United Nations staff and their families

A sad day as more details come in; although also some good news as well, survivors confirmed. A Facebook group has been established to allow people to discuss the whereabouts of the missing, and already has hundreds of members. In this era, the UN – as others – has turned to social media.

Haiti’s wider tragedy, the plight of millions of ordinary Haitians, will rightfully remain the focus of the headlines, but for the United Nations this is also a very personal crisis, leading to the loss of many many staff; people who dedicated their lives to trying to make a difference. It may seem a small drop in a large ocean, but is deeply meaningful for our community.

Right now, the focus remains on trying to save what survivors may remain, and to put in place systems to care for the dispossessed. This is entirely right. The UN has two related, but separate, jobs: to alleviate the suffering of Haitians as a whole, and a duty of care to its own staff. It is a very stressful time; many people are in deep shock. There has been an outpouring of offers to help from throughout the system and it is doing what it can given the logistical challenge. Communications remain limited.

In the longer term, I suspect that the UN will face some important questions regarding the issue of the UN families there. Haiti was a non-family duty station, but in practice – as the country grew more stable – many did in fact have close relatives in the country. Husbands, wives, small children. Even Mr Annabi, the head of mission, stayed ther with his wife.

I believe this was positive. UN officials are people too, and the presence of families, children, helps keep a community healthy. The cost of cutting off internationals from ‘normal’ social life can be severe, leading sometimes to behaviour which undermines the job they are asked to do. But for various reasons, there was reluctance to formally acknowledge that.

As a matter of policy, the UN system actually has differing standards on families. For the funds and programmes, staff on a non-family duty posting are given extra resources to support their families out of the country. The United Nations peacekeeping department hoped for similar treatment, but major donors – with the United States in the lead – denied this. On an official level, therefore, it would appear that the US and others back a policy that discourages peacekeepers from having a family.

In practice, civilian peacekeepers often have a painful choice: don’t have a family (a route taken by many very good people, but with consequences for organisational culture), leave them thousands of miles away with no support, or bring them along in contravention of the rules. This makes life particularly difficult for women, at a time when the UN is supposed to be improving its gender balance.

Certainly there are many places where it would simply be impractical to keep a family, but Haiti at this time was not one of them, and the system informally allowed its staff to live a normal life. The fact that the head of the mission had his wife there underlined this. This was a good thing.

Then tragedy struck.

We have learned of dreadful cases of families split, where some survived and others did not. One story in particular haunts us. I cannot go into details.

The problem is, because of Haiti’s official status as a non-family duty station, the system is not really designed to look after its families in a case like this.

Currently, officials are working night and day to salvage what they can. Informal networks have been quick to rally around families. People have been very supportive. Individuals have gone out of their way to help, performing some gruelling tasks.

But on a systematic basis, I believe this may be a wake-up call. At the very least, the UN’s donors, in my opinion, should accept reality and provide UN peacekeeping with the wherewithal to properly support the families who have been destroyed.

An alternative reaction could be to crack down on the family issue. No more family members, even informally. Personally, I believe this would be misguided.

Instead, I would hope that the United States and others admit that peacekeeping is here to stay, and put in place better systems to account for the fact those peacekeepers have spouses and children.

The world needs peacekeepers. It asks them to do extraordinary things in the most difficult places on earth. I think it is only right to accept that some will marry and have children, and to support them in that choice.

So, a simple plea. Despite formal policy, several UN families were in Haiti during this tragedy and have been devastated. This is the reality. Everything possible must be done to administer to their needs, not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

14 responses to “United Nations staff and their families

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post, I somehow discovered your blog yesterday so am pleased that I can know a little more about the inside situation.

    How can peacekeeping be properly accomplished without the basic community of a family? True some choose to remain without children, but it is not a choice that can be mandated by any government on the planet in my opinion.

    In order to be a peacekeeper we must accept and experience a measure of peace in our lives, families and communities. Whether our family is traditional or alternative or a mixture it is a basic need for humans.

    I think internationals should not have to bear these kind of restrictions. Yes without a doubt their job is one of the most difficult that most of us dare not embark upon.

    Peacekeepers need if anything a strong fabric of a close knit community in order for them to faithfully and healthfully fulfill there assignment or project, dreams and goals.

