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WFP’s Inka Himanen – Work in Colombia Challenging but Rewarding

As a child Inka Himanen dreamt of going on expeditions to the jungles of the Amazon to explore the exotic wildlife. She never became a wildlife explorer, but she did get to see the jungles of South America. Inka today works as a programme officer for the United Nations World Food Programme  ( WFP) in Colombia providing food assistance for the internally displaced people ( IDPs)affected by internal conflict.  We asked her about her work for WFP in Colombia – here are her answers.

How long have you been working with WFP in Colombia?

I have worked for 3 years in WFP’s office in Bogota, Colombia, as a Programme Officer. My responsibilities include WFP’s operation on internally displaced people (IDP), projects with private sector as well as donor relations. I started my career with WFP in 2006 in Nepal as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO), a position funded by Finland. There I worked with WFP’s refugee operation that safe-guarded the food supply for 120,000 Bhutanese refugees. I moved from Nepal to Haiti for new tasks in 2008.

Why is WFP in Colombia?

50 years of violent conflict between the government and the illegal armed groups has led to a high number of internally displaced people in the country. According to different sources the number of the displaced varies between 3.6 million and 4.9 million and many of them are indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. The livelihoods and food security of the IDPs are crushed when they are forced to leave everything behind. In addition to providing assistance and strengthening the institutional capacities, WFP aspires to decrease the gaps in humanitarian assistance and reach those victims of the conflict whose needs are not met by the government’s programs. The goal of WFP is to build bridges between the government’s humanitarian programs and other social programs. Food assistance combined with programs provides people with possibilities of reconstructing their lives after they have lost everything.

wfp banner hanging alongside clothes on a clotheslineHow is it like to work in Colombia?
Colombia is incredibly beautiful and versatile and it is a privilege to get to travel to different parts of the country. Working in a country that has a strong government but which is still suffering from an internal conflict is challenging. Operating in distant areas where illegal armed groups are active poses challenges to the work although the status of neutral humanitarian organization enables WFP to deliver the needed assistance to places where it might be difficult or sometimes nearly impossible for the government to operate.

What do you like most about your work?

The good thing about working with WFP is that the results are visible. Healthy mothers and school children as well as flourishing community enterprises are examples of the successes. The most rewarding part of the work is when we get something concrete done together for the oppressed, poor and undernourished. I also like my colleagues and the opportunity to meet new people from different countries through my work.

What has made the biggest impression on you while working for WFP?

The sheer size of the hunger problem and its effects on the world’s population made a big impression. Understanding the possibilities to address the situation through international aid that really saves lives in humanitarian crisis has nevertheless made an even greater impression.

The most exiting/funniest experience with WFP?

In Haiti I was a bit nervous about meeting the musician Wyclef Jean. I am a Fugees fan and when I was asked to travel with him, due to him taking part in WFP’s food distribution in his home country, I must say I got a little shaky. Luckily, in the end, I was not actually that nervous when I finally met him.

What did you do before WFP?

I graduated from high school in France and I stayed there to study Sociology and Anthropology in a university. After getting a Master’s degree I did another one in Political Science. I did some field research for my studies in the Caribbean region and Central America where I was researching on identities and social movements of the indigenous people. During my stay in Costa Rica I also worked for organizations which supported the indigenous people. After this I started writing a PhD and did two internships, first with IOM and then with UNHCR in Geneva. Unfortunately I never finished the PhD …
Any tips for people interested working in the field of humanitarian assistance or with the UN?
Patience and flexibility are essential because the regular tasks can transform within a short notice when crisis situations evolve. One has to be ready to travel and live in difficult and sometimes even dangerous areas and face many kinds of misery and injustice. It is also good to be well prepared for long workdays. Good language skills and previous experience in developing countries is a great benefit.

Do you ever miss Finland?

I have only lived in Finland for 5 years but I still miss many things and people in Finland and I always try to spend my summer vacations in my home country.