Human(itarian) Resources with a Difference in Afghanistan

If the job “HR Officer” conjures up images of paper-pushing nay-sayers epitomised by the Evil Catbert character on Dilbert… think again. Filomena Zukauskaite talks about the laughter, tears and piercing questions from her young daughter that are all in a day's work for a WFP HR Officer in Afghanistan.

About a year into my assignment in Afghanistan, the Country Director, Louis Imbleau, said to me: “Filo, you should go see the staff counsellor. There’s something wrong with you. You’re still smiling – it’s just not normal!” Of course he was joking, but it’s true – I’m a happy person. And I love my job. I came to Afghanistan because after years at our headquarters in Rome, I wanted to see what WFP was like “in the field”. It was hard to take the plunge because of my family – my Italian husband and our six-year-old daughter, Sophia. But since I made the decision and came here, in May 2011, I haven’t looked back.

I’m based in Kabul – which although it’s “the field” compared to HQ, is still a desk-based job at head office as far as Afghanistan is concerned. So when I had the opportunity to go to one of WFP’s sub-offices, I jumped to it, even though I knew it would be a tough mission. As part of the restructuring of WFP’s presence in Afghanistan and the refocusing of our programmes here, we are closing down the Maimana sub-office in the northern Faryab province. Programmes will still continue, but they’ll be run from the Area Office in Mazar, about 320 kilometres away. And some 14 staffers will be losing their jobs. My assignment was to explain the plans, help out how I could, clarify entitlements and options… We had an all-staff meeting that was very emotional. I explained everything through a translator. We had a few laughs, and a few tears… But everybody went away fully understanding the situation. The best and the worst parts of my job are two sides of the same coin: I love being able to help people when they come to me with their problem. But the reality is that I can’t make everyone happy; sometimes you have to say no or make difficult decisions. And it’s tougher in Afghanistan than it is in Rome – everyone is just so stressed here, all the time. People who’ve never been to the field just can’t understand what it’s like here. It’s just boiling – it’s full-on, all the time.

I was lucky that my visit to Maimana coincided with that of my Japanese colleague Kayo Takenoshita, who’s in charge of WFP’s cash and voucher programmes in Afghanistan. In Maimana, WFP gives vouchers to the poorest people – in this case, women and disabled people – that can be exchanged for food in shops. Kayo let me tag along on her rounds – it was the first time that I’d ever seen a WFP programme close up. We went to the distribution point where beneficiaries received the vouchers. It made quite an impression on me, being surrounded by this sea of blue burkhas. Then we went to the shops where the women could redeem their vouchers – it was so good to see that WFP was really, concretely helping these women – they now had food to take to their families. One of the women let us come home with her. The entire family – she, her husband, their five children – lived in one room. The husband was a drug addict – it’s a fairly common problem in this country. He was there at home, totally out of it, red-eyed… it was up to the woman to find food for her children. She wouldn’t take off her burkha, but from her hands it looked like she was very young. It was so sad.

Everywhere we stopped off on our mission, Kayo and I were immediately surrounded by children. When you get out of the car they are there to greet you with a few words of English. Of course they always make me think of Sophia, and how lucky we are to have all of the things we have. I try to tell her about Afghanistan, and I send her photos – of kids with kites, of our garden with roses, things that will let her picture where I am without worrying. But she’s so bright, she doesn’t miss a beat. She asked me: ‘are there children in Afghanistan?’ Yes, I told her. ‘Are there men in Afghanistan?’ Yes, of course, I told her. Then she asks – ‘so why can’t daddy and I come live with you?’ It’s hard to explain…

I’m an HR officer, so I know all about entitlements and benefits … But being here I’ve realized just how much WFP staff give up to do this work. The time away from your family – you’ll never be compensated for that. But coming here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m sure this won’t be my last assignment in the field.