I have worked mostly as a Communication Officer - or spokesperson - both in emergencies and country office settings. Lately I have taken on more work in the donor relations and programmatic areas. I’ve also worked for a brief period as global spokesperson in Geneva. The 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar are the two largest emergencies I’ve worked on. In both cases, the devastation was vast and millions were displaced.
UNICEF’s mission in more than 100 countries is to create a protective environment for women and children. The organization’s ability to respond quickly in major emergencies is well-known and usually focuses on health, water and sanitation, nutrition and child protection.
Previously I was a journalist, working for major media outlets in Canada and Asia. I was led to UNICEF by pure chance immediately after 9-11, when the Afghanistan emergency was taking hold. My only experience before that with UNICEF was carrying the UNICEF Trick-or-Treat box during Halloween as a kid growing up in Canada.
Most of my work has involved informing the media and donors about UNICEF’s interventions - both during emergencies and in our day-to-day work. I love working in emergencies as the needs are great and so is the adrenalin rush. It's not uncommon to work 16-18 hour days for very long periods under very trying conditions. You can feel the difference you are making. In the first few hours and days after an emergencies strikes, it's important to get the crucial details out - as well as photos and videos - to the media and donors as quickly as possible. Transparency and accuracy are paramount in our messages. We dont work alone: we work with other UN agencies, government, NGO’s, donors and others. In emergencies - such as the ongoing floods in Pakistan - we arent able to respond fully unless donations are extended and for this we normally issue an emergency appeal. UNICEF depends entirely on voluntary donations - from ordinary people, governments and corporations. (With one-fifth of Pakistan now under water, I urge donors to respond to the appeal for immediate resources).
My longest posting was in our East Jerusalem office, where I led the communication section. We worked primarily in Gaza and the West Bank and the challenges, to say the least, were daunting. I’ve also worked in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Africa, Southeast Asia - and for the Canadian and US fundraising arms of UNICEF.
It seems that, no matter where you look on the world map, the needs of women and children are great. While there are countries where some of the indices we normally track are worsening (i.e. maternal and infant mortality, HIV AIDS, nutrition, school enrollment), for the most part we are seeing quantifiable improvements. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are due in 2015 - that’s not very far away - and there are many countries that will miss certain targets. What we are also finding is that as human development statistics are improving, there are still large groups of people - the poorest families, people in rural area, girls - that have been left behind. We often find ourselves scratching our heads, trying to find answers to vexing questions: why is it, for example, that despite free primary education, many boys and girls in rural Lesotho don't go to school?
I am often asked how I cope in emergencies - where you see some pretty gruesome scenes or where your life is often at risk. It's the encouragement and support of family and friends that keeps me going. UNICEF has no shortage of competent, well-meaning professionals and being able to work with the best in the business is a privilege.
For those of us in the communications business, I think what helps keep us going is that, as a spokesperson, you get in front of millions of viewers at a time and share with them what you are seeing, what we are doing as aid workers. We explain what people are going through, how many are affected, what the needs are and what UNICEF is doing to alleviate their suffering and keep them alive. It’s an important role to play and, in this 24-hour news cycle, you are often called upon anytime of day and night. Honesty and accuracy are crucial when you are on the air, and I think most people can tell if you are being evasive or are exaggerating. I've worked on many occasions with CNN, BCC, CBC and Al-Jazeera. CNN and CBC have been especially good to us - with air time and informed interviewers. I am glad that aid workers, journalists and technology people are now coming together to think up new, innovative ways to better cover the uncovered parts of the world - what HUM calls the "geographic gap" in news coverage.
Have I ever faced danger? Yes - I have fallen off a helicopter, been in the cross-hairs of snipers, searched at gunpoint on a Jerusalem highway, threatened by a gun-totting farmer in the Gaza Strip and sustained a bloody head injury in the desert in northern Nigeria. But my brains and limbs are still intact - and my heart is still in this!
Thankfully I havent lost any close colleagues, but we feel it deep down when anyone in the UNICEF family - or in the aid business for that matter - dies in the line of duty. I think about my compatriot and colleague,Christopher Klein-Beekman, who at 32-years-old, died in the line of duty in the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. His parents live near me on Vancouver Island and I really choked up when I met them for the first time. The recent killing of aid workers in northern Afghanistan - an area I am familiar with - was horrific and shocked many of us to the core.
On World Humanitarian Day, I think of people like Chris and his parents. I think of the young Pakistani women near Mansehra, cradling her terrified child after losing everything to the South Asian earthquake. I think of the farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar, their land inundated by salt water brought by an unforgiving Cyclone Nargis. And I think of the teenage girl I met in Kano State in Northern Nigeria, her limbs rendered lifeless because she didn't receive a polio vaccination.
We are often prevented from reaching beneficiaries by washed out roads, bad weather, road blocks, lack of air transport or heavy lift capacity, or violence started by state or non-state actors. It's important for us to be seen as neutral actors and to convince those in positions of power that we are there for one simple reason: to save lives. All kinds of live-saving materials pass through the cargo holds of airplanes we've managed to borrow, through the trucks we've leased and - ultimately through our hands and the hands of our partners: insecticide-treated bed nets, blankets, tents, water purification tablets, water pumps, high energy biscuits, syringes and medicines - you name it.
All-in-all, this career has exceeded my expectations by far. I count myself as extremely lucky and feel I have one of the best jobs in the world. On top of that I get to help people in need, help find solutions to their pressing problems. I am learning new things all the time, see the word and get to work with an awesome and diverse group of professionals!