Humanitarian Voices from the Field

November 11, 2016
Written by Farman Ullah

Reflections from Farman Ullah — a humanitarian leader in the making. Farman was one of 12 people selected, from 700 applicants, for the first year of the Program for Humanitarian Leadership (PHL), which is funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. PHL was established by Concern Worldwide, International Medical Corps, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and combines a rigorous academic curriculum and a practical field-based component. Farman was placed with Concern South Sudan for his PHL field placement (an optional component of PHL).

People are often surprised when they hear that I’ve done my Master’s in Business, yet work in the humanitarian sector rather than business. And it’s always hard to explain why I joined this sector. Sometimes I take the easy way out and tell people “I got a job offer in the humanitarian sector.”

But what really motivated me was my community in FATA, Pakistan — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas affected by the war against terror in northwest Pakistan. That experience urged me to find a platform that would enable me to help. At that time, I never imagined that the sector would become such a strong part of my life, and that I would find so much love and satisfaction.

Female farmers in Nymlal, South Sudan

Farman (far left) with female farmers from the CFA project in Nymlal, South Sudan. Photo: Noel Molony

My other motivation for becoming a humanitarian leader was Abdul Sattar Edhi, the Pakistani philanthropist, and humanitarian who founded the Edhi Foundation. He devoted his life to serving humanity. Whenever I get down, I remember him and his services for humanity. One of his best quotes was “humanity has no religion.”

Staying the course

After working for four years with the Sarhad Rural Support Program in Pakistan, I wanted to find an opportunity to improve my skills with innovation and technical knowledge. I imagined a future as a humanitarian leader, and with the passing of time, it was clear that I joined a field that’s really good for me, so I was able to maintain my aim and motivation.

For a long time, I was set on Atlas Corps — another program that allows humanitarian workers to build their capacities and improve their skills. But in learning about the Program on Humanitarian Leadership’s in-person course, simulation, and field placement, I found that it was the most suitable program for my end goal.

PHL was a turning point in my career that will allow me to work in the humanitarian sector and carry this gift throughout my life.

After being a part of PHL I can surely say that I’ve acquired both the knowledge and practical field experience needed to become a humanitarian leader. PHL was a turning point in my career that will allow me to work in the humanitarian sector and carry this gift throughout my life.

I still remember the day I was offered a field placement in South Sudan. Most of my colleagues, friends and family members suggested that I ask for another country or quit. Yet it didn’t take long to explain that this was a great opportunity that I could build on. I was very excited about the field placement component since I had never worked outside of my country.


South Sudanese children — whose families are beneficiaries of Concern’s work in the country — pose for a picture. Photo: Farman Ullah

The journey to my field placement was not exciting or welcoming at all. On the day of my flight from Pakistan to South Sudan, the immigration office would not allow me to leave the country due to missing documentation. The next day I did everything I could to convince the immigration office of my legitimate reason for traveling, and they eventually approved my travel. When I reached Nairobi, I got a cab, but the driver was new, so we wandered around Nairobi for more than two hours searching for the hotel. Then, after no more than three hours of sleep, I was on my way to Juba, South Sudan.

“When you face challenges, you will learn” is the quote that comes to mind when I look back on my field placement. As Area Coordinator I interacted with stakeholders, supervised more than 200 staff, and was keenly involved in HR, transportation, finance, security and field visit logistics. While, at first, I was overwhelmed by the challenge, I can now see how the placement developed the skills I was lacking. Working in diverse communities with extreme hunger, and remote areas with no communication and high security risks helped me view humanitarian work in a new way, and welcome different forms of learning.

Hard work pays off

After working in the field in South Sudan, I know I can work anywhere, and I’m not intimidated by extremely challenging circumstances. PHL granted me the opportunity to learn alongside the Concern Worldwide team, and I’m thrilled to be part of such an organization.

The ongoing crisis in South Sudan, exposed me to high-pressure situations, and was the best part of my learning experience.

Beyond the policies and procedures that I will take home with me, I’m inspired and excited by what’s to come. Through this experience I learned to be confident in myself despite challenging environments. Now I know how to handle the security and protection of humanitarian staff and resources. The ongoing crisis in South Sudan exposed me to high-pressure situations, and was the best part of my learning experience.

The last but the best part of placement which really helped me is the PHL mentorship program, especially when you are placed in challenging areas like South Sudan you need advice to mitigate stress and cope with multiple challenges from different angles.

People wait in line for food in South Sudan

Thousands of beneficiaries wait in line to receive food at Ariath, South Sudan. Photo: Farman Ullah

Today, there is still extreme food insecurity in Lol State in South Sudan, which is located in the Bahr el Ghazal region, and people are fighting for food. When I joined my field office, I took over Concern’s food distribution project since there was no designated staff for this effort at the time. On the first day of distributions, I remember the thousands of people waiting in line for food. I thought, how could we possibly serve this many people in need? But we did.

The food distribution project was implemented in 2016 and as the Area Coordinator, I led the overall project. The project, which was supported by the World Food Programme, reached over 76,000 households with 380,000 direct beneficiaries in Lol State throughout eleven counties. The purpose of the project is not only to respond to hunger but also to address malnutrition through the distribution of fortified blended foods such as Corn Soya Blend (CSB++) for children under five years old as well as pregnant and lactating women. Around 3,000 metric tons of cereal and 170 metric tons of CSB ++ were distributed in Lol State. Because of PHL and what I learned at Concern, I’m proud that I was able to help coordinate this effort to fight hunger in South Sudan.

I’m excited to go home and apply what I have learned here. And I want to share stories with my family and friends about my international experience with PHL. Now I know:

  • How to cook many different dishes. This will surely help my mother who will now have an assistant cook!
  • How to cut my own hair when there’s no barber around!
  • Life can be good without weekends. Prior to working in South Sudan, I was a big fan of weekends.
  • Never to wish for time without the Internet or my mobile phone again.

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