“Security of staff working in the field and restrictions on humanitarian access are some of the largest challenges facing humanitarian professionals today,” says Stean Tshiband, speaking to us late in the evening from his office in a remote area in Myanmar. According to him, “although there are many obstacles and each country has its unique problems, security and humanitarian access are the two major issues that severely hinder humanitarian work.” He draws attention to the on-going crisis in Syria where more than 30 humanitarian workers have been killed and kidnappings are common. But the dangerous working conditions are only one side of the coin: “What we also often see is that some governments invoke the issues of national sovereignty and security to camouflage their denial of humanitarian access.”
With a background in international humanitarian law (IHL), Stean was inspired to enter the humanitarian sector by the situation in the DR Congo. “I was outraged by the situation of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees,” he says. The central government’s inability coupled with indecisiveness of the international community on how to best respond to the plight of the millions affected was a call for action. He first entered the UN system working with the UN Organization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUC). His experience there gave him an opportunity to observe first-hand “the unique interplay between the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the behavior of different state and non-state actors.”
People in local governments, other humanitarian agencies, communities that you are serving, and sometimes even your own organization, are often not in agreement about what improvements or new ideas or plans to introduce, leading to challenges at various levels in your professional environment.”
Since then, Stean has worked in various roles in a number of different countries – for example, the Ivory Coast, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Myanmar – focusing on conflict prevention, protection, and the implementation of human rights. “Whatever I do, I always aim to make my interventions as human- and community-centered as possible.” However, it can at times be challenging to convince communities that the work undertaken is in their interest, he says, highlighting the importance of being able to adequately communicate the role and mandate of one’s organization and manage the expectations of other stakeholders. “Sometimes when dealing with stakeholders , they immediately expect to be provided with some sort of financial or material support or assistance. If we fail to meet their expectations, they often act disinterested, even though our work might be essential to their overall wellbeing, especially in protection. Usually it takes time for people to understand the role that your organization plays in their protection.”
In addition to being away from his family for months, Stean concedes that one of the largest challenges for him personally is the slow pace of progress in bringing humanitarian work forward. “People in local governments, other humanitarian agencies, communities that you are serving, and sometimes even your own organization, are often not in agreement about what improvements, new ideas, or plans to introduce, leading to challenges at various levels in your professional environment.” He finds it essential to quickly come to terms with this fact, advising those new to the sector to “first of all be patient with yourself and then with others and be able to articulate your ideas in a simple and understandable way.” Convincing people within your own organization about your programs should be seen as the first achievement. Once that is done, it is usually easy to do so with external stakeholders.
Having been a member of PHAP for almost three years now, he sees the professional association as an important forum for members to exchange ideas about challenges they face in their daily work. “This platform gives me the opportunity to learn from other PHAP members when facing similar problems, and share experiences.” He adds, “PHAP is also a community of practice and provides opportunity for practitioners to share their knowledge through forum discussions and online events. And through the different training events that the association organizes, bringing together practitioners from around the world, we can develop a better understanding of current challenges that originates from our experiences on the ground.”
Interview by Azim Ostowar