelvin’s early work in Indonesia – advising on the strengthening of health and hospital information systems for KfW – quickly led to further contracts in Vietnam and Pakistan for both KfW and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. GIZ colleagues soon realised that Kelvin possessed that rare mix – at least in the digital world – of exceptional interpersonal skills, strong technical expertise and a commitment to improving the lives of others. Over the years, these characteristics – buttressed by an unceasing drive for new knowledge and learning – have propelled Kelvin on to ever broader and more senior roles.

A baptism of fire – helping to build back better in Indonesia

After the devastating tsunami of December 2004, Kelvin joined a team of GIZ consultants to provide support to the emergency reconstruction efforts in Aceh Province on the island of Sumatra. Their role was to figure out how GIZ could support the local authorities to build back better, and Kelvin focused on strengthening the Management Information Systems of 5 hospitals and 86 community health centres throughout the province.

He went on to spend four years in Aceh and considered his time there to be very special, working alongside many ex-freedom fighters. The highly challenging context – and Kelvin’s initial lack of experience in development cooperation – made this a tough posting, particularly at the start. Kelvin himself described it as a ‘baptism of fire’,

I was a young man in his mid-twenties, coming from the private sector. Growing up in Malaysia, there was no development cooperation at that time. So this whole world was entirely new to me.

Learning the art of development cooperation

Working for GIZ in Indonesia, Kelvin met the first of his two mentors, Wolf Wagner, who immediately spotted his potential and took Kelvin under his wing. ‘Development cooperation is really an art and I had to learn how to do this’, says Kelvin, who cites patience and diplomacy as critical traits that he learned from Wolf . He continues, ‘as a foreigner invited into someone else’s country, you need to learn not to tip the balance of power and influence, but to work within these structures’.

Kelvin Through The Window Web
Kelvin through the window

Early on, he came to appreciate the GIZ approach to working with partners as equals, and of facilitating results without imposing solutions – an approach not always common among development partners. At that time, GIZ was also becoming interested in the power of IT to strengthen health systems. ‘Looking back’, he says, ‘I was fortunate because GIZ was very attracted to the idea of using IT systems as a cornerstone of efforts to reconstruct Aceh’s health infrastructure. This was really cutting edge at the time and I was in the right place’.

From IT systems to health systems…

Kelvin’s early experience supporting the development of health information systems in different countries led to more strategic roles with GIZ, first in Indonesia and later in Bangladesh, working under his second mentor Paul Rueckert. In Indonesia, Kelvin was contracted to provide strategic planning support to the Ministry of Health for the digital transformation of the health sector.

Like Wolf Wagner before him, Paul Rueckert soon saw what Kelvin was capable of. When Paul went to Bangladesh to lead GIZ’s bilateral health programme, he persuaded Kelvin to follow in 2012 to work on GIZ’s first health sector project to have a standalone IT component. Paul says,

As a young consultant Kelvin immediately impressed me; he was bright, technically competent, very professional in dealing with partners in what was for him at the time a completely different cultural setting … and he had a sense of humour.

Prior to GIZ’s Support to the Health Sector (SHP) programme in Bangladesh, policy makers were dependent on ad-hoc surveys to understand what was happening in the health sector. Kelvin focused on supporting the establishment of new information systems, enabling decision makers to access more accurate and timely information, which proved to be groundbreaking,

This programme had a huge impact – I had lots of ideas, our partners had lots of ideas and together we were able to change the IT frameworks for the whole country.

…and beyond

Working with Paul as his informal right-hand person, Kelvin had plenty of room to learn about the management of GIZ projects, working cooperatively with other development partners and with exposure to senior officials in government. Importantly, Paul finally succeeded in getting Kelvin a GIZ employment contract, after many years of ‘work-arounds’.

When Paul left Bangladesh, Kelvin stepped into his shoes and was able to demonstrate his potential as a project manager. ‘This proved to be a real turbo booster in terms of learning the ropes’, says Kelvin, who was not only responsible for closing the first phase of the SHP, but subsequently designing and overseeing a new phase.

Towards the end of his time in the country, Kelvin was appointed to manage the preparatory phase of the Employment Injury Insurance for Employees in the Textile and Leather Industries project. Explaining the ease with which he moved from IT systems into broader health and social development, Kelvin says,

IT has always been a means to an end for me – a problem-solving tool to do things better. Put me into a hospital and I will look for solutions. I quickly learnt that health systems strengthening was more about governance, quality management, monitoring, and so on.

