I spent my first summer with the IRC in Liberia. Liberia, a West African nation still recovering from a decade long civil war which ended in 1997, continues to suffer from significant economic and political instability. Despite that, most Liberians are in the process of trying to rebuild their lives. The goal of the IRC Liberia Education Program is to help local communities to rebuild the education system and operates in communities where there is a high proportion of returning refugees. I worked on an IRC program that helps rural communities undertake income generation projects to support the severely under-funded local schools. Schools often lack basic materials such as textbooks and desks, and many teachers are not paid.
My role was to evaluate and develop a new approach to supporting income generation projects. The local IRC staff would then implement the program that I developed in the coming year. I worked closely with our Liberian staff, visited rural communities to get ideas from parents and teachers and collaborated with other aid organizations working in the field of education. Ironically, my work was in some ways a lot like being a consultant (so much for a big change in career!). Needless to say, however, the people and the environment in which I worked were different enough to keep things new and interesting!
Working in Liberia was an incredibly valuable learning experience, and I gained an understanding of how humanitarian organizations operate, and the challenges they face in unstable environments. However, the greatest challenge I found is that faced by the general population in Liberia, who must live under the corrupt regime of President Charles Taylor. Taylor has been linked by the international community with the trade of illicit diamonds and weapons in the region. As a result of government corruption, the general population receives essentially no government services, and suffers from international sanctions that have been placed on Liberia. Humanitarian aid organizations provide some of the only support for education and health services that exist in Liberia.
My summer in Liberia strengthened my commitment to working in the field of humanitarian aid, so I eagerly accepted an offer to spend a second summer with the International Rescue Committee, working directly for President & CEO Reynold Levy. (I followed in Lee Koffler’s footsteps. See his section of this feature for more about working in the President’s office.)
This time I had the opportunity to see the organization from the perspective of New York headquarters. I learned a great deal about what it takes to be a leader of a large humanitarian aid organization and was able to get a “big picture” view on the organization. I worked on a broad range of projects, including initiatives to strengthen partnerships with corporate donors, raise public awareness of refugees, and examine board governance options. I also had the opportunity to observe key functional areas within the organization and gain an understanding of the perspectives of top management.
Overall, I had two extremely interesting summers at the International Rescue Committee. Through these experiences, I gained a deeper understanding of the plight of populations effected by conflict and the role of not-for-profit organizations in responding to their needs.