Katie majored in French and African Studies at Georgetown and after graduation applied to the Princeton in Africa Program, where she was placed in Benin at the World Food Programme. She is now an officer for the WFP in the Ivory Coast.
What motivated you to get into your path of work?
I honestly ended up here as the result of a great and rather lucky opportunity. I majored in French and African Studies at Georgetown and I knew after graduation that I wanted to go work somewhere in the Africa, preferably in francophone Africa to get some on the ground experience. I had also taken courses in development studies and was very interested in women’s development issues after being involved in WAGE (Women Advancing Gender Equity) my senior year and interning at various women’s development organisations in DC during my time as an undergrad at Georgetown. I applied to a program called Princeton in Africa that places recent grads in various posts across Africa in a variety of sectors to get immediate international experience and really understand what it’s like to live and work on the continent.
I ended up getting placed with the United Nations World Food Programme in a country I had honestly never heard of, Benin. It was a one year fellowship and I was working as the Pipeline and Reports Officer, responsible for reports, public information, grants and other programme duties. While I had originally been focused on specific women’s development organisations and thought I wanted to work in that direct field after graduation, I realized that I was also really interested in food security and how those fields intersected. A lot of our projects at WFP focus on empowering women and making sure that distributions are conducted fairly so that women are the ones with access to the food aid. Our school feeding project is shown to particularly help girls gain access to schooling, providing parents with an incentive to send all of their kids to school not just the boys.
Can you talk a bit more about your position as Pipeline and Reports Officer? How was that experience?
The Pipeline is a WFP report that tracks all the commodities within the country office: this includes purchases, loans, transfers, and eventually distributions. I was responsible for getting the numbers from the involved parties within the office and basically combining all that information in a comprehensive way so that we could track our commodities and our resource situation at any given time. Knowing what commodities were coming into the office and when they would be available allowed us to determine what distributions we could undertake for a given month, if we were going to suffer from shortfalls due to delays or a lack of funding and therefore how we could deal with that situation in terms of cutting beneficiaries or rations, etc. This report is provided to the regional office who then provides it to donors so they can see the situation of all WFP projects and decide where the greatest needs are in a given region.
The great thing about my job was that I got to interact with everyone. It was challenging at times to be the one collecting information from everybody, getting it on time and then putting it all together in a comprehensive fashion but it was great because I got to understand the complete WFP system and how operations really function, acting almost as a liaison between logistics and programmes. To be honest, a large part of my skillset for this job was just the fact that I speak both English and French rather fluently so I could produce high level documents in english but get the information in french and interact with my colleagues who were primarily french speaking as well. I really enjoyed getting a chance to learn about the various steps in our operations, bridge all the departments and then know that I was the one sharing the great things our office was doing with the outside community since I was also responsible for our website and all public information materials as well. It was a small office so I got a lot of responsibility which was a great first job out of college.
What major challenges did you have to deal with? You said that you had to pre-empt for shortfalls due to delays. Did you face that problem?
Definitely. The economy is bad for everyone and the money follows the crises, which we had at one point in September/October/November when Benin faced the most serious flooding it has had in 50 years. That was definitely an intense time, working 12 hour days trying to put together an emergency response when at one point the assessments were saying that a third of the country was underwater. It was also interesting because I got to see the OCHA response come in and see what an intense UN emergency response looks like. I was still just getting used to the day to day but in retrospect it was a great experience because I suddenly got really close with my colleagues as we were working insane hours to keep up with the emergency situation and then met a lot of people from other offices who came in to assist.
How diverse is the office? Is it mainly local staff?
Yes almost entirely. At least in Benin it’s pretty small, probably a total staff of about 30 people including drivers. My bosses and I were the only ones not from Benin (the country director was from Burkina Faso).
And you’re delivering food assistance to how many people?
Around half a million for 2011. We only had 2 projects though: emergency operation to help flood-affected people and school feeding.
So let’s go to the school feeding – you mentioned the gender implications. This is such a broad question, but what’s the situation for women in Benin?
