For our March '21 Impactpool gender parity awareness campaign, we aim to share employee spotlights from international professional women working at some of the most important international organizations in the world.
Meet Rachelle Elien from the OCHA Regional Office for West and Central Africa, Senegal.
Name: Rachelle Elien
Job: Humanitarian Affairs Officer, Regional Office for West and Central Africa, Senegal.
Please could you tell us a little about yourself and your professional background?
I have 20 years of relevant experience in the field of humanitarian coordination, communications, civic training, gender, and media relations fields. I joined the United Nations 11 years ago, in 2010. I currently work as a Humanitarian Affairs officer at the UNOCHA Regional Office for West and Central Africa (ROWCA). Prior to joining ROWCA, I worked as Head of Sub-Office with OCHA both in Eastern and Southern Chad. I also had prior positions with UNDP as an Early Recovery Specialist, with OCHA as a Public Information Officer and Humanitarian Affairs officer as well as the Canadian Cooperation and the Ministry of Women’s Rights in Haiti, my home country. I was also deployed for a short mission in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake supporting the child protection sub-cluster in the field of information management.
In terms of my educational background, I earned a master’s degree in International Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid from Kalu Institute, and a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Leadership at Madonna University, USA. I was then awarded a scholarship from the Fulbright/Humphrey Fellowship for a graduate program in economic development at Michigan State University/USA. I have also studied Social Communication at the State University of Haiti, and have a diploma in Public Relations.
When and why did you choose to work for OCHA?
I joined OCHA in March 2010 and worked until December 2016 as a national officer in Haiti. After this, I worked with UNDP just for a year before joining OCHA again in December 2017 until today.
I chose OCHA because I am committed to working with communities to alleviate the suffering of people affected by disaster, conflicts or any other crisis and to ensure that national and local stakeholders are heard and included in their recovery. I believe that we must not only support the humanitarian response but also ensure emergency preparedness and mitigation actions towards building communities’ resilience in order to more proactively end needs and suffering. I was so fortunate to start working with OCHA in the midst of an earthquake disaster, as this experience taught me that putting the local population at the center of our actions is key if we really want to accompany them to get their feet back on the ground for a concrete recovery and resilience against future shocks.
What do you believe is/are the most important skills needed for a career in the international humanitarian field?
Soft skills are critical to navigating through any field, especially at the international level where which is such a diverse environment. This includes cultural awareness, communication, leadership, persuasion and problem-solving skills, along with a capacity to think strategically, and data and analytical skills. I would also add that it is important to look at inclusiveness and participatory approaches and how to build trust and confidence among groups and stakeholders for collective actions and results.
What are the main benefits/challenges of working in the international humanitarian field?
Working in the humanitarian field allows us to understand ourselves better as a person and a professional. It is a great benefit to get to know oneself better and explore the opportunity to understand worlds, perspectives and cultures outside of our own. It gives us a greater sense of humanity especially. You will come to a deep understanding of social disadvantage and injustice, inequality, especially women and girls’ inequalities and struggles. You also have the pleasure of knowing that you are working to make a positive difference or change in other people’s lives.
On the other hand, this type of work comes with its fair share of challenges and frustrations, too. Sometimes it can be hard to adjust to different cultures and environment, which can often be doubly challenging for women. The challenges can include the living conditions, the physical and emotional environment, how women are perceived and what we should be entitled to as women, how women are expected to address, how women professionals are treated.
In humanitarian fieldwork, is important to be prepared to face health and security challenges. For example, during my time in the field, I got cerebral malaria and was extremely unwell for a period. Many of the places where humanitarian work is done lack basic social services, especially access to quality health services. Another aspect, which is critical especially for women to know is in some hardship locations, we have special needs that cannot be met.
Personally, as a single mother, one of my greatest challenges is that I have been separated from my daughter while working hard to make a difference in other children’s lives. At vulnerable moments you may feel that you are - or others may perceive that you are - an economic provider instead of a caregiver and member of your family.
In summary, a career in the international humanitarian field brings so much joy but is not without its challenges. To succeed you need to find a way to manage stress and other aspects in the work environment relationships to be ourselves and stay energized for the job and stick to our commitment.
What according to you is the most effective way to address gender parity in the workplace?
We need a strong policy framework in place to tackle gender discrimination and bias within the organization, such as codes of conduct and recruitment procedures that consider gender gaps within the organization. We need a merit-based system that values talent without regards to any specific characteristic, such as ethnicity, gender, religion or race.
Do you have a personal habit or trait that has been critical for your success?
Assertiveness, helpfulness, a great capacity for communication, listening and networking, and being always joyful. I am a person who cherishes having people around me and this helps me to succeed in any team. I value those around me and celebrate the success of my team. I believe that each person is someone unique and I can learn from him or her. Finally, I have a strong sense of justice and seek to always ensure my actions are contributing to the collective good.
What decision accelerated your career the most?
My career really accelerated when I decided to leave the public information field for field coordination roles. The opportunity I got in field coordination with OCHA allowed me to really use and leverage more of my strengths and qualifications.
We know that many of our audience would like to hear some advice on how to peruse a career with an international organization like OCHA, Do you have any good tips to share?
Be open to learning from others, ask questions and always seek to better understand your work environment, and always keep an eye open for future opportunities.
It is also important to work on your ‘branding’ and reputation as a professional. Look for your niche of work and focus on how you can bring value to your organization. Sticking to your daily tasks will not make you unique, people need to find a niche and speciality where your advice and your inputs will be needed and valued by the organisation. Another important aspect is to be accountable and engaged in your work, which will let your strengths shine and make you a great asset to the organization.
Never leave a position on a bad note so that you are always leaving doors of opportunity open. This is what we call in French “Sortir par la grande porte”, to keep a good reputation.
Take the time to network and discuss your dreams, goals and what you might want to explore in the future, so those around you – and those who can help you - also know your intentions.
This article is produced as a part of Impactpool's Gender Parity month-long campaign in March 2021, supported by OCHA. Curated to shed light on gender parity in the International Public Sector and empower women with career resources, job opportunities, and employee spotlights, and a unique virtual career fair. Register now #genderparity