Norwegian Marit Fikke in Pakistan: “No Two Days Look Alike”

When Marit Fikke (34) was a little girl in Oslo, Norway she wanted to become a nurse, but today she’s leading the WFP province-office in Sindh in Pakistan. She tells us about hectic days in flood-hit Pakistan, about emergency-operations in 40 degree heat during Ramadan, and about the team spirit that emerges when co-workers work day and night to reach 3.5 million people with over 90,000 tons of food.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I guess I had many different ideas during my childhood depending on my age and the people I met. I think that nurse was mentioned a time or two in my diaries. Throughout my time as a student, the desire to work internationally and fight poverty became stronger. 

What were you doing before you started working for the UN World Food Program?
I have a master's degree in natural resource management from Tromsø University. After finalizing my studies, I started as a research-assistant in the Norwegian aid-organization Development Fund, until I went on to join as a Peace Corps-participant in Ethiopia for one of the Development Fund's local partner organizations.

When did you start working for WFP?
I started working for WFP in March 2006 as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, I worked on the coordination of emergency food to refugees from the neighbouring countries of Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. After two years, I moved on to Sierra Leone and took part in a food security programme – an initiative that was part of the reconstruction after the civil war. In the summer of 2010 when the great flood struck Pakistan, I canceled my summer holiday and left for Pakistan. What was supposed to be a two months assignment has now turned into 1 ½ years!

What is your position with the WFP?
As a programme officer, I lead WFP's provincial office in the southern Sindh-province in Pakistan. Now, the relief-phase after the floods in the autumn of 2011 has ended, and we are working to rebuild infrastructure and livelihoods for people, so that they can regain their ability to produce or buy their own food. We also have nutrition programmes for children and women who are malnourished. Here they not only  get treated, but also get advice on nutritional diets, child-care and hygiene.

Describe a typical day for you at work.
A lot of meetings! And coordination – not only with our field-staff, the office in Islamabad, logisticians, security officers, IT managers, administration and finance - but also with the government of Pakistan and other humanitarian organizations and donors. My job is to ensure that WFP rules and procedures are followed, that tasks are completed on time and live up to different standards of procedures. Further, I hold consultations in order to find solutions to different operational challenges. Occasionally, I also travel to the villages where the projects take place, but unfortunately too rarely. 

What do you like most about your job?
It is very dynamic. No two days look alike. I am learning how to deal with many different sectors, situations and people from very different cultures. There are many challenges along the way, which helps me grow professionally. Although there is a lot of stress, there is also the motivation to continue when I see results and meet people who got through a crisis thanks to help from WFP. 

Is there anything that frustrates you?
Although a lot of food assistance has been distributed to the worst flood-affected areas, it is never enough and there is always need for more. Not long ago, I visited a village where all fields are still under water and where people had just started moving back to destroyed houses. There was not much to live off.Immediately, I was surrounded by a crowd of women who all fought for my attention, tugged at my shirt sleeves and spoke loudly in chorus with eyes intense pleading for help. Although I could not understand the words they where saying, the message was very clear: it would take a while for people to be self-reliant and to be able to regain what they had lost in the flood.

What has made the biggest impression on you during your time in WFP?
Hands down, the massive response to the flood in Pakistan in 2010 - 1/5 of Pakistan's total land area and over 20 million people were affected. The worst affected areas were completely cut off from normal communication and vast rural areas were covered by huge lakes. People who had not evacuated in time were stranded on small islands of raised land, often flood embankments built along the Indus River. People were assisted by helicopter-transported food, water purification tablets and tents. I was involved in some of these distributions. We had to identify a dry area where it was possible to land, and then we loaded bags of food up to the limit of what was safe to carry in the helicopter, and delivered it at an agreed place where distributors and security guards stood ready – together with a long queue of people. People worked long hours and late nights in over 40 degrees, even though it was Ramadan, and most people do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. The team's effort and work was impressive. I think everyone got extra energy by seeing the extent of the disaster, and seeing and hearing about the conditions among the millions of poor who were affected. This was a direct life-saving operation!

In 2011, Pakistan was flooded again in a different area, andd we had to organize a new emergency operation. From the day we got the go-ahead from the government, we had an enormous pressure to reach as many flood-affected victims as possible, with food assistance as fast as we could. We had to quickly hire more people, create a new field office, establish storage, transport food into the area, locate qualified partner organizations that could take care of registration and food distribution, ensuring good security practices and setting up a solid control apparatus.The first few weeks of this response was the most intense work I have ever experienced. All time spent awake was used for working, and when I did not work, I slept - and when I was asleep, I dreamed about work! The team's efforts paid off, and we managed to reach a total of nearly 3.5 million people with over 90,000 tons of food.

What are the challenges working in the field and what is your advice to those who would like a job in the humanitarian field / United Nations?
It can be a huge time-pressure, especially in emergency-operations. In addition, one can encounter many frustrations and challenges when working in countries where things work very differently than at home and not always the way you want. In some offices you have to sacrifice some leisure time like activities and privacy, and in conflict-areas there are often restrictions on movement where you live. For those who would like to work in humanitarian organizations, it is important to first gain the experience. This can either be as an exchange student, working as a volunteer or taking an internship in developing countries to learn about the challenges of working in the humanitarian field. I believe that this is as important as professional expertise. Some organizations may require very specific expertise. For others it is higher education, relevant experience and a strong motivation that counts most. The Junior Professional Officer programme can be a first entrance into the UN system.