Faces of UNICEF - "When you see bullets passing by, you realize the work you do is really important."

"When you see bullets passing by, you realize the work you do is really important."


Bernt Aasen, Regional Director, Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office

What does the average working day look like for a Regional Director?

As a Regional Director, most of my working days I am at the service of the 24 Representatives in Latin America and the Caribbean and colleagues at Headquarters and Regional Advisors. The only part of my “working day” I’m in control of, is the early part: I get up around 5:00am and spend an hour or so responding to e-mails and up-dating my “to do list”. I make breakfast and send Miel, my 9-year-old, off to school. After that I go to the gym. I’m usually late in the office, sometime after 9:00am. 

Describe how you became a UNICEF employee.

In 1986 there was a team from UNICEF in Oslo to recruit new talent. I was working in the Municipality of Oslo, on a project for reorganizing social services and I had just figured out that the project was not really about improving services; but rather an exercise to reduce public expenditure. I was very frustrated with the project and politicians, so I asked for an interview with the UNICEF recruiters and got a chance to talk with them. Six months later I was offered to join Guatemala Area Office as a JPO. At the time, honestly, I saw it as an opportunity to get back to Latin America where I had spent a year traveling around as a “back-packer” in 1979-80. Today, this is how I see it: as a footballer I never got to play for Barcelona or Manchester United, but I did get to work for a unique organization, UNICEF.

What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?

South Sudan and Afghanistan are the two most difficult locations where I have worked for UNICEF. Difficult, because in both places, we operated in war zones where staff frequently came in harm’s ways. In South Sudan, we often experienced the militia supporting the Government that tried to shoot down our planes. When you sit in one of those small planes and see bullets passing by, you realize that the work you do is really important. It is so important that some people try to kill you to stop it.

What was a moment in which you knew you failed at work?

By 2004, the United Nations had become a deliberate, direct target for Taliban and all opposition to the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. In spite of all the good guidance and advice from the UN Security Operation, every time I authorized field trips for staff, we knew risks were very high. It was a heavy responsibility to carry. And when, unfortunately, it all went wrong and colleagues got hit, injured and killed, I blamed myself for not being cautious enough. Actually, I still do.

What have been the biggest frustrations in your career and how have you dealt with them? 

When we had to cancel polio vaccination campaigns due to insecurity (at the time WHO/UNICEF had some 15,000 polio vaccinators working for us) and when newly built schools were burnt down and teachers attacked, I felt defeated. When I left Afghanistan in 2006, a journalist asked me what I had learnt from Afghanistan and I responded: “I have learnt to live with defeat.” I always disagreed with western politicians and generals that believed a military solution was possible in Afghanistan and that the country could be run as a “western style democracy”. Peace and opportunities for children and women to develop to maximum of their potential still seem far away in Afghanistan.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?

I spent some 20 years being at the “front-line” for child rights: managing funds to invest in children and advocating for policy reforms with politicians. In my two latest jobs in UNICEF, Chief of Staff, in the Office of the Executive Director in New York Headquarter and Regional Director in Latin America and the Caribbean, I have missed the contact with children, adolescents and families we are working for. I miss seeing the direct impact of our work. Nevertheless, it’s also satisfying to use all my experience to groom staff who can become the next generation of leaders in UNICEF.

Can you describe a moment when you saw the direct impact of your work on people?

In Afghanistan, we had a great joint project with UNESCO and WFP on literacy. They did not allow me to go to the classes for women, but I remember the smiles on the faces of grown men being able to write their own name and the names of their children for the first time. Small victories in an assignment where I felt defeated.  

Who do you look towards for inspiration? 

I like to read biographies of people who overcame challenges and went on to live extraordinary lives. For many years, I have spent so much time reading office documents so “down-time” with a good book has become a luxury. I’m also into music; rock, punk, blues. Playing music very loud energizes me!

Have you ever had a mentor that led you toward your current path?

My first bosses in UNICEF, Agop Kayayan in Guatemala and Patricio Fuentes in Honduras, gave me a lot of encouragement. They trusted me more than I trusted myself in those early days in my career. They helped me understand that working for UNICEF was not just about having an interesting job. As an International person, you are also choosing a way of life.

Favourite quote that relates to your personality?

As a kid, I was very impatient and always complained about everyone being too slow - my playmates, my fellow students, my teachers. My mother once said: “The problem is not that everybody is slow, you are too fast. Slow down and you’ll be okay, my boy.” That stuck with me.

What  motivates you for another day of work?

Maybe the fact that the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the mandate of UNICEF are very powerful and I have always believed in the vision of making UNICEF a “billion people movement”. Barcelona’s logo says they are more than a football club and, likewise, UNICEF is more than a UN agency. We represent the values that should drive the development agenda and bring justice and opportunities to all peoples. 

What is the most memorable place you’ve traveled to with UNICEF?

I don’t know if they are the most memorable places, but I can say that after being in Afghanistan and South Sudan, my assignments in Latin America and the Caribbean for 1987-92 were so much “lighter and happier”. I was fortune to work with some extraordinary people in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras. Child Rights in this region have made tremendous progress over the last 25 years and I am proud of having been part of that history. There are still excluded groups that have not benefited from the progress made and that are left behind but I’m very optimistic for the future of children in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are better times ahead, progress will continue. The future looks good!

If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?

I would like to hang out with my son and his friends in Vancouver. I don’t get to spend enough time with him and Vancouver is a fabulous city. My son, Chris, is drummer in a punk band called “Anchoress” (music available on iTunes!). He’s also a “start-up” writer and a filmmaker. I very much admire his creativity and high-energy.

What do you miss most about being a kid? 

What I miss the most about being a kid and adolescent is being able to just speak my mind. You know what they say in New York; to be a good diplomat you have to be honest. And when you learn to fake that you become excellent. Unfortunately, it’s probably true.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?

When we were flying in small places to remote locations in South Sudan, we took along a barrel of fuel inside the aircraft. When we were running out of fuel, we would just land on a dirt airstrip, take the barrel out, hand-pump fuel into the plane and took off again. Flying around with a barrel of fuel inside the plane in areas where militias were shooting at us is as risky as it gets. If a bullet had hit us, I would not be writing this piece today.   

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    Really proud of my old man.
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