And in addition to increasingly senior roles in Bangladesh, Kelvin somehow found the time to study remotely for a Masters in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Breaking the glass ceiling

In 2016, Kelvin moved to Cambodia as Component Manager for the Social Health Protection project III and IV. Just two years later, he took on the additional role for GIZ head office of Planning Officer in the Competence Center for Health, Social Protection and Inclusion.

Working 50/50 in each of these senior roles was clearly a case of 2 + 2 = 5 – or perhaps even 10. While the Cambodia role required strong technical, management and leadership skills, Kelvin was responsible at head office for leading GIZ’ strategy for digital transformation across social protection and health. This meant that Kelvin also received numerous requests from projects around the world for digital development support.

Securing the head office role was really quite an achievement, as Franziska Fuerst, who worked with Kelvin for many years in Cambodia, explains,

Without the conventional prerequisites of being German or a German speaker, Kelvin shattered a glass ceiling by making a career in GIZ and working for head office from abroad – a legacy he can be very proud of.

A digital pathfinder and a pioneer

Part of Kelvin’s remit at head office was to fly the IT flag. While GIZ as an institution was very supportive, it proved challenging to get the GIZ teams on board, particularly in the early days. However, Kelvin kept on pushing the digital envelope and, when he started to pitch digital solutions to the decision makers at GIZ, his strategy began to pay off.

Saurav Bhattarai, Adviser at the GIZ Sector Initiative for Social Protection and a fellow digital pioneer, remembers Kelvin’s willingness to try new approaches and ideas, and in particular his persistence.

Kelvin was very skilful in keeping the digital topic relevant throughout the years, even when he didn’t receive much support from others. Today, digital health and social protection are embedded across almost all of GIZ health and social protection programmes – thanks to Kelvin’s efforts during this time.

Always sharing his knowledge with others

Having always valued the mentorship he received from Wolf Wagner and later Paul Rueckert, Kelvin has in turn always prioritised support to others within GIZ networks. Those who worked with Kelvin have singled out his ability to distil complex information and to communicate this clearly. ‘He was one of the first to embrace digital solutions in our sectors, and he not only mastered these but also shared his knowledge with all of us’, says Franziska Fuerst.

Kelvin Ff And X
Kelvin Hui, Franziska Fuerst and Jost Wagner

Saurav echoes these comments when he says, ‘for me personally, he was very supportive and helped me establish my own network within GIZ. His career path was inspirational for me; I came to understand that it is possible to make a career within GIZ as a non-German speaker, but with technical expertise and competence’.

What Kelvin is proud of

The two achievements Kelvin himself is most proud of are his work on strengthening health information systems in Bangladesh and the establishment of the National Social Protection Council in Cambodia, where he also wrote the country’s Social Protection Digital Transformation Strategy. The Secretary General of Cambodia’s Social Protection Council, His Excellency Chan Narith, explains the importance of Kelvin’s work in Cambodia,

Kelvin always finds a way to communicate and work effectively with people, including in government. With his expertise in social protection and health, he has made instrumental contributions to the development of the social protection system in Cambodia, positively impacting many lives, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

Many friendships along the way

Despite his heavy workload, it hasn’t been all work and no play – along the way, Kelvin has forged many lasting friendships. Karsten van der Oord, who worked with him in Bangladesh and whose young families became friends, remembers the camaraderie among the GIZ team – with cocktails and fabulous food consumed at the weekends, much of it made by Paul Rueckert.

Bishkent 2 Web
Kelvin Hui, Paul Rueckert and Saurav Bhattarai

Paul, who worked with Kelvin across five different countries, says ‘over the years, Kelvin and I became close friends. I saw his family grow and was his mentor in crucial situations. We shared a desire to enjoy delicious food and we had great fun enjoying success on the job, as well as celebrating the culinary highlights’.

On to pastures new

As the trajectory of Kelvin’s career continues upwards, he takes on a new position at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing, working in the Strategy Department. Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AIIB has broadened its focus to incorporate social development in addition to financing infrastructure.

Still motivated by a strong desire to help others, Kelvin will be putting the many skills and experience gained at GIZ to good use, helping the Bank to move into this exciting new area of work. As he moves on to pastures new, Franziska Fuerst speaks for many colleagues when she says,

Kelvin has always challenged us to keep moving and breaking new frontiers. The void his departure will create within the health and social protection community will be hard to fill.

Corinne Grainger, May 2024

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