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Interview – Sahar Alnouri, Global Gender Advisor, Mercy Corps

I’m pleased to be able to post an interview with Sahar Alnouri, Mercy Corps’ Global Gender Advisor. You can see her wonderful TEDx talk here.

Nick: Can you tell me what you do in your current role?Alnouri head shot

Sahar: My title is Global Gender Advisor, and my role is to help Mercy Corps to integrate gender into our programs globally. That means looking at our programs and making sure we are looking at the needs of men and women and boys and girls, and how those needs can be different and then making sure that we are designing and implementing our programming to meet those potentially different needs, instead of treating a community as if it were one group with the same needs across the board. I am part of Mercy Corps’ Technical Support Unit, which is a team of technical experts from different sectors that works with our global programs. For example, I’m working with our Zimbabwe team right now on a new program design, I recently spent a month in Yemen doing training, so the type of work I do really varies by what the need is, and sometimes I have the skills to do it, or sometimes I will bring in consultants to help – gender is a pretty broad field for one person to cover!

Nick: What’s an example of a situation where you might have a gender issue in a program proposal?

Sahar: Let’s say we’re working on a proposal to respond to a crisis, let’s take Syria as an example of an ongoing crisis with conflict and displacement both internally and outside Syria, with families moving from their homes to other communities. The classic response from humanitarian agencies will be to go and talk with displaced and host communities to find out how we can help. In the past agencies haven’t always done a great job of talking to both men and women in ways that allowed them to speak openly and comfortably about their situation. This is a hypothetical example, but male community members may be telling us that their most urgent needs are water and access to food, but if we speak to some of the women in the community we might hear something different, for example that lighting in the camps is a primary concern because without it they can’t move after dark because it’s not safe, and that is affecting their ability to provide for their families basic needs. We want to make sure that even though we know the crisis situation affects everyone, making sure that we understand how it affects different groups in different ways is important. We’d want to make sure that our program design incorporated the needs of all the groups. Men and women, boys and girls, may have different opinions about the best place to, for example, install a bore hole. It may be that girls (who are often responsible for gathering water) may not feel comfortable going to a location where the water pump is placed next to the mosque because it is a gathering place for men and boys. It’s important to get these issues into the planning stage of a project, because trying to get them in later is much more difficult.

Nick: Can you tell me about the moment when you first realized that you wanted to work in this field?

Sahar: I was originally interested in being a foreign correspondent. I got into this line of work by being a foreign correspondent – my undergraduate degree is in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. My mother is American and my father is Kuwaiti, and we were living in Kuwait at the time, but visiting the US on summer holiday when the first Gulf War began in 1990. So when the war began the next morning my mother sent me to the corner store to buy the New York Times because she wanted to know what was really happening. I was about 11 years old, and that really stuck with me – I decided that I wanted to be a newspaper journalist – a foreign correspondent – I wanted to make sure that people who were separated from their families knew what was happening in the places where they couldn’t be. The year that I graduated was 2001, and as an Arab-American September 11th had a huge impact on my life and my family. One of my brothers is named Abdullah, it was a tough time to be an Arab-American, especially in New York. That got me thinking a lot about what kind of career I wanted to have. With journalism you write a lot about what other people are doing, but I decided that I wanted to have a more active role in working in the Middle East. The situation that lead up to the 9-11 attacks is complicated, with a lot of issues at play. I wanted to try to be a part of the solutions to those problems. I decided to do a Master’s Degree at American University in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Within that I focussed on gender in the Middle East.

Nick: How did you find your first job in this field?

Sahar: I won a fellowship to study Arabic at a university in the West Bank, and while I was there I interned with an organization called Holy Land Trust. It was a local Palestinian organization working on non-violent solutions to the issues there. That was the first exposure I had to how a local NGO functions and what can be achieved. From there I came back to the US, finished my Master’s Degree. A friend of mine who had interned with CounterPart International gave me a heads-up that they were looking for people with my background. I ended up interning with their civil society team in DC, and that internship turned into my first job. I interned in DC for 8 months, and while I was there I was supporting their Afghanistan program. I suggested that they needed some gender technical support in their Kabul program, and volunteered to go, as an intern, for three months. I did that, and ended up staying on another 6-7 months as a consultant. After that I joined Mercy Corps as an Assistant Program Officer working on the Middle East Desk (1 year), then spent 2 years working in Baghdad as Mercy Corps’ Gender Program Manager before returning to the States as Mercy Corps’ Global Gender Advisor.

Nick: Tell me about your choices in terms of degrees – how did you decide to study the areas you did?

Sahar: I chose International Peace and Conflict Resolution because I was really interested in those issues, but American University has another focus, which was international Development. That course has much more of an emphasis on program management and program design – it was much more of a focus on practical and technical skills. In contrast my course was much more focussed on thinking about conflict and development at a more theoretical level. I would really encourage people who are interested in international development to take courses where they are actually learning some of the principles of program design from a practical perspective, that way you’re getting a leg-up on some of the issues you’ll face early in your career.

Nick: Can you tell me about your experience of how men and women experience working in the field differently?

Sahar: There’s a lot of dialogue around that at the moment, InterAction recently ran a series of articles on family life and other issues. It’s hard to generalize, everyone is different, and every environment is different. I think there was a time when you would see emergency response programming really dominated by men, and I think that that’s changing.

Nick: Is there anything else that you think its important for people interested in this field to know?

Sahar: Getting some time living and working overseas is huge. Obviously working there is best, but just showing that you can live in tough environments will help a lot when you are trying to break into the field. I wouldn’t under-estimate the importance and marketability of languages. When I was in my Master’s program I wasn’t excited about learning another language, but it really is worth it!

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