The Humanitarian Harbinger

A conversation with Kathleen Keene Jones
by Benjamin Collinger

Before her current position as an advisor in the United Arab Emirates’ ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kathleen Keene Jones worked for the United Nations for nearly 10 years. She contributed to the United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan and Afghanistan by developing early warning risk management systems to identify potential crises before they escalate with the goal of decreasing the impact of conflict on civilians. Benjamin Collinger spoke to Kathleen about her career ‘s progression, humanitarian aid and the influence of academia on the public sector.

How did you find your way from the private sector to the United Nations?

My entry into the U.N. was quite a journey, and I was not one of those people from a young age who knows what they want to do. So, I worked in the private sector for a few years and got good leadership experience, but I realized it was not my end game. After about five years, I went to graduate school and had this unrealistic dream to work for the U.N. I was fueled by the frustration I had with the Iraq war in the early 2000s, and I volunteered my way into the organization. I was interested to see what it was like on the inside, and play a small role in making things better. It started from a bigger picture perspective of policy decisions, but it became the on-the ground realities that were ultimately more gratifying.

I did one internship which led to another, which led to an extension and a two-month contract. From there, I worked my way up. If I were to give advice to students, I would say that it is definitely not the way to do it. There are programs for the U.N. that are feeders for getting jobs there. Once I got into the U.N. system, I remember being surprised in my early days of working there. But after working there for 10 years, I found that I was not as excited as I had been in my early days. I wouldn’t be surprised if I go back to the U.N. at a later point in my career, but I took a step out.

I worked as an independent consultant, which was academically interesting but ultimately I missed the energy of working with a team. I was quite happy to go back to work with the UAE government. One of the things that surprised me, was that while I was looking for jobs was when I was interviewing for jobs in the private sector I was surprised at how much I had to explain and how little knowledge there was for the nuances of the system. Ultimately, I stayed in the public sector. The U.N. is a hard organization to wrap your head around. I found more than I had expected that in dealing with the American private sector, they thought my work in peacekeeping was less political and military. The U.N. could do better at explaining its nuances to people from outside the U.N., I also think that the U.S. education system could do a better job teaching people what the U.N. really is.

During your time working in the United Nations, what kinds of changes did you witness in global governance?

I was [working at the United Nations] for just under 10 years. I started in 2004, just after the infamous Tsunami, working in Humanitarian affairs. It’s not the best time for the U.N., to be honest. To work for the U.N. at this time in history, you have to really have a long term perspective, and it is a bit about fixing the organization. That said, I feel quite honored to have worked there for a number of years. I did see the U.N. make some changes in response to things, although it is not necessarily known as a nimble organization. There’s very much a culture of best practices and lessons learned.

For example, one of the jobs I did at the U.N. was in the Peacekeeping Situation Center, the crisis center for political and peacekeeping missions. This was a 24/7/365 crisis center, and didn’t always have the most glamorous hours but it was one of the most interesting jobs that I’ve had.  As an operations officer, we had certain countries and regions that we covered. This office was opened in response to some of the problems that the U.N. experienced in the 1990s, specifically the Rwand[an] [genocide]. This was a horrible lesson to be learned, frankly, but organizations such as the situation center came up as a result.

Landing in Herat, Afghanistan
Kathleen landing in Herat, Afghanistan.

In August 2012, when you were working in South Sudan, 200,000 refugees fled into the country to escape fighting between Sudanese army and rebels in Sudan’s southern border states. What is the role of early warning systems in a U.N. team’s response?

You ask a question that is near and dear to my heart. I have set up two early warning systems. The first one was in Afghanistan, and the second one was in South Sudan. They were slightly different, in that the political realities in those countries are significantly different. In Afghanistan, we put a system together about harnessing information and getting actors all over the spectrum to share information in a trusted environment which would go to U.N. leadership. The biggest lesson I learned from the first [early warning system], was how important it is to link early warning with early action. In the initial months of setting up this system, it was well received by the U.N. leadership. It provided a weekly snapshot report that would rank the biggest ongoing issues and those that were escalating, as well as run through scenarios. At first, they didn’t take action on it. Early warnings that are not linked to early action is a very dangerous thing. This was a big lesson that we learned in South Sudan. In South Sudan, early warning was really getting [started] in terms of the U.N. peacekeeping environment. The mission mandate for the mission in South Sudan specifically mandated the peacekeeping mission to set up an early warning system. This was the first time that happened, which is why it had more buy-in from top leadership. We added some elements in which we specifically linked the system for early action to be taken.


