In 1995, Isabella Castrogiovanni was pursuing higher-level studies in international law, but increasingly felt that she wanted to work more directly in the humanitarian field. That year, she was given the opportunity to go as a human rights field officer with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to post-genocide Rwanda. “That was the start” she says, “and I have never stopped since then.” Specializing in issues related to human rights and international humanitarian law and policy, Isabella has spent the intervening years working mainly with UNICEF, building extensive experience in a wide variety of conflict, transitional, and post-conflict environments.
Like many in the sector, Isabella’s career has often involved fast transitions from one mission to another. And it is in grasping the specificity of the new local context in terms of its political, cultural, and societal structures that some of the greatest challenges lie, both professionally and on a personal level. “When I started out in Rwanda, I was faced with an extremely complex environment - the horror and the scars of the genocide were all over the country and in the faces of the people. I thought that I would never be confronted with such a challenging and complex situation again.” However, after having worked in different humanitarian situations around the world – the Balkans, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Somalia, and then Lebanon – she now sees to what extent understanding the local conditions is an ongoing challenge for those working in the field. “Every single context is so complex. You need to understand as much as you can about the parties to and drivers of the conflict and the risks involved, as well as the changing nature of vulnerabilities, or you will not be able to deliver effectively and to really reach the people in need.” Nevertheless, Isabella has found that, even when working in new conflict situations, it is still possible to draw lessons from her previous experiences when planning and carrying out interventions to protect civilians and prevent violations from recurring.
The issue of monitoring, and making sure that we are able to deliver on our commitments, is a critical aspect upon which I think all of us need to reflect a lot.”
As humanitarian actors are called upon to operate in increasingly complex situations, Isabella recognizes that it is critical for them to compare their intentions with what is actually happening on the ground. The challenge of increasing accountability is becoming more and more important, first and foremost to the people in need and then to the people who entrust their money to humanitarian actors. “Consequently, the issue of monitoring, and making sure that we are able to deliver on our commitments, is a critical aspect upon which I think all of us need to reflect a lot.”
Following the conclusion of her her most recent assignment as chief of child protection and the Palestinian program with the UNICEF country office in Beirut, Lebanon, Isabella has chosen to take some time to reflect on her work and maintain what she considers a vital work-life balance. “It’s very healthy, if one can afford it, to take some time off every once in a while and really go back to normal life.” Highlighting her concern for the speed at which she and her colleagues often move from one emergency to another, she sees the dangers of “normalizing” the experiences of war and violence that become part of daily life in the field. “I think for anyone working in the humanitarian field, even if you don’t have a family or children, finding the right work-life balance is very, very difficult.” But it is not the hard work and long hours that she is primarily concerned about, it is the risk that you lose your perspective as a humanitarian: “Taking some time to reflect on what we do, why we do it, and what we achieve, that’s important.” She adds that, “it’s like for an athlete – you can’t keep running all the time. You need to stop and catch your breath before you start again.”
Having been part of several PHAP training courses and workshops, Isabella says she finds the events directly relevant and beneficial for addressing critical issues she faces in the field. She also appreciates how the events are organized to ensure that participants can interact. “Participants are not just lectured to, which is not what we need as practitioners,” she says. “It is also a great opportunity to exchange experiences and learn as much as possible from other participants.” Deepening her engagement in the training delivery, Isabella now shares her own experience and expertise as a facilitator in PHAP’s Professional Development Program.
Isabella sees her membership in PHAP as vital for networking with other professionals and keeping abreast of policy and legislative developments through training, but also for the overall recognition of the profession. “I am delighted that PHAP exists,” she says. “There has obviously been a growing professionalization of the humanitarian sector and I personally feel that an association like this helps me in building my identity as a professional in the humanitarian sector and to have that recognized.”
Interview by Róisín O'Grady