You are a Public Information and Reporting Officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Sudan. What does that entail?
My job is to inform people about the humanitarian situation in South Sudan and the devastating impact that war, displacement, hunger and disease is having on people here. In practice, that involves briefing journalists; writing reports, press releases and editorials; reaching out to the public on social media; and supporting fundraising and advocacy by making sure the right people have access to good information about the crisis, when they need it.
As a Special Assistant you are your boss’ right-hand person, and your main responsibility is to help them do their job as well as possible. In UNMIT, that often meant preparing for meetings by writing talking points and background papers, drafting speeches and policy papers, and following up on decisions with different parts of the peacekeeping mission. But every day would be different, and the key to being good at the job is to be ready to do whatever is required on the day.
You have worked in Sudan and East Timor, places many would consider dangerous. How do you prepare for such postings?
Apart from the first few days of the current war in South Sudan, I have very rarely felt at risk in my work. Unless you are in areas of active combat, most places that seem dangerous from the outside feel much less risky when you are there on the ground. That was certainly the case in East Timor, which people remember from the late at the 90s as a conflict zone, but which was perfectly stable by the time I was there in 2011-2012. So I have never felt a major need to prepare for danger as such. What you do need to be mentally prepared for is to work very hard, and to be far away from family and close friends. That’s usually the most difficult part of the work.
To date, you have spent the bulk of your career working for the UN. How did you join, and how do you move from one job to the next in the organisation?
I was extremely lucky to get my first job in the UN. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in International Relations and was studying German in Berlin when I heard that the head of the UN in the Central African Republic was looking for a Special Assistant. I wrote him an email, he offered me an interview, and a few weeks later I was on a plane headed for Bangui. It’s an unusual way to get into the organisation, and I am very grateful that he was prepared to take a chance on a completely untested graduate with very little experience. Once you are in the UN, you have to organise your own career, which can be difficult. I’ve been lucky enough to meet colleagues in different jobs who have helped me move on to new posts. But it is one of the difficult parts of this kind of career, especially if you have a partner who is in the same field and you want to move together.
You are active on Twitter but don’t have any other public social media profiles. Why this choice?
Twitter is a great tool for my work – it helps me get information out and to make contact with people working in or on South Sudan. It’s also a great way to get information quickly; I get most of my breaking news through Twitter. Other than for work purposes, though, I don’t feel any need to have an online presence. I have other ways to stay in touch with friends and, from a political perspective, I am concerned about handing over too much personal data to private corporations. Broadly, I think we should be asking companies and governments harder questions about how our data is and will be used before making it available.
How did you become interested in international affairs? Why did you decide to make it your career?
I moved to London aged 18 to go to university, and I adored the diversity of the place. At the London School of Economics (LSE) the 50 people in my course came from something like 30 different countries. During my university years I also started volunteering in the Republic of Congo during the summers, and quickly realised that I wanted to work outside Europe, preferably in Africa. And then I fell madly in love with the Central African Republic after I got my first job there. It was so exciting to have to try to understand a place that was so different from where I came from, but that still felt so familiar and welcoming. Working in the UN seemed like a good option to get to spend more time in these kinds of countries.
You have a BA in International Relations from LSE and an MPhil in Political Science. How do you use these in your career?
The main thing I learnt during my degrees, which I use every day, is how to write well – how to put forward an argument and make a crisp point. Having been exposed to ‘grand’ theories of politics and international relations also helps to put your day-to-day work in context. If you work in the public sector you always have to ask yourself if what you are doing is useful for the people that you are there to serve. That sounds straight-forward, but it can be extremely hard to see if you are making a difference in a complex setting, like a civil war or a fragile country. I find that being aware of what smarter people than me have thought about power, international politics, development and justice has helped me understand the UN’s work better, and be clearer about my own role in it.
You went to school in Sweden, France and the UK. How did that help prepare you to the international environment of the UN?
At a very practical level, the fact that I spoke fluent English and French got me my first job. So in that sense deciding to go to school in France at the age of 16 has been the most important decision of my career! In a broader sense, living and studying in several countries gave me a sense that life is more interesting – if more confusing and sometimes frustrating – when you are exposed to people and situations that you don’t necessarily understand immediately. I also learnt that life and culture in Sweden, France or the UK can be just as strange as life in South Sudan or the Central African Republic, which I think is a good life lesson in a time when attitudes to strangers are hardening in many countries.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it that you still use now?
My first job was with the UN in the Central African Republic, where I was the Special Assistant to the head of the UN’s development and humanitarian work in the country. Most of what I know about working I learnt there, especially what it means, concretely, to be good at your job. I learned to be proactive, to hold myself to high standards, to have the backs of my team mates, to be open to new ideas, and that it’s possible to have a great time in the office. It was a great school.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?
My main piece of advice is to choose your boss carefully to ensure you will be working for someone you like and respect, and then to not be afraid to work really hard to make your team shine. I would also advise getting skills that will make you useful to future employers: learn a couple of languages; become really good at Excel or at building websites; teach yourself how to make beautiful infographics or become an expert in a specific country or topic. Every team needs people with practical skills, and they are surprisingly hard to find.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
The most rewarding part is to get to live in so many fascinating places and meet so many interesting people. Every time I feel tired of my current job in Juba, I go down to one of the camps for internally displaced people to write a story about the people living there, and it instantly makes the work feel meaningful. The least rewarding aspect is to be far from my family, and that moving to a new country every two years can create a sense of being rootless.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I am good at quickly reading a situation and understanding where there is a problem, or anticipating a challenge coming down the track. I am also a fast producer – I am good at getting things off my desk, and not letting things drag out. That’s definitely thanks to my experience as a Special Assistant: when every day brings new problems to solve and you constantly have new tasks thrown at you, there’s no time to agonise over a page of talking points.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
The toughest lesson I have learnt is that no matter how hard you try, your work won’t necessarily have a lasting impact because the problems facing the world’s poorest and most fragile countries are so enormous. It broke my heart when the Central African Republic descended into chaos at the end of last year. That country feels like my first love, and when I left in 2008 we thought it was on the right track. Now it has been on the brink of genocide. That is difficult to accept.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
In September this year, I travelled with a UN and Al-Jazeera team to Bentiu in the north of South Sudan, where there had recently been heavy fighting. We knew the situation was bad, but hadn’t quite realised the scale of the atrocities that had happened there. When we drove from the airfield to the city centre, the streets were littered with dead bodies, decomposing in the hot sun. Outside one mosque where civilians had sought shelter from the violence, dozens of bodies of people who had been executed in cold blood were piled on to each other. While we were up there, we were so focused on documenting what had happened that we didn’t really take in what we saw. But once we were back in Juba, I felt how deeply shaken I was. Luckily, my husband who also works for the UN had been with me during the trip along with several other close colleagues, so we could help each other process it. But I will always carry those scenes with me, along with sadness about people’s ability to be cruel to one another.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am proud of doing well in my first job in the UN, despite not having any experience of international affairs or really of working at all. For the first months I was terrified every day, but I decided to fake it until I made it. And after a year, I realised I was really quite good at my job. The confidence I gained from that experience has served me extremely well in the jobs I have had since then.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I have worked with several people who I admire deeply, and who I try to emulate in different aspects of my work. But my main role models are my parents and my siblings, who combine careers they love with being excellent parents to their children, and wonderful people all around. If I can pull that off, I would be very happy.
Amanda Weyler - Public Information and Reporting Officer in the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Juba South Sudan
Six years' experience
CV in brief
Find her online @AmandaWeyler
Guiding the then head of UN peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, during a visit to East Timor
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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