    It only takes tremendous bravery and courage to be where you are, how many of us are willing to risk so much? How many of us possess the strength of conviction to fulfill the job description of a peacekeeper?

    Let’s ask ourselves deep questions and come to some resolve within ourselves about what we are willing to risk losing yet for the greater good risk gaining.

    Steveston, BC
    Canada 🙂

  2. Mark,

    I cannot express the depth of my appreciation for your willingness to share with us “out here.”

    I cannot see how any reasonable persons dedicated to the cause of peace can find disagreement with what you write.

    I have believed since it inception that the UN and those who serve represent the very best of what man on this earth has so far created.

    Flawed of course, but I cannot imagine a world without an international entity declaring the goal of peace in fairness.

    You are putting faces on the people who do on the ground the hard work while balancing their needs to be what they would nourish.

    I couldn’t agree more; to create a community requires a community.

  3. hey tony – look down my fb page, you will find it

  4. on the wings of a morning storm news from Haiti whistles through my door

    I hear the ghost-like cry of death and destruction, the wind is speaking, taking all manner of words to every place on earth demanding a response from the world community

    words turned messages from loved ones reach out beyond a terrible nightmare turned reality

    so in these times we concentrate on community since we know that really we cannot do without each other—ever

    since we are cut from the same stone that is circular

  5. Thank you for these thoughful posts and perspective; I will be reading this blog often. I wish you and friends and colleagues the best.

    Sarah kassel

  6. Mark, Im watching your blog for all the news mostly and cbc. Helping Hands for Haiti went down couple years back, they are from St. Johns NFLD, sent them your link…

    • hi – I would not rely on my blog for news; I can only give a few impression from our specific position. hopefully will get back there soon though.

  7. when I say all the news I don’t mean exclusively I mean your news particular to where you are coming from, thanks

  8. Thank you Mark for this wonderful, but sad article…Some of my MINUSTAH friends and colleagues with whom I have worked in another Missions are dead, some of them still missing and the rest deeply traumatized…
    I’m the mother of 6 years old girl and the peacekeeper who works in non-family duty station. I’m so lucky that my husband is working for UN Agency in the same country… Our daughter was away for 2.5 years and my parents took care about her, while I was visiting every 8 weeks… but 2.5 years ago I decided to bring her in the Mission and she is still with us… I would like to share this article with other UN parents and I really hope that USA and all other donors will support families within the UN…
    Despite the fact that our daughter is not allowed to enter into our UN cars and attend UN parties, she still wants to become SG one day, or at least SRSG….
    Stay safe and take care about your boy and family…

    • Of course you may share, and it is a crucial question.

    • Hello.

      I believe the United Nations are right that there are some emergency situations where peace-keepers cannot be effective if they worry about their families. But there are other situations where peace-keepers can be allowed to make their own decisions. In order to help, we need to be happy, energetic, fulfilled peace-keepers.

  9. @Dana: Could you please tell me if your daughter was somehow affected by this 8 weeks visit cycle for the period of 2.5 years? We are a young family and my husband is about to make this decision about UN non-family D/S. Me and my daughter suffered a lot after his last leave in Afghanistan for 7 months (she was 1.8 y.o. at that time). How do you handle the family life in a non-family D/S? Are you able to provide her a proper education there? Or a proper medical assitance? Oh, I have so many questions and concerns! But I’m stopping now.

    • I suspect it depends on the child, but it seems pretty obvious to me that children prefer having both parents around.

      The UN system is filled with stressed relationships, failed marriages and people who are single and bitter in their forties. Curiously, there is a macho pride to this.

      Still, I am sure there are also some people who make it work for them. And sometimes the financial imperative is paramount.

  10. Lorraine Watkins

    Pardon this outsider from jumping in but I am such an admirer of the work you all do. It is painful to understand how many places in this world are not safe enough to rear children in. Of course it is your work to change that.

    I am a retired psychiatrist and do have an interest and empathy for the emotional sacrifices that the individuals and families are expected to make. I have only one global suggestion, that being to find and take advantage of support groups comprised of families of those posted overseas. I have found this to be helpful in many cases. I would love to hear more of the experiences of those involved directly.

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