Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I got my bachelor’s degree in liberal arts studies, focusing on music and German. That's where my interest in different cultural backgrounds started. I was born in the United States and grew up speaking German, but it wasn’t until I studied the language, culture and literature at college that I got a chance to engage in different mindsets. Learning about world music and international music really sparked my interest. After pursuing my Master’s in International Communication in Germany, I got an entry-level job at the United Nations in New York with the United Nations University. I was so interested in cross-cultural understanding and working together across different nations to solve global problems. The job gave me insight into the broader policy discussions within the UN and how to look at these issues to make an impact.
I then got a post with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as a public information officer, translating policy processes into the field. I also started a youth peace programme. It was exciting to see how much we could change the lives of some of the world's forgotten people. Then I got a post in Nigeria with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) doing public information communications, media and advocacy. That was an intense time to be in Nigeria because of the conflict with non-state armed groups in the north-east.
For the last few months, I've been with the UN World Food Programme in Sudan doing media and communications, responding to different crises such as the flooding in September. It was the worst the country has seen for 100 years! We've also had the refugee crisis on the border with Ethiopia, trying to mobilise assistance for nearly 60,000 refugees. Sudan was also recently removed from the US state-sponsored terrorism list, so many changes are happening. The World Food Programme is one of the largest humanitarian agencies providing food assistance and establishing long-term food security and livelihoods.
What triggered you to work in the humanitarian sector?
My grandparents were refugees after World War Two and my father was born in post-World War Two Germany in 1946. I heard a lot of their stories growing up and what it meant to go through conflict. My grandma was always trying to do some humanitarian work or bridge cultural understandings between different people. She inspired me to want to alleviate the suffering of people. I was drawn to work that had meaning and impacted people's lives, especially the most vulnerable.
If you were to pick an influence(s) growing up, how did they affect your career path?
It's actually a lady that I never met, but I'm named after. She saved my uncle's life in World War Two. As a small child, he got lost in southern Germany, this lady named Leni found him and took him in for two years until she was able to find my grandparents. I was given her name and I feel I have to live up to it because she made such a difference in my family's life. She was always known for her warm-heartedness and helping everybody, which inspired me to have that kind of difference in people’s lives.
As UN Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in Nigeria, what did a normal day look like?
You couldn't say that there's a typical day working in that kind of humanitarian emergency and protracted crisis. The situation in North-East Nigeria is quite insecure - it's one of the highest levels of security that staff members work in. I lived in a compound and we were driven around in armoured vehicles, so there was always this security concern in the back of your mind. It was a terrorist environment where at any point somebody could blow themselves up. We were reporting on all kinds of insecurity incidents, so because of this and the counter-terrorism operations going on and the Nigerian military trying to free villages from non-state armed groups, there were a lot of population movements. In January 2019, shortly before the Nigerian elections, there was a sudden influx of around 50,000 people to the state capital where I was working. The humanitarian community had to mobilise an emergency response for these people, who were fleeing from conflict, find a place for them and try to get them urgent life-saving support.
There were constant crises like these popping up during my role in public information and advocacy. I was sharing and drawing attention to what was happening with the outside world to mobilise resources. There were also various attacks on humanitarian compounds throughout the area and aid workers abducted. You had to react, respond and raise awareness so that the international community knew what was happening.
How did your UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan differ?
It was more on the grassroots level, focusing on peace and security. It wasn’t necessarily about mobilising food, water and shelter, but about creating the conditions for a lasting peace. There were also many humanitarian actors in South Sudan, the peacekeeping mission is just a different part of the UN. We would go out to villages and hold peace dialogues. The peacekeeping mission also ran a radio station, which was one of the only functional national radio stations in the country. So, I turned into a radio journalist, reporting on some of these peace dialogues and informing the general public on important peace processes.
I was responsible for going to remote locations and building trust with local communities. We would explain our purpose and the role of the local people in trying to move past conflict, look towards building durable peace between the different tribes and how this could contribute to peace and security more broadly on a national level.
What were your greatest achievements of the past year?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was in North-East Nigeria. When they closed the borders, one of the biggest challenges in the humanitarian response was the lack of water and over-crowded camps for internally displaced people. At the same time, we had to adapt the response to maintain social distancing measures, get masks into the country, distribute PPE and run information awareness campaign. I took the lead in doing an education and information campaign on COVID-19 prevention measures. There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation around the pandemic, so we worked closely with local radio stations and different humanitarian actors on the ground to produce material that saved lives. Implementing measures in these areas with poor sanitation and the mass amount of people, prevented what could have been a catastrophe.
