Naomi Gikonyo has designed emergency response interventions amidst humanitarian crises around the world – from Kenya to South Sudan, Haiti to Libya – for nearly a decade. Currently she works as an Emergency Preparedness and Response Officer for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). This month she also graduates with a Master’s Degree in International Humanitarian Action (MIHA) through the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) at Fordham University.
Here she reflects on her vast experiences in the humanitarian sector.
How did you get started in the humanitarian field?
Like many people in the humanitarian field, it was purely coincidental. I first began to intern with International Medical Corps (IMC) and as a result, I ended up working with them for almost eight years in a variety of areas including finance, logistics, and then finally programs.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I enjoy working in the humanitarian field to contribute to something larger than myself. Each emergency is different so it is difficult to specifically say which is my greatest accomplishment, but I have participated or led several emergency responses in relatively difficult contexts.
I have been deployed at the height of emergencies to set up operations from scratch, and I have bonded and worked with individuals from all different walks of life, which I am proud of. It is humbling to be able to offer assistance to people who are vulnerable and looking to you to provide support in their time of need. This is what drives me.
The most fulfilling mission I have ever had is working in South Sudan. It is a difficult country to work in, but overall each of the missions is different and I do not categorize them as one being better than the other. Each experience is important to me in a variety of ways. It is more the people you work with – this is what is crucial in this line of work.
What is the most difficult experience you have had?
At the height of an emergency there is a great deal of pressure, usually in life or death situations. The most difficult task for me was setting up operations in South Sudan right after the conflict began at the end of 2013. It is a particularly difficult country to work in, not only in terms of access, but security as well. This includes harsh working conditions in the middle of nowhere without any of the resources you usually take for granted. It is basically you, your team, limited supplies, and one vehicle. Essentially you have to hit the ground running. Setting up operations, with heightened tensions, along with limited resources is always a challenge.
In addition to being a student, you served as a tutor during last year’s International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) course in New York. What were some of your main take-aways from this experience?
It is fascinating coming back as a tutor after being a student. The IDHA is a very enriching course for most people, because students and lecturers come together to cross-pollinate ideas. It is a mid-career course where all of the participants have significant (humanitarian) field experience or some experience in other sectors. It is therefore a very interactive environment. The students learn as much from the faculty and lecturers as they do from themselves. They build networks for life with people from different perspectives and different backgrounds. There are 40 people from 29 different countries who participated in IDHA 48 and as a result there is a lot of diversity and perspective in the group. I experienced this as a student as well and I am still in touch with most of my classmates from IDHA 29, seven years later. It is definitely one of the more interesting courses offered at Fordham and in the humanitarian sector.
What was your favorite part of IDHA 48?
I find the case studies very interesting. I also enjoyed the guest lecturers. It was interesting to get perspectives from different areas of work that I did not have previous exposure to, such as the Ebola response or the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, which I found fascinating. I also enjoyed reflecting and gaining new perspectives about contexts I have worked in. It is hard to pick one highlight, but what I find most useful in the course is being able to listen to and reflect upon so many different perspectives. I also met some colleagues from WFP in the course and it was interesting to interact with them and hear their various experiences from the field.
What is one of the strengths of the IDHA course?
A strength of the course is that it is very adaptive. It is not rigid, but rather quite fluid. A lot of content shared on IDHA 48 is very different from when I was a student. When the faculty and students bring their current experience to the course, the content changes accordingly because of the knowledge in the room. It is nice to see the evolution of this sharing and learning.
What are largest challenges in humanitarian work today?
A lot of people say it is issues of access or funds, but I would say the level of complexity of the problems that we are dealing with is so great that the system has not necessarily been able to evolve as quickly in order to properly address these needs. We are struggling to adapt as fast. The game has changed but the players have remained the same, whether this be the scope of migration issues or politicization of aid. In general, these issues have intensified, but the humanitarian architecture has stayed the same. There have been attempts to evolve or adapt but they have not been sufficient enough to match the level of complexity we are dealing with. It remains a fundamental challenge to the system overall if we are to deal with future issues.