The world is interdependent and increasingly interconnected. The challenges we face as humanity cannot be met alone. The UN, despite all its flaws, is a valuable institute and forum for the world to come together and exchange insights, share burdens, and endeavour towards the improvement of living-standards and the preservation of the global environment. One organization within the UN, the UNV (United Nations Volunteers) encourages communities to empower themselves through volunteerism. By mobilizing National and International Volunteers from all corners of the world, the organization works to make a difference in the everyday life of citizens in struggling nations.
Two months ago I started working for UNMISS (United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan) as an UNV Project Officer in Juba, South Sudan. Currently I am in charge of administration and process-management for the UNV Field Unit, and of providing help to the UN Volunteers in the field.
I first started considering working for the United Nations in 2007. I attended a conference which educated me on multilateral diplomacy and the role of the UN as an intergovernmental organization and global forum. The lectures inspired me to pursue a career in the international field. During my studies I kept looking for opportunities to get closer to working for the UN.
In February 2015 I started working for the UN as an intern at the United Nations Volunteers Headquarters in Bonn. UNV is responsible for the management and recruitment of Volunteers for UN-Agencies and UN Peace-missions. These UN Volunteers offer their skills and knowledge in service of local communities either through projects or by assisting the organizations already on the ground. After five months I was presented with the opportunity to move to the field. In July I relocated to South Sudan.
There it became clear to me how hard it is to do what the UN does. The UN deals with wicked problems; extremely complicated issues with no apparent solution. Here in South Sudan the situation is unpredictable and complex. There are political, social, and ethnic dimensions that clash on different levels in the conflict. The situation in this country changes on a daily basis and is very volatile. Finding ways to improve the living-standards of the local population and protect them from harm under the current circumstances is often challenging.
The situation in South Sudan is a good example of how difficult it is to identify where the success of the UN lies.
The country is deteriorating rapidly, despite the long-term UN presence. However, living here, having spoken to people and seen and heard stories from everywhere in the country, it is hard to imagine what would happen if a mission such as UNMISS wasn’t here. It is easy to point to the mistakes and failures made by an organization dealing with so many complex issues. Yet coordinating an attempt towards peace in this situation is very difficult due to the many political, economic, cultural, and social challenges. To me the alternative of no mission is not agreeable, instead we should focus on what success-factors there are and expand them. That being said, no mission is the same, so we will always have to learn whilst trying.
My personal experience
Whilst working in a nation in conflict you see a lot things: poverty, compassion, struggle, tragedy, and small victories. UN Volunteers are often at the vanguard of the UN efforts. Many of them have a lot of stories to tell, and have witnessed many tragedies during their work. I try to always be there to listen to the UN Volunteers when come in from the field. Their stories are remarkable and inspiring to me. In Juba, the conflict seems sometimes far away. Where I am working the consequences of the war are experienced indirectly, the city suffers from things such as criminality and corruption. My work is to assist the UN Volunteers and help to improve our Field Unit. I hope to make a positive impact on the work of others by taking away some of their worries. It is very rewarding to see people feel empowered to help others thanks to the work you are doing.
The strength and weakness of the UN
The strength of the UN is its power to bring people from all over the world together and combining their experience and knowledge. Yearly 6500 International UN volunteers share their insights with organizations within the UN and with the communities the UN reaches out to. Part of finding a solution to poverty and poor living conditions within nations such as South Sudan is empowering the communities to help themselves overcome their problems. In order to do so, the UN is starting more and more to include volunteerism in its approach.
Volunteerism is an important tool to strengthen communities.
By encouraging people to invest in their communities and each other, we can assist by strengthening their social bonds and helping them improve the conditions they live in. Volunteerism not only helps the communities, but it can also help missions such as UNMISS to work more closely with local populations and create more understanding. Hopefully, in the future the UN will incorporate even more elements of volunteerism in the mandates of its missions, and so bring international and local communities closer together.
It is easy to win someone’s trust, it is a lot harder to retain it. It takes hard work and a consistency which is difficult to maintain in certain mission environments. An individual misstep can tarnish the goodwill towards the UN, not just within the country but globally. Also prejudice and unrealistic expectations within communities can make it very hard to keep a positive profile. The UN often has a lot to live up to, which can easily lead to disappointment. To avoid such negativity is difficult. However, the solution is not to be found in distancing oneself, but in trying to keep local people included in our efforts.
Within South Sudan, national staff are important in keeping the dialogue with the local society going. They are invaluable to our efforts. The inclusion of local staff is important to maintaining a dialogue with the local communities. However, they are risking much by working for the UN. They can be targeted due to their work association with the mission. By taking good care of our national staff, we can show our goodwill and possibly persuade more of the populace to have a milder view of the UN.
Challenge for the future
The challenge for the UN of keeping the dialogue between the powers of the world going will become increasingly difficult. Together with a declining world economy and the consequent budget cuts for the UN, the dedication of the UN and its members will be tested to its limits. However, I believe that the UN will keep on being relevant in the future thanks to its continuous efforts to improve itself and others. In that future, I hope an increased role for volunteerism within UN peacebuilding missions will lead to more interaction with local communities in the short term, a strong international dialogue between international communities in the midterm, and the development of a diverse global community in the long term.
After 70 years of service to the global community, the UN deserves to be recognized for its achievements. Yet as long as there is conflict and inequality, the UN will have no rest. I therefore wish the organization and its members the wisdom to be just, the courage to do what is right, the strength to uphold its mandate, and the energy to work harder than ever before.
I feel it is a privilege to work for the UN. As an UN Volunteer I have been given an opportunity to go out and see the world and help improve the lives of others. Even though it can be very hard and frustrating at times, I recommend becoming an UN Volunteer to anyone who feels he/she is up for the challenge. Maybe we will even meet each other in Juba, South Sudan.
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Public Management and Policy)
Program Officer UNV, Juba, South Sudan