In South Sudan, Saving Lives From Behind The Scenes
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Published on 19 August 2014

There is nothing nobler than being able to work for a humanitarian organizations that helps save lives like we do at WFP, says Akberet Tedla head of finance at WFP South Sudan. Photo: WFP/George Fominyen

When many people think of the aid workers responding to the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, most think of those distributing food, organising airdrops, or negotiating with armed groups for access. But there are many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes in administration, finance and human resources, and who are critical to ensuring that WFP’s food and nutrition assistance reaches people in urgent need.

As a university student in Ethiopia, Akberet Tedla spent her summer holidays working for the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (ERRC), during the terrible famine that struck the country between 1983 and 1985. It was the first interaction with humanitarian work for the Eritrean-born Tedla, who joined WFP in 1995 and is now head of the finance unit for the agency’s office in South Sudan.

She may not directly hand over food to hungry people in person, but her role is vital to seeing that WFP’s assistance reaches those in need. She facilitates cash transfers to staff at distribution sites in the field, and ensures salaries of staff and entitlements for service providers are paid to keep the operation going.

“There is nothing nobler than being able to work for a humanitarian organizations that helps save lives like we do at WFP,” said Tedla. “Working for WFP has enabled me to serve people affected by natural and man-made disasters.”

Although she finds the work extraordinarily rewarding, the finance officer – who has also worked for WFP in Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan – admits that working in emergencies can be very challenging. On a personal level, staff have to live far away from their families. Professionally, the context can present many obstacles, such as the disruption of financial and banking services in a country.

“It is difficult to get cash facilitators in remote areas, and in the case of South Sudan at the moment, we have to use cash, since banking services are not functioning in most states,” said Tedla.

At the WFP offices in Juba, Noel Lomude Michael sits in the same room with the emergency response teams who are constantly deployed to remote areas where WFP and its partners are providing urgently needed assistance. Michael himself does not actually travel to these places, but he is vital to getting the teams there.

“I book the flights for the teams and arrange that they have their kit, such as tents, which they need on the ground,” Michael said. “I also coordinate so that they receive operational funds to pay porters who help to collect food bags from drop zones after airdrops.”

Michael joined WFP in 2003 as a finance officer in Malakal, Upper Nile State, where he was working until fighting erupted at the end of 2013. He was relocated to Juba for safety alongside other staff in January, at which point he was reassigned to provide administrative and finance support to the emergency response unit.

“The job can be challenging, with flights cancelled or teams arriving in the field without all of their cargo, leading to dozens of phone calls,” he said. “But I enjoy the job because my interest is to serve people who are needy, and I believe what I do is helping my fellow South Sudanese citizens who are desperately in need.”

In another office around the corner, human resources assistant Martin Taban is busy sorting scores of envelopes from job applicants. As WFP scales up its operations in South Sudan to reach more people affected by the conflict, he is part of a team that has been working around the clock to recruit new staff members – especially South Sudanese citizens.

“When we get staff on board and they perform well for WFP I really feel proud because it is a contribution to support the people who are need around the country,” Taban said as he took a break from shuffling through boxes filled with application letters.  “Would there be a humanitarian response without staff? I don’t think so. I feel I am a humanitarian worker when I am involved in the recruitment of people to serve the populations in my country who are suffering.”

Nearly 800 people are working for WFP in South Sudan as the agency pulls out all the stops to try to prevent a hunger catastrophe amid conflict and insecurity. In this challenging context, WFP and its partners reached about 1.4 million people with food and nutrition assistance in July alone – thanks the hard work of everyone on the team, both those at the distribution sites and those “behind the scenes.”