Interview With OCHA’s Aimee Wielechowski


Chris DeBello: The news and talk shows have made it a hobby of debating and criticizing the UN. If you watch those debates you come away thinking that all the UN does is international diplomacy, politics, and well, arguing. My guest is here to present the other side of the UN; there are countless within the UN as well as via organizations aligned w/ the UN that make a huge difference in our world. One of these organizations features a woman with, well some very local roots. To talk more about this and the UN Foundation is Franklin, NJ native, Aimee Wielechowski.

Amy: Good morning, how are you

CD: Very good to talk with you and tell the listeners exactly where you are that I am talking to you

Amy: I’m actually in Nairobi in Kenya right now, waiting to go north to Khartoum in Sudan where I’ll be working for the next four to six weeks or so.

CD: And just to make it totally official I want to give your full title. You are the response Officer, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Internal Displacement Division. Home base is Geneva, that must be a very large business card you need for a title like that.

Amy: Indeed, yes I work through OCHA, we’re called, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which is part of the UN secretariat, yes, and part of a relatively new division called the Internal Displacement Division which really tries to look at how we can solve the problems faced by the millions of people who are displaced from their homes by war or natural disaster but who haven’t crossed the border so they’re not refugees so there’s no body of law to assist them except their own national bodies of law, so we’re working with national governments and other humanitarian agencies to try and find ways to help millions of people who are displaced by conflict and natural disasters.CD: So I would imagine in many of the countries you’ve worked in places like Uganda, Sudan, Palestinian Territories, that since these are people who have been displaced but that yet they can’t go to a better situation in a way you’re a hostage negotiator in some sense because that’s… in a certain level, what these people are, they’re held hostage by their surroundings.

Amy: Well that’s an interesting way of putting I hadn’t thought of it that way but in a way you’re somewhat right. In many cases the people who are displaced through their homes are displaced by their own governments, the same government that’s supposed to be protecting them. Now what do we do in that situation. Of course the UN tries to work with governments at a political level to solve these problems through diplomacy because at the end of the day we humanitarians we can not solve the political problems we can only try to help people cope and survive while the political process is continuing. We can also offer them a bit of protection simply by being present. Um, you wouldn’t, I mean, you wouldn’t imagine the number of people that, that, we can offer protection to just by being present in camps or in locations where these people are displaced because we can act as a deterrent to forces attacking them but most importantly also we’re offering them food, shelter, water and sanitation, simply so that they can survive until a political solution is found.

CD: I guess the obvious question I need to ask is how does a woman from Franklin, NJ wind up traveling into what are some very dangerous parts of the world. What was a catalyst in your life that made you decide that this is something that either I want to do or maybe you felt that this is something I need to do.

Amy: Uh, that’s a good question. I think maybe you can blame my parents and my upbringing which was very much rooted in helping other people, you know, making sure that you look after the people who don’t have as much as we do and trying to give what we can back to society. I think that’s very much the roots of it but how I got into the UN is how many people get into the UN, a bit by accident. I used to work for an NGO in the former Yugoslavia and we used to spend lots of time, bashing the UN, I think it was a bit of a recreational sport for us and then when I was in graduate school my advisor strongly suggested that I do an internship w/ the UN refugee agency just to kind of see things from the other perspective. And I did and I think it was one of the most eye opening experiences that I had to see the difficulties and the challenges that the UN faces in trying to get assistance to people, to protect people and to try and do all this at the same time while very complicated political processes are going on often by the same member states who are, the member states that are part of the UN and are supposed to be upholding all those principles of the UN, so that really turns my head around about what the UN can do and then I sought to go to work for them after graduate school starting out as a basically, unpaid, or very low paid intern in the republic of Georgia and kind of the rest goes from there I’ve been with the UN now for eight years.

CD: Talking w/ Franklin, NJ native Aimee Wielechowski now a member of the UN Foundation. They’re on the web by the way: You’re listening to Issues and Ideas. Now I want to give you a chance to explain more about the UN Foundation because the UN is part of the title but in a way you’re not within the body of the UN, to put it in maybe corporate business terms you are a subsidiary of the UN.

Amy: Well, to tell you the truth I don’t know much about the UN Foundation. I’ve worked w/ the UN only outside of the US actually and I’ve participated recently in efforts by the UNF to raise awareness in the US about what the UN does and how it tries to work in different countries.

CD: Ok, well to bring along the lines, getting back to what I alluded to in the intro. How important, because we usually hear here in the states, the UN talked about in a derogatory, albeit general, but still a derogatory way but from your experience and from what you see, how important is the UN first for the world and how important is it for us here in the US to care about the humanitarian work of the UN?

