Finding hope in calamity: how UN humanitarians cope on the frontline

10 July 2020

What does it take to help the world’s most vulnerable people, often in dangerous and unstable situations, and at considerable personal risk? In the latest season of the award-winning UN podcast, Awake At Night, host Melissa Fleming speaks to some of the Organization’s most prominent humanitarians to find out what motivates them, and how they cope.

In the first two seasons of Awake At Night, Ms. Fleming (who formerly ran communications at the UN refugee agency UNHCR, and now heads up the Department of Global Communications at UN headquarters in New York), interviewed a wide array of people who willingly put themselves in danger, in order to help others.

They include famed photographer, Giles Duley, who still bears witness to tragedy and conflict, despite losing an arm and both legs after stepping on an explosive device in Afghanistan; senior UNHCR official Vincent Cochetel, kidnapped and held hostage for over 300 days; and Fabrizio Hochschild, Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, who speaks frankly about his mental health trauma, a consequence of time spent in the field during the Bosnian war of the 1990s.

Season three opens with Ms. Fleming speaking with David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), a former Governor of the US state of South Carolina, who’s held the top job at the emergency food aid agency, becoming an impassioned voice and advocate for the world’s hungry, since 2017. 

Before the launch of the new season, Ms. Fleming spoke to UN News, and began by explaining why she wanted to launch Awake At Night in the first place:

"I started the podcast when I was working at UNHCR, travelling to war zones and refugee camps, and encountering colleagues who were making great personal sacrifices, even risking their lives, to serve refugees.

I have also met UN peacekeepers, frontline WHO health workers and colleagues from humanitarian agencies who are making a tremendous difference in the lives of the most vulnerable people on earth, and I wanted the public to have a chance to get to know them, to hear about what drives them to serve, and what insights they can offer into human nature – the evil and the good. And also, the central question as they face so much human suffering: what keeps them awake at night?"

What do you hope listeners will get from the podcast?

UN communications chief, Melissa Fleming (l) interviews Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, for the Awake at Night podcast, by © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

"Listeners to the first series told me they came away deeply moved by the sacrifice UNHCR colleagues were making to serve humanity. They said listening to my intimate conversations with humanitarian workers gave them insights into why they chose a profession that would take them away from their families and often put them in dangerous and difficult environments. 

They also come away inspired by the sense of purpose that comes from helping others and with a better understanding of the value of the UN’s humanitarian work." 

How does podcasting fit into your vision for the UN communications effort?

"I am a big believer in the power of human stories to educate, engage and generate empathy, and the life stories of our staff are fascinating. The podcasting format is ideal for allowing people to have the intimate feeling of listening in on a conversation. 

The explosion of podcast listening around the world shows that people like to devote meaningful time delving into different worlds as they drive or jog or cook. We already have thousands of people subscribed to Awake at Night who can also be important supporters of the work and the values of the UN.

Why is now the right time to revive Awake at Night, at a time when everyone is preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic?

Well, the UN is working day and night all over the world to fight the virus and mitigate the impact. This new podcast series is timely because it will introduce listeners to UN staff working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. 

I think it will be fascinating to hear from colleagues representing all the dimensions of the pandemic’s impact. It will feature people like WFP Executive Director David Beasley at a time when the hunger crisis is surging as a result of the pandemic. 

Alicia Barcena, Executive Director of ECLAC will speak to me, as poverty reduction gains in Latin America are tragically reversing course. 

I will also have a conversation with Neil Walsh from UNODC as he fights on two fronts - the cyber criminals trying to exploit people in lock-down and his own cancer that threatens his life. Dr. Mike Ryan and Dr. Matshidiso Moeti from WHO will also talk to me while they are doing everything in their power to suppress the virus that is upending billions of lives."

You will be able to find the new season of Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts, or on the official UN page, here

Here’s the first episode, featuring WFP chief David Beasley:

 

 

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News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

FROM THE FIELD: facing up to the extreme mental health pressures of conflict

For those caught up in conflict situations, the trauma can lead to severe mental health problems. This is also the case for the humanitarian workers who are trying to help them.