01 Jun 2005
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Bringing Hope to a Violent Land

For JoAnna Van Gerpen, UNICEF’s Sudan Representative, supporting the health, education, and well-being of impoverished children is a labor of love.
by Garry Emmons

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Asalaam alekum (Peace be upon you) is the greeting and farewell heard everywhere in Sudan, even in the teeming refugee camps and villages to which millions of uprooted Sudanese have been chased by fear and death. In these places created and stalked by violence, invocations of peace can seem a bitter irony, especially for the multitudes of impoverished young people who inhabit them and similar settlements throughout this troubled, unforgiving land. Children comprise some 50 percent of Sudan’s 39 million people, and for most of them, childhood, as it is known in the West, simply does not exist. In its place is a debilitating, often desperate condition, bequeathed to them in large measure by the apathy, greed, and ignorance of adults both near and far.

That, one could say, is Africa. But ask JoAnna Van Gerpen (MBA ’81), UNICEF’s