24 February 2014 - Rasmus Egendal is the regional vice-coordinator at The United Nations World Food Programme’s (WFP) work in Syria, and therefore is standing in the middle of one of the worst conflicts today. UNRIC's newsletter met him in Brussels to talk about working in a situation which some would perceive as hopeless. “Nothing is hopeless” Egendal said while smiling.
How did you end up working with the UN?
It all started when I saw an advert for a JPO-position (Junior Professional Officer) at the World Food Programme (WFP) among the international positions posted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. At that point it was in El Salvador, and I really wanted to go back there, since I had been working there before. So I applied for the position, and I got it. And for some reason it changed, and it had to be in Rome instead. Then they asked me if I was very sad to change from having to go to El Salvador to go to Rome instead – and truthfully I was, because I would had preferred El Salvador, but okay, it was fine. So I started working for the WFP in Rome as a JPO for a couple of years and then they offered me a position. And then it started.
I have been working in a lot of different countries for shorter and longer periods of time. I don’t even have a full list, but among others, it is Indonesia, East Timor, Bangladesh, Russia, Georgia, Kirgizstan, South Sudan and Italy of course and also a number of shorter postings. The most problematic and challenging of my postings was working in Banda Ache during the tsunami. That was a completely crazy situation. Those 5-6 months were completely crazy, because we had to rebuild everything from nothing and we were sleeping on a tennis court and everything was a problem. It was one of those situations where you had to work in inhuman conditions. But you do it because it is necessary. When you look around and see bodies and people walking around who have lost everything and their entire family, it is like it matters less and you just do it.
Is there anything specifically Nordic you bring to your job?
I don’t know if it is particularly Nordic, but I think we focus on certain values which are important. Comprehension that when you work with humanitarian aid, you need to focus on people and their needs. And it is probably even more important when it is a situation which is so embedded in politics and conflict.
The other part which is important to us is the importance of dialogue and that you need to talk to each other. The solution is not war and bullets; it is negotiation - and that is something I focus on in my work everyday.
When we see pictures from Syria, it seems horrible and hopeless. Do you experience what the pictures show?
Nothing is hopeless! People find a way to pull through, but of course it is very, very severe for a lot of people. Many of the refugees were teachers or dentists and suddenly find themselves in a completely different situation. They were in no way prepared for the situation that has been forced upon them. There is an incredible frustration because of that. In a lot of other places in the world people have been in similar situations before, and know that they can deal with it. These people don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and it is an incredible contrast in their lives. You can feel it and see it as well.
WFP is trying to arrange the aid in a way, which makes life as normal as possible for the inflicted. We don’t hand out food for example. We simply give people money. We give the refugees a debit card*. With the card they can go to the store, just as if you went to a supermarket. You decide for yourself what you want. That gives people a choice. That gives them a kind of dignity. It gives them a sense that they are in control of a part of their own life, which is important because there are so many things they are not in control of. It is very important to us, to give people a sense of normality and choices and dignity.
Is there enough money to help everyone in Syria who is in need?
We have been extremely lucky last year, I must say. We have not been in a situation where we have been forced to reduce the aid to refugees. So it has worked out so far, and of course that is because there has been an amazing generosity in many countries. And that has been very important to us. The Nordic contributors have been very generous. Norway and Denmark have contributed with particularly big amounts of money – more than one would expect, and they are definitely in the top when considering their numbers of inhabitants. We even had contributions from the Faroe Islands. So, in Northern Europe there is a particular understanding, that this is a severe crisis. It is a crisis which, when regarding the number of exiles, has not been seen since the Second World War. And it has some huge consequences financially speaking. It has consequences regarding safety and it is possible that the crisis might spread to the surrounding countries, which we are already seeing in Iran and also in Lebanon. There is a possibility of regional destabilization, which would be a catastrophe.
Do you see any changes in Syria and the neighboring countries since the peace conference has started in Geneva?
Since the peace conference has started in Geneva, there have not been any major changes in Syria. We hadn’t expected it either. The significant thing is that people are sitting down, trying to find a solution. We hope to see a breakthrough – what else is there to do?
I think the key is international pressure from all sides and that there exists a general acknowledgement that a settlement needs to be found, so there is pressure from all sides, and there are a lot of sides in this conflict. It is not two parties, there are a lot of parties who have to agree that this needs to stop, or else it will end in disaster. As long as the different parties can’t provide peace, we have to deliver foodstuff and aid to a population in increasing need. And that is a heavy job.”
*Info: the arrangement is, according to Mashable, one of the ten most important innovations in 2013
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