Finnish Inka Himanen in Colombia: Work For WFP Challenging But Rewarding

As a child Inka Himanen dreamt of going on expeditions to the jungles of the Amazon to explore the exotic wildlife. She never became a wildlife explorer, but she did get to see the jungles of South America. Inka today works as a programme officer for WFP in Colombia, providing food assistance to populations displaced within Colombia by internal conflict.  We asked her about her work for WFP in Colombia. Here’s what she had to say.

How long have you been working with WFP in Colombia?
I have worked for 3 years in WFP’s office in Bogota, Colombia, as a Programme Officer. My responsibilities include working on WFP’s operation providing food assistance to internally displaced people, projects with the private sector and donor relations. I started my career with WFP in 2006 in Nepal as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO), a position funded by the Finnish Government. There I worked with WFP’s refugee operation providing food for 120,000 Bhutanese refugees. I moved from Nepal to Haiti for new tasks in 2008.

Why is WFP in Colombia?
50 years of conflict between the government and armed groups has led to a high number of internally displaced people in the country. According to different sources, the number of people displaced by conflict varies between 3.6 million and 4.9 million -- many of whom are indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. These IDP’s have to leave their livelihoods behind when they flee conflict, which makes them food insecure.     In addition to providing assistance and strengthening institutional capacities in Colombia, WFP aims to build bridges between the government’s humanitarian programs and other social programs. Combining food assistance with community development gives people the possibility of reconstructing their lives after they have lost everything.

 What is it like to work in Colombia?
Colombia is incredibly beautiful and versatile and it is a privilege to get to travel to different parts of the country. Working in a country that has a strong government but still suffers from internal conflict is challenging. As a humanitarian organization, WFP can reach parts of the country with assistance where it is difficult – or impossible  -- for the government to work. However, operating in these distant areas where armed groups are active makes our work incredibly challenging.

What do you like most about your work?
The good thing about working with WFP is that the results are visible. Healthy mothers and school children as well as flourishing community enterprises are examples of the successes. The most rewarding part of the work is when we get something concrete done together for the poor and undernourished. I also like my colleagues and the opportunity to meet new people from different countries through my work.

What has made the biggest impression on you while working for WFP?
The sheer size of the challenge of hunger and its effects on the world’s population made a big impression.  However, understanding how we can fight hunger and really save lives during humanitarian crises has made an even greater impression.

The most exciting/funniest experience with WFP?
I was a bit nervous about meeting the musician Wyclef Jean when he was helping out with a WFP food distribution in his native country of Haiti. I am a Fugees fan and when I was asked to travel with him, I must say I got a little shaky. Luckily, in the end, I was not actually that nervous when I finally met him.

 

What did you do before WFP?
I graduated from high school in France and I stayed there to study Sociology and Anthropology at university. After getting a Master’s degree, I did another one in Political Science. I did some field research for my studies in the Caribbean region and Central America where I was researching the identities and social movements of the indigenous people. During my stay in Costa Rica, I also worked for organizations supporting the indigenous people. After this I started writing a PhD and did two internships, first with IOM and then with UNHCR in Geneva. Unfortunately, I never finished the PhD …

Any tips for people interested in working in the field of humanitarian assistance or with the UN?
Patience and flexibility are essential. When crisis hits, your daily job transforms. One has to be ready to travel and live in difficult and sometimes even dangerous areas and face many kinds of misery and injustice. It is also good to be well-prepared for long workdays. Good language skills and previous experience in developing countries are also beneficial.

Do you ever miss Finland?
I only lived in Finland for 5 years but I still miss many things and people in Finland. I always try to spend my summer vacations in my home country.