A Career in Humanitarian Aid and Food Security

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SOAS alumna Marika Guderian studied MSc Violence, Conflict and Development and now works for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).  She is currently Deputy Head of Programme based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, focused on providing emergency food relief and development aid.  In 2020, The WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to provide food assistance in areas of conflict, and to prevent the use of food as a weapon of war.

Marika describes how she began her career in the humanitarian sector.

Marika Guderian

What made you choose the MSc VCD degree?

I travelled and volunteered after high school to Central and South America. We had to be very cautious in regard to our security and certain areas were off limits. In El Salvador, while we went surfing during the day, we had to remain in our compound during the night. Coming from Germany, it made me realize that security is not a given and rather the exception than the rule. I wanted to understand more why violence and insecurity occurs.

How did you enjoy the course?

It was eye opening. The material we read challenged us in our thinking. Lecturers asked us to question everything; take assumptions and hypothesis apart, and put them back together from a completely different angle. Overall, the course gave me a different understanding and knowledge regarding the relationship between violence, conflict and development.

“It gave me a toolbox that I would use in my humanitarian work.”

The interaction with other students was also great, as I benefited from their diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. I still have a network of former SOAS alumni.

In what ways have you been able to apply the knowledge you gained on the course in your current career?

I focused in my career on conflict contexts, be that the Middle East, where I worked in Jordan and Palestine; South Sudan; or West Africa, where I frequently travelled to Mali and CAR. To apply a political economy lens allowed me to understand the conflict dynamics, which in turn shaped my approach when I negotiated principled humanitarian access in South Sudan with parties to the conflict. I understood at a more granular level the different alliances and coalitions; interest of the groups, and how this dynamic influenced our ability to gain access to displaced populations. Food aid in those contexts is often used as a weapon of war by parties to the conflict. With a political economy lens, I truly believe that you can largely reduce this risk when providing humanitarian assistance.

What made you join UNWFP?

In 2013, I was in South Sudan. Months later, the civil war broke out with hundreds of thousands Internally Displaced Persons (IDP)s suddenly fleeing into the bush or into UN Peacekeeping missions for safety. My job at a NGO at that time was to focus on the protection of civilians, be that through the provision of child protection services, where we would try to find the parents of children who arrived in an internally displaced camp alone, or build community groups among the IDPs to address any severe issues that came up. The influx was so sudden, and on such a scale that no one was prepared for it. As the conflict unfolded with millions of people displaced, I saw how food assistance could be a powerful gateway to bring parties to the conflict closer together, when negotiating access to populations in need. This is when I decided to work for the WFP.

WFP’s operation in South Sudan was the largest in the world at that time, because the situation was so dire. People were eating water lilies. The country only has 50kms of paved roads. All the food assistance had to be flown to the most remote locations by helicopters or dropped by air.

WFP works in the most complex contexts to address hunger and food security, which is more important than ever before, given that needs are on the rise due to conflict. This is why, in 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for its efforts. That bag of rice can bring people together again, because food around the world is always more than just food.

Can you describe a typical working day?

Before Covid-19, I would go to the office at around 8am. The first two hours of the day, I would respond to emails or liaise with colleagues to collect information for a donor report or other analysis. Then I would usually have a team meeting with my colleagues where we would update each other and see what needed to be coordinated. Being such a big organisation, we often have to coordinate and liaise with our headquarters in Rome, our regional bureau, cooperating partners and government stakeholders and the wider UN.  Later on, I would either have an external meeting with a partner to discuss a project, or a field visit to discuss with partners and stakeholders directly at the project site the progress made and discuss with the community any issues. I would then go home and have dinner but working in this sector often means, your day doesn’t end at 5pm. In the evenings, I would continue to respond to emails or finalise a report, that has as usual an urgent deadline that was yesterday. I currently have 3576 unanswered emails in my inbox that accumulated over time.

What are the best bits of your work?

The most rewarding parts of my work have always been to speak to the people we assist. To simple sit down with them and hear how their life has been full of suffering and pain but how, as if a weight was lifted from their shoulder, the assistance we provided has not only saved but also changed their lives. I had whole villages sing for me.

“We can truly make a difference, not only through our assistance but also because of our presence.”

In contexts where we are often the only ones helping those most in need, we are their hope for a different future. That’s what motivates me.

And the toughest?

The problems seem sometimes too big to ever be solved. Our assistance feels sometimes like a drop in the ocean as these crises require a political solution. When you work so close to the frontlines of war and hunger, you hear so many stories of people who lost entire families when their village was burned down, how women were raped, and children abused and forcefully recruited. To see poverty and war on a constant basis can become too much. But that’s when I know why we are needed in the first place.

Have you any advice for a student who would like to follow a similar career?

Experiment early by volunteering and travelling, to see if it is your passion and desire to work in the humanitarian sector. While it’s incredible rewarding and I wouldn’t want to do anything different – I wanted to work in the humanitarian sector since the age of 16 when I first volunteered in Thailand – it is not always easy to be away from family and friends, travel so much, and change duty station every few years from South Sudan to Thailand to Guatemala. Don’t build a CV, but a life. My goal was never to join the United Nations but to help avert poverty and hunger.

“Be committed to a purpose and you will find your way to where you want to be.”

If you have that goal, you will take all the steps to achieve it by volunteering oversees, sending many applications until you get your first job offer with a NGO, while learning a new language, and finding new friends, which extends your network.

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