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This resulted in a number of acts being taken. Specifically, with regards to the refugee crisis in 2012, the U.N. did something kind of interesting about this. In each country, there is a country headquarters, and there are regional offices as well as sub regional offices. In South Sudan, I believe there were 34 total U.N. offices. They have to meet the minimum operating security standards, so the bases themselves are very large and secure. Learning from this refugee influx, we considered the possibility that the situation in the country could become worse, and we might need to provide somewhere for refugees or internally displaced people to seek refuge. We put together a standard operating procedure for what, at the time, we considered to be the worst case scenario which was turning U.N. regional offices into camps for refugees and internally displaced persons. Sadly, once the civil war broke out in 2013, the worst case scenario did come to pass and they did use the U.N. offices as temporary camps. The thinking is that this practice saved thousands of lives.

On the streets of Herat
Kathleen on the streets of Herat, Afghanistan.

What were the early warning signs of a possible conflict in South Sudan in 2013 before the civil war began?

Early warning cannot be done in a vacuum. No one person or couple of people can put together early warning, because its depth comes from really getting different perspectives. It is seemingly small details that come together to paint the picture of what’s going on in a country. In South Sudan before I left, it was a very depressing place to live. People who lived there who were South Sudanese, NGO workers, U.N. workers, were miserable there. There was a very bad feeling, and we couldn’t put our finger on exactly what it was, but things were boiling under the surface. The strangest sorts of things would happen. The currency was fluctuating with a rate that had not happened before, the price of food was going up and down, there were population movements scattered around the country. These facts indicate a nervous population, and the shakiness of the economy. Then you have isolated incidents—South Sudanese staff lashed out against people in [the U.N.]. These were indicators that the country was just about to snap, and it did.

How is the responsibility passed within the U.N. during a crisis like South Sudan?

That response begins with peacekeeping. Within peacekeeping there is an operational side that takes over for crisis response, and this depends on activities that are happening between 24 and 48 hours. South Sudan had a mandate for the protection of civilians, so what they were doing was, once the conflict broke out, they were looking to get civilians out of harm’s way. This is what the peacekeeping mission would be doing at the very beginning. Once that happens, the analysis group looks at longer term implications, studying the political sphere and making long term recommendations. Within peacekeeping, there is a political affairs commission that looks at politics—what is going on with local, regional politics. In addition, there is a civil affairs division that is looking at grassroots organizations. Human rights officials are also involved, as well as the military to give recommendations for peacekeepers to protect civilians.

Oftentimes, at the same time there will be political dialogues headed by the department of political affairs and that works to more coming up with reconciliation agreements and peace talks. Then you have the humanitarian organizations that provide the relief. The first thing they will do are emergency needs—food, water and sanitation—and once the emergency operations start to subside, you get people starting to settle in to camps and the humanitarians will transition out, and the development people come in. There’s a big movement in the system to make a better bridge between humanitarian and development. This is what we talk about in terms of resilience—building in more early warning, and having development come in earlier and overlapping with the humanitarian side of things. It is a very difficult thing to do, but It needs to happen.

Was the early warning system you created in Afghanistan more focused on reconciliation strategies and the political environment, or on humanitarian responses?

The U.N. in Afghanistan was a hybrid peacekeeping and political mission, but really it was political. We were working with reconciliation at the time, so the crux of the early warning system there was about the intersection of security and politics and how it would affect the reconciliation process. We tracked issues like reports of the Taliban planning to set up “embassies” in countries around the region, so we would go through and talk to various players on all sides of the spectrum. We would talk to military individuals, people in human rights and everything in between, and ask them the significance of certain scenarios. We thought that the offices would be good for the reconciliation process, and tried to channel this to the leadership.

UN Brainstorming session in Bamyan
U.N. meeting in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

What was the most rewarding aspect of working with those missions?

It was interesting for me, because I did things a bit the wrong way around—working in headquarters before coming to the field. The work in the field was real, almost too real. But that’s what you want. My favorite place was Afghanistan. I was sent initially on a three-month assignment and was so taken by the country, and the people and the environment that my assignment turned into a two-year good. Being in the field, you see the common strands of humanity and people are people—you have nice people everywhere, bad people everywhere—and you see the importance of peace and dignity everywhere in the world. Ultimately, the most rewarding element of the job, at a tactical level, was seeing early warning advice pay off. As heartbreaking as it was for me to be outside South Sudan when the conflict happened, the camps they set up in the U.N. bases were later looked at as an innovative move, and rightly said that many lives were saved. This was one of those things that we planned that we didn’t know would ever have to be used. Sadly it was, but it was rewarding to see steps that I had been a part of saving lives.

How would you describe the way the U.N. works with NGOs and Military officials? Does it work well?