Amy: Ok, yeah, I think you’re right the UN gets a lot of, is criticized often and some of that is warranted and I think it’s always useful to be critical about institutions like the UN as we’re critical about our own government and other things in our own country but I think you know we need to consider a lot of the failures or what are considered to be the failures of the UN are failures rather, of diplomacy. The UN doesn’t have its own army; we don’t have our own factories to produce goods for people who are in desperate need of help. We depend entirely on member states to solve the critical problems of the world and to provide assistance to people who need it. And the UN as it were acts as a bit of a facilitator of all different nations in the world coming together to sort out their problems. And I think what’s interesting you know, the US was critical to establishing first a League of Nations and then a UN after that and it was really our idealism, our ideas, our view of the world that can work together and solve problems that are the founding principles of the UN and back in the days after WWI when the League of Nations was created, a lot of European countries were very skeptical, they thought we in the US were very naïve and idealistic to think that you could have an organization that brought countries together to solve problems and I think through our perseverance and diplomacy we convinced the rest of the world that this was a good idea and I think it’s important to recognize the critical role the US played in setting up this organization and also that we also, all of us, all member states, have accountability for whether or not the UN is successful or not, if the UN says, if the Security Council decides to send a peacekeeping mission that’s great, but as I said the UN doesn’t have an army, it can’t deploy an army of people to the south Sudan or other countries to keep the peace, we depend on member states like the US, like European countries, like African countries, to provide troops for that so that has to go hand in hand; and why is it important for people in the US to care about what we are doing in humanitarian work? Well I think it goes back to the age old principle of you do unto others how you would like them to do unto you, I’ve seen people living in horribly desperate conditions, unspeakable poverty, in situations where their lives are constantly at risk, where women are raped just for going to collect water and food and wood for their families and none of us would want to be in that situation, all of us want to make sure our children in safety and security and dignity and I think that’s what the UN can try to do, is to help people to achieve those lofty goals, We don’t always succeed but I think we can have to continue to strive to do that because no one country can do it alone. We have to work together to solve these problems.

CD: We’re w/ Franklin, NJ native Aimee Wielechowski who is now traveling the world as a response officer for OCHA in the Internal Displacement Division as part of the body that is the UN; you’re listening to issues and ideas. Reading up on the work that you do and the various humanitarian efforts of the UN and maybe do a little search through history and your various organizations are challenged because you don’t really have a, I guess you would say, a stellar advocate, you used to have one, this is I’m sure old-school for you and for the listener but there was a comedian back in the 1950’s and 1960’s and into the 70’s, his name was Danny K, who used to travel the world, Danny K traveled the world as an ambassador for UNICEF and someone like that tremendously raised the awareness of the world UNICEF did so it got to be a challenge to really exist either by choice or depending on some of the countries that you have to go into, by necessity you have to stay under the radar screen because I would assume there are people in Nairobi, the Sudan that would prefer you do not go into that country, right?

Amy: Absolutely. That’s certainly a challenge that we face, and it’s interesting because some places don’t necessarily want the UN because they see it linked it very closely to US policy and in some places we’re not closely enough linked to US policy so it seems that sometimes we, lose lose situation, but getting back to this issue… advocates for the UN and the US, there are a lot of ambassadors for the UN in the US, maybe one of the most famous ones is Angelina Jolie, famous for her Tomb Raider roles and she goes out to countries all over the world. In fact she’s been in Sudan I think, and tries to raise awareness about concerns that face refugees all over the world and there’s many other celebrities like her that do the same thing.

CD: I wanted to just wrap things up by giving you the chance to talk to the person listening that, take them through a couple of ideas of what it would mean if more people did maybe as much as you do or at least try to raise their personal awareness of the humanitarian work that the various organizations within the UN do if just the awareness is raised not necessarily personal activity, how much of a difference would that make in the overall future of the humanitarian of the UN?

Amy: Ok, well I think in my work, what I do is, we try to make the UN work better in high office. The UN is criticized often for not very transparent, not very accountable for the money. My office tries to help the UN to better by coming up with better plans, being much more clear to the public about how we’re using their money and it’s very important that we can explain to people who give money how we use it. And that’s what I do, others do work where they’re working directly w/ people who are living in camps where displaced people are and they help them to get water, clean water or food, but behind all this is a huge infrastructure that requires logistics, negotiations of governments, preparing of documents, recruiting of staff; we have in Sudan for instance, 1.5 billion dollar program for UN assistance to the Sudan and that takes both imaginative programs that help reach people because many of the people in Sudan live, they’re out of reach, we physically can’t reach them because there’s no roads or when the rainy season comes we can’t get to them so we have to come up with other ways of getting to these people but for people in the US who want to help more you don’t need come to Sudan necessarily although we could definitely use people to come help here and other places, you can help by raising your own awareness about what the UN is actually doing, visit the websites of the UN, try to engage in the debates that are currently going on in the US because there is a lot of criticism about the UN and I think its important to educate yourself about both sides of the debate; and advocate for more support by the US to the UN. That means political support but also moral support and financial support although the US of course is extremely generous with its support for the UN.

CD: Before we go I just wanted to ask how long has it been since you’ve been back home to Franklin.

Amy: It’s been about a year and a half I think but I hope to come back soon. I try to get back at least once a year.

CD: Well, look forward to having you come back home and we’ve been talking w/ Franklin, NJ native and also a member of the humanitarian side of the UN. She serves as response officer for OCHA in the IDP division Aimee Wielechowski. Amy, thank you so much for as they like to say in baseball terminology for stepping up to the plate and through your work, indeed knocking one out of the park and thank you for being here today.

Amy: Thank you.