It all happened very quickly. I received a call from UNDP’s Crisis Bureau and in two days I was on a flight to Equatorial Guinea. In March this year, a series of explosions rocked the city of Bata. UNDP was quick to reach out to SURGE advisors — its first response staff deployed to boost country office capacities after a crisis. During my SURGE training earlier in the year, I had been told to be ready for such a call. With the blessing of my wife and my manager, I was ready to go.
Originally from the United States, I have spent more than 20 years in international development. For the UNDP in the last decade, I worked in Burundi, Yemen and Democratic Republic of Congo before joining the office in Libya. My first exposure with SURGE, now in its 16th year, was during an assignment in Burundi in 2016 where I was supporting recovery efforts amid the deadly ethnic conflict. I had been on a roster of humanitarian professionals previously, so I was naturally intrigued by a similar opportunity in UNDP.
Traveling to the crisis zone
Those who have travelled to Africa know that flying across the continent can be convoluted. From Tunis, where UNDP Libya staff are rotated out due to limited capacity in Tripoli, it took me more than 24 hours with connecting flights in Cairo and Addis Ababa to get to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.
Transportation to Bata had been severely affected by the pandemic and the only way to reach the site of the explosions was through a helicopter service run by an international oil company. The country office team got me a seat with the local UN leadership mission. What a thrill it was to fly at a low altitude with such astounding views!
UNDP Equatorial Guinea needed a mechanism to take stock of the destruction. My immediate role was to collaborate with local government and UN agency partners to set up an impact assessment. During my visit to the affected areas, I saw razed houses, tattered clothes and a burnt doll that would no longer bring joy to its owner.
The turnaround of the assessment was rapid. Findings showed that 99 percent of the buildings in the one-kilometre radius of the explosions had sustained damage. Four in five locals surveyed reported a fall in income. The work proved critical in the immediate work programmes and is informing longer-term recovery policies.
A month into my mission, after we had kicked off data collection for the post disaster assessment, I got another call from New York. I was being sent to Mozambique. Another SURGE advisor was deployed to move the assessment forward with local colleagues.
The road to Macomia
To respond to the deteriorating security situation in the north of the country, a team of first responders was deployed to Cabo Delgado in March. Their goal was to draft a plan for UNDP’s engagement in the province. Unlike Bata, the challenge here was to support the growing number of people displaced by militancy and promote stability. My mission was to help set up a UNDP office in Pemba, capital of Cabo Delgado, that would implement the vision laid out by the team before me.
In Cabo Delgado, we identified Macomia District as a priority area. Attacked by the militants in 2020, it had remained isolated from the rest of the province. On our third attempt, we finally got the clearance for a one-day visit — only in armoured vehicles.
The final 40 kilometres of journey were the most intense. We stopped to put on bulletproof vests and helmets. This was different from my previous experiences in rebel-held areas of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The road was narrow and isolated with wild vegetation on both sides. If there had been an attack, there was not much we could have done.
Thankfully, we arrived safely and began a tour of the main town. I spoke to a woman who worked for the local government and whose home was destroyed by the militants. “We left everything and ran. I hid in the forest for a few days and fled to Pemba on foot,” she said.
Our goal was to set up UNDP’s livelihoods and social services projects to support women like her. We also met with private sector partners to work on restoring essential infrastructure.
Back to Tunis
After completing this assignment, I flew back to Tunis. The Pemba office has a new manager, who is building on the work of the UNDP colleagues before him.
Starting my year with UNDP’s longest running training and then being deployed to two important missions makes me appreciate SURGE even more. In a world where crises such as conflicts and disasters have become more frequent and destructive, SURGE makes UNDP more relevant than ever.