I mean the problem is it’s a very poor country with few economic opportunities outside of agriculture. So you get out of the main economic capital of Cotonou and it feels like it’s mostly women because they’re the ones doing most of the agricultural work. And then a lot of men come to Cotonou and work in other manual labor jobs there or as motorcycle taxi drivers, etc so these women are the ones doing the majority of the work. They keep having children as well so they’re supporting a huge family. It felt like every time we were in the villages every woman who came to get their food distribution was carrying a baby on her back as well.
And I can imagine school enrollment is not high?
Actually Benin is a surprising country. It has an enrollment rate of over 80% because the president made primary education free a few years ago. In Benin girls have much lower rates of completion than boys, a lot of time when the harvest season comes their parent pull them out to help. Early marriage is also a really big problem. Polygamy is highly practised even though it’s illegal now. It used to be legal and in the north you still see it pretty much everywhere. There’s this big problem called vidomegon: basically it’s the practice where family members send their daughters to go work for and supposedly be taken care of by wealthier family members living in the cities, mainly Cotonou. So if a family can’t financially support a child, they voluntarily place young children in the homes of wealthier families where they work in exchange for food and lodging. Usually it’s still a family member of some sort but that encompasses a wide variety of relations. In theory the family is supposed to take care of the girl and put her in school in exchange for her help.
So it’s basically slave labor.
Yes exactly. And there are a lot of cases of abuse, sexual exploitation etc. Those are the major issues that I think Beninese girls and women are facing. It’s funny because now that I’m in Abidjan I also notice a huge difference. In Cotonou I had very few friends who were Beninese girls/women because most of them my age already had children or a family and a whole different set of responsibilities and priorities compared to me.
Also with the level of poverty there’s much less of a middle class and an ability for women to go out and do things on their own, whereas Cote d’Ivoire is much wealthier and has a GDP 3 times greater than Benin. Plus I’m in the economic capital, so I meet a lot of Ivoriennes around my age who have jobs and a great deal more social and economic freedom. It makes a big difference.
That’s interesting – you said that in your first job, you got to interact with a variety of people. Were you also meeting the beneficiaries?
I was lucky and actually got to go into the field a fair amount. Since I was also the Public Information focal point I went and took photos to document our activities and then interviewed beneficiaries to write web stories later and update our web site. I also organized a donor visit I got to go on and a photo visit of the main photographer from WFP who came to photograph our school feeding program so I got to talk to a lot of women, since most of the beneficiaries who came to collect their ration were women (that’s part of WFP policy too).
Any stories or a specific woman that impacted you?
There was this one woman I was really impressed by. To be honest I forget her name but she was the mother of this boy we had interviewed at a school in the south-western portion of Benin and she had become the head of the parents association for the school. She had 5 children and had put them all in school and was helping to spread the word about the importance of schooling for all children including girls and encouraging other parents to put their children in school. Because even though it was now free, there were still fees to get the appropriate material for a uniform and the family still lost the assistance of their child at home during the day.
We asked if we could photograph her at ther home with her children and she was so happy and so proud, standing in her completely empty shell of a home and yet so honored to be recognized in this way. Turns out on top of this she had lost her husband a few years ago, so she was also supporting her entire family. The strength of women in Africa (and around the world obviously) just never ceased to amaze me.
in another house we saw 4 generations, the young girl Jacqueline now at school, her mother, her grandmother and even her great grandmother was still there. It was awesome. Another woman I met, Eugenie, her whole area had been devastated in the floods and wiped out her crops and taken down their house, and she had walked 13 km to the distribution site to get her ration that would last them a month and bring it back to her family.
So do women in Benin take on leadership positions? Are they involved politically?
No not really to be honest. Actually when I left there were 7 female ministers I think, so that was definitely an improvement, but that’s still out of 25.
Did you face any challenges as a young woman? Whether in or out of the office.
It’s a very hierarchical and patriarchal society. Women are always last: if you’re waiting for something, men always get served first. They expect it, they’re used to being served. It’s like women in general just don’t have the same value as a man and fidelity means nothing. Men cheat on their wives a great deal while of course women would never be allowed to do the same and are expected to stay home and take care of the family. it was one of the things that frustrated me the most about living there.