It absolutely needs to be better. Civil society is one of the big missing links in the international chain. There was, very recently, the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. This was intended to be an appraisal of the state of the humanitarian system, and ways to fix it. There are structural problems, like how to better include civil society. This was on the local level, as well as the international level. On the international level, there are certain things that need to change to better include International NGOs—and there’s definitely awareness of this. I think the summit didn’t really yield as many tangible results as originally envisaged, but it is a step in the right direction. I think it’s very positive that one of the key issues acknowledge was about the need to play better together. The international community has devised a cluster system that has done a relatively good job in which different agencies have the lead of a certain cluster, whether it is water and sanitation or food or shelter, or other things. This is a good system, but it is primarily for the U.N. agencies themselves. If the cluster system could open to international NGOs, that would be a step in the right direction. The central emergency relief fund draws money from donors for emergency relief, and is mainly eligible for U.N. agencies, but it would be good to open it up especially to on-the-ground providers. There’s a tendency in the industry for us to get [stuck] in our own agencies, and you just have to have an open mind and look outside of the boundaries of your organization.

What does your current job in the UAE entail?

Working with the UAE government is such a strange job. I started working for the ministry that works with foreign aid, and the UAE is a very new country. It is very nimble, and that is one of the most fascinating things about working for it. The rate at which decisions are made is refreshing and mindboggling. I’m the only woman with Blonde hair that works at the UAE ministry of foreign affairs. It’s a really cool job. A lot of it is capacity development, because [the UAE] is an emerging donor in the global sphere. I get to do a lot of teaching, empowering and mentoring of the next generation of Emirati leaders. My day-to-day responsibilities include things I would never be able to do with the United States. For example, the UAE in the last few years has significantly increased the amount of official development assistance that they give. In 2013 and 2014, on a per-capita basis, they were considered the most generous donor in the world. They did all of this without a foreign aid policy, so one of the projects I have been working on has been drafting the first UAE foreign aid policy. This is what Is so interesting about working in an emerging environment. I do a bit of speechwriting, which I find quite satisfying. I like the big picture perspective that you’re able to give. A good speech should have an inspirational message. To craft that and see a speech that you have written executed well is a very gratifying endeavor.

National Day at the Ministry in the UAE
National ministry day in the United Arab Emirates.

How have the fields that you have studied, cultural anthropology and international relations, feed off of each other your career?

I studied cultural anthropology and international relations at the master’s level. When I studied cultural anthropology, that was me following my heart. When I studied international relations, that was me following my brain. I thought the IR element would make it a bit more realistic, but looking back and to give advice to students—you should follow your passion. Cultural anthropology was my passion and international relations was something I did for practicality, but it was the passion that got me to where I want. There was a forward thinking U.N. leader who decided to take women anthropologists and give them training on the information sites, an area formerly covered by men with military backgrounds. Through studying the things I wanted, I got where I wanted. Do what you love, don’t do what makes sense. When you study what you love, that gives you the extra mile to get where you want in this industry.

How did you make the decision to come back to academia and come back to the field?

When I was younger, I did not know what I wanted my career to be, even when I was at Trinity. I worked in the private sector, and knew it was not the place for me. I remember coming home one day, and I had a good day and was reflecting on my good day. I was thinking about what the good day translates to in the grand scheme of the world, and I made a rich man a little bit richer—that’s not what life is all about. I felt so passionately about [political tensions in the U.S.], and decided I had to work in the International community. It was a bit of a longshot, but it worked out. I looked into graduate programs in different countries, and looked into a program in Sweden. It was amazing to be back in academia after being out for 5 years.

Jamilla the Camel with Emirati colleagues
Kathleen with her Emirati colleagues and Jamilla the camel.

What kinds of connections do you see between academia and the public sector? Are academics an important part of the feedback loop that the U.N. goes through?

They are, but it needs to be better. The U.N. is a relatively academic organization, especially when you look at headquarters. If you’re looking at professional level positions, you don’t even get into the door without a masters and a number of people have doctorate. The amount of brains sitting around a room sometimes was pretty awe-inspiring and sometimes intimidating. The disconnect I see is that the respect for academia is a bit different in the field. You still have the same academic qualifications, but a lot of the people in the field are more practitioners. Many of the academics with traction are aimed at the operations on the ground, but it doesn’t always reach there. The disconnect is how to get the academic thinking funneled into the field level. When I was in South Sudan, there was a program organized by the Norwegian peacekeeping institute, where the pulled field practitioners who were working in political analysis units in the DRC, South Sudan and various peacekeeping missions in Africa, and they pulled 30 academics, and we sat together in a room for three days and the practitioners and academics had a really interesting exchange of ideas. It didn’t change the world, but it was an exciting initiative of which I hope there will be more to come.

What books would you recommend that everyone read?

I have my nose in a book at all times. I just read Little Life, I would also recommend a political fiction read called The Orphan Master’s Son. I absolutely loved Midnight’s Children. One of the better books I read about Afghanistan is called Ghost War. If I were to recommend a book about the U.N., I would recommend Backstabbing for Beginners, it’s a bit of a dark read but it’s great. One more book to add to the recommended reading list, ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific’ by J. Maarten Troost (it is a hilarious account of field life).

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