Aid Worker Profiles
Colleen Cowhick, Project Coordinator/Head of Mission
'I’m still in contact with national staff from every assignment, which brings me a source of comfort, joy, and hope.'
Aid Worker Profile
Name: Colleen Cowhick
Role: Project Coordinator, Head of Mission
From: Denver, Colorado
South Sudan (2007)
Head of Mission, 10 months
Liberia (12 months)
Head of Mission, 12 months
Head of Mission, 20 months
Project Coordinator, 4 months
Democratic Republic of Congo (2001)
Project Coordinator, 9 months
Interviewed in July 2008
What did you do before joining MSF?
I worked in organization development and human resources management for a major telecommunications company for over 30 years, including 12 years in the international division working in Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In 1988, I took a leave to go on a 27-month Peace Corps assignment in Zaire. This experience inspired me to pursue humanitarian work when I retired in 2000.
Describe some of the responsibilities as Project Coordinator and Head of Mission.
As Project Coordinator in the DRC and Zimbabwe, where we ran therapeutic and supplementary feeding centers, one of my main responsibilities was security. Daily, I conducted security scans, which meant talking to combatants, government officials, community leaders, neighbors, and our national staff to understand the context and concerns. Also, I oversaw inventory control of food stuffs and clean water which was key to keeping patients on a path to recovery. We monitored the nutritional status of the general population by visiting villages, conducting nutritional surveys, and referring for treatment, when necessary. I met with staff regularly to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to provide input, problem solve, and get feedback. And, a lot of time was also spent writing reports.
As Head of Mission in Zimbabwe in a big HIV/AIDS project, I was involved in a lot of negotiations and diplomacy with various ministries to facilitate getting the medicines, equipment, and supplies to the projects. Since this was a big project, staff development was important to our success, so we did a lot of training.
Liberia was just coming out of a decades-long war and the country was in shambles. I had to work with the transition government officials who were new to a peace environment. Since this too was a large project, more than 50% of my time was in the field visiting and assessing the individual programs and team members.
South Sudan was a constant state-of-alert mission because of fighting among tribes and rebel activities nearby. I also had to work with the brand-new government, which was extremely challenging as officials had little or no government or administrative experience. Disease outbreaks were common, so the team visited many areas to investigate, evaluate, and launch vaccination campaigns for measles and meningitis, if necessary.
What was it like working with governments?
It takes a lot of diplomacy, patience, education, and repetition.
Describe your most challenging field experience.
In 2001 in the DRC, the political situation was very complicated because there were so many armed actors and you didn’t know what side they were on. I had to learn who these combatants or militias were and meet with them to explain MSF, our medical objectives, and the reason why MSF was in the Congo. We needed to negotiate a sufficient ‘humanitarian space’ so that we could do our work without interference.
Describe the resources and tools available to you in the field.
I was amazed at the kind of technology we had at our disposal, although the heat and dust had quite an effect on usage. Also, we received great support (material and specialists) from headquarters. In some of my assignments, we didn’t have internet access so communications with family and friends were extremely limited and difficult, as satellite phones were expensive.
Outside of work, what was challenging about life in the field?
There were times when communal living was challenging. Luckily, everyone had their own room and most were marvelous people. Some of the friction involved personality conflicts, differences on how to run the house, best use of the food box money, allowing overnight guests, negotiating, and applying security rules.
What character traits were most put to the test?
Patience - being open to cultural differences and avoiding attempts to impose your own values and practices on other people. I think people who are easily stressed will find field living enormously difficult.
What was it like working with national staff?
Getting to know our local staff was one of the most rewarding components of the work. I’m still in contact with national staff from every assignment, which brings me a source of comfort, joy, and hope.
What did you find most rewarding about your work with MSF?
Seeing sweet little babies come in as “bags of bones” and watch them get healthy, revive the brightness in their eyes, and see the little dimples on their knuckles return. It was like a miracle every time. It was rewarding to know that we were making a positive difference, one ill or wounded person at a time. However, it was always sad for me to contemplate their lives as they returned to the same environment that sent them to us in the first place.
Was there a strong social support network in your assignments?
There was always a community if you sought it out, whether it was within your project, other MSF sections, or outside NGO staff. When security allowed, we got to know the local people, which broadened our horizons even more.
What comment do you have for a professional interested in applying to MSF?
Your talents are valuable and transferable even to a job or environment that you don’t know anything about.
Voices from the Field
Read other first-hand accounts from MSF aid workers and patients