Do you find yourself having to adapt to that gender norm or do you try to challenge? I can imagine it’s a hard position as a foreigner.
It’s hard. I couldn’t adapt to it and tell my male colleagues I agreed and it was ok when they told me fidelity was overrated but only for men. I had a hard time getting used to people feeling like they had a right to my time and space. Men would just call out to you and follow you or talk to you even if you told them you weren’t interested. But part of it isn’t just men, part of it is what I love about Africa in general that it’s so communal and friendly, but it does get a bit exhausting. By the end I think I got used to it and adapted to the best of my ability. I stuck to what I felt was important but in terms of how people interacted with me and what they expected from me I learned to just play along with it.
It’s really frustrating because men don’t have the same problems and I did obviously realize there were things I just couldn’t do because I was a woman, whereas this brotherhood of men still existed where they could kind of do their own thing and not feel intimidated by each other and enter into this secret realm. I saw it in politics a lot, like one time we went to the Ministry and everyone invited inside the Minister’s private room was a man.
What was the men/women ratio in the office?
Actually not bad. That was the nice part that really encouraged and inspired me. I worked with some really capable, talented high power women. 2 of my 3 bosses were women. I would say it was probably around two thirds male, but that included the drivers. There were about 9 or 10 women in the office I think and the head of office in Togo was female and they didn’t put up with shit from men so that was nice too.
Did you face a lot of bureaucracy in the WFP? There’s definitely a perception or impression of bureaucracy in big organizations, especially the UN.
I had a lot of responsbility and felt really fortunate given my age to be given so much to do since I was in a small office with an English need. It’s definitely still very bureaucratic:
you’d get requests for data or information from the regional office or headquarters that you would basically just look at and laugh, like asking us to aggregate data by month for malnourished children under 5 in therapeutic feeding centres and all these indicators you need to have data on for reporting purposes but no thought as to the realities of how that’s going to happen. They’d ask you to do more monitoring and evaluation when in reality some of our schools may be completely inaccessible for half of the year due to the rainy season and bad roads. And requiring staff to monitor them on a monthly basis when there are 300 schools is just completely impossible.
So there is a disconnect in some way between HQ and local offices?
Yes definitely. I have a friend working in HQ now and she told me that honestly a lot of the people there have never been to the field. They just have no idea what the realities are like, which makes me feel really fortunate to be getting this experience now, even if the majority of the time I’m sitting at a desk in an office too. I still get to see the realities of even that level of work and then with the chance to go into the field I really see what it’s like and what the real problems are.
You can work forever on a project document with hundreds of edits from HQ and then a grant proposal to get the funding and then the reporting documents but then at the end of the day if the warehouses aren’t well taken care of half your stocks can be lost in a bad storm. There’s just a lot to keep in mind.
Do you have any advice for someone who would want to go in to your field?
It’s really hard to get into the UN without a Masters. I definitely really recommend my program Princeton in Africa: it’s an amazing opportunity for a recent grad and I would fully recommend it. And then I guess I’d say in terms of this line of work in general, humanitarian, development world, definitely get out and see it. Even if it’s just volunteering for a bit, if you can afford it, it makes a huge difference to get to work in the field and be there. It gives you a whole new appreciation for the sector, its problems, what really needs to be done, so many things. There are a lot of great service fellowship programs that will basically provide you with a living stipend for a year to work in this realm or Kiva takes volunteers to come help monitor their micro finance organisations on the ground. I’d definitely say go abroad as soon as possible and get some of that experience earlier rather than later. It’ll also help you decide if you’re on the right path and what you really want to be doing.
Do you see yourself working in the field for a while?
I’d love to be abroad a bit longer. I’m really loving my work right now, even if there is bureaucracy and even if it can be frustrating at times. It’s so interesting to keep getting to explore new places and I honestly really love living in Africa for now at least. It’s so vibrant and so fun, there’s so much that the media doesn’t show obviously with its pictures of starving kids and genocide. I won’t do field work indefinitely, but for right now I’m learning a lot and really enjoying it.