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Building Trust In A Danger Zone (Staff Profile)

Providing food assistance to millions of destitute people in Somalia is a difficult and dangerous business. As Deputy Country Director for the last two years, Denise Brown, has found that to get the job done she has to be both tough and charming.

DHUSA MAREB -- Somalia is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world. It is facing a severe humanitarian crisis and there is conflict in many areas where WFP works. Four WFP staff members were killed in the country between August 2008 and January 2009.

To cope with a security situation that changes daily, you need to be flexible and mobile, Brown says. It's critical to work closely with local communities and traditional elders, who can influence the security environment.

“We develop relationships of trust,” Brown says, “and we are therefore able to get the job done.” In June, WFP reached more than 2 million Somalis with food assistance. Read story

Denise Brown (left) discusses people's needs with a clan elder during a food distribution in a village in southern Somalia.

Criss-crossing Somalia

Developing trust is one of the things she has devoted a lot of time to over the last two years, crisscrossing Somalia by plane and road almost weekly.

Her ability to be both tough and charming has no doubt helped. Brown clearly relishes her role as a foreign woman in a male-dominated society. She wears a scarf to cover her head in a nod to cultural sensitivities. But she doesn’t back down on principles.

“We are apolitical, we’re a neutral organization, we don’t take sides, we don’t discuss politics or religion. It’s our responsibility to get to those people who are behind these armed groups,” she says.

Brandishing grenades

That message has registered with some of the warlords Brown has met during countless encounters across a country devastated by 18 years of civil war – even those who try to intimidate her by brandishing grenades and other weapons. That may be her legacy as she prepares to move to New York for a new UN job in donor relations.

Brown is not confrontational unless the situation demands. She prefers to coax cooperation by building understanding that those suffering and in need cannot be ignored.

“We have a moral responsibility,” to assist the needy on all sides of Somalia’s shifting frontlines, Brown says. “People are suffering – not from a situation they’ve created. It is our duty to do what we can.”