The second half of the year, I moved to the World Food Programme in Sudan. I’m proud of our media efforts throughout the crisis of refugees from neighboring Ethiopia crossing the border into Sudan. I produced the video news highlight reel that was picked up by a lot of international broadcasters. I was glad to be sending information out to the world on an emerging crisis and advocating on behalf of the needs of vulnerable people fleeing conflict.
How have you seen COVID-19 affecting the position of the world’s most vulnerable?
More than anything, it's the economic impacts felt most among the world's most vulnerable. In Nigeria, they tried to do a lockdown, which lasted no more than two weeks as people were going out on the streets saying, ‘I might get COVID, but if I don't have anything to eat, I'm going to die.’ Having these types of lockdowns in countries where the standard of living is much lower exacerbates the economic impacts and food insecurity. Globally, one of the big things we are also seeing is the ‘shadow pandemic’ and the increase in domestic violence, mostly against women.
What role do you think the media is currently playing in reporting what's happening on the ground?
I think one of the issues is how news cycles work - what's breaking news, what's developing and what's new, because that's what makes news and that's how the industry works. One of the biggest problems in the media industry in covering protracted humanitarian crises after several years is that it's no longer new and therefore there’s no focus. I just experienced it in this emerging situation from Ethiopia. There's been a protracted crisis in Sudan for decades and at the height of the hunger season last year, there were 9.6 million people food insecure - the highest number ever recorded in the country and close to 25% of the country's population. Yet, international journalists only became interested in Sudan when Ethiopian refugees entered the border fleeing from violence in the Tigray region. If you look at it in terms of numbers, the 'bigger' humanitarian crisis was in Sudan, and especially Darfur, yet the media focused on the emerging situation because that’s what makes ‘news’.
Is there a better role for the public to play in helping improve humanitarian action?
It's difficult because it's a matter of proximity. Around 50% of Americans don't have a passport and have never left the country, so when something is going on in a far away country there’s nothing they can relate to, they have no understanding of what it means. I would say it is more of a long-term and profound change that's needed in terms of developing as a society that is more globally aware. That all has to go back to the education system - it's more of a domestic and education policy question. We need to change the schooling system and expose children to a global society and developing an international mindset in an interconnected world.
How does climate change affect disasters on the ground?
Climate shocks from droughts to floods, as we've seen in Sudan last September, are exacerbating humanitarian crises and are sometimes the cause of humanitarian crises because people have to migrate. The flooding of the River Nile in Sudan was the highest level it has been in 100 years, over 150,000 homes destroyed, and nearly 1 million people were affected. This is one natural disaster that happened in one country in 2020, but it's happening globally. Again, it’s not communicated by the media, especially on how its broadcasted to the West. Because climate science is such a complex, interconnected system, it's quite hard to explain it in a straight forward way. For example, how one particular case of flooding in Sudan is related to greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
Do you think the UN Humanitarian Affairs should prioritise this in their strategic focus over the next 5 years?
There is ever more focus on this, especially from the office for UN OCHA, demonstrating how climate shocks exacerbate global crises. For the UN's 75th anniversary, the UN held a survey on the core issues concerning citizens around the world. Climate change and how to frame responses to humanitarian crises were at the top of the agenda. But, the thing to remember is that the UN is not one organisation that can mandate something for everybody - it’s a multilateral network of different nations with their own policies. More than anything, the United States re-joining the Paris agreement will have a greater impact in leading the global green policy change.
Do you have any particular goals for 2021?
Given that 2020 was such an unpredictable year, my goal is to be kind to myself. There's enough pain, suffering, crises and anxiety and to uphold my role in humanitarian work for the next three to five years, I can’t afford to burn out. Self-care is essential to staying strong, energetic, motivated, inspired, compassionate and most of all dedicated to the work that I do. We're seeing the effects of the pandemic taking a toll on mental health across societies, so my motto is to try to maintain that mental health and stability amidst these turbulent times.
Finally, what is most important to you at work?
The most important thing for me is to embrace teamwork to solve problems and to create a work environment where we build upon each other’s strengths. We should empower and motivate each other to stay inspired, remain committed and look at as many angles as possible to solve a problem. If you create an environment for people where they love to work and feel passionate and committed to what they do, I think that's the best way for them to strive individually, reach collective success and make a lasting difference.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Leni Kinzil, Communications Officer at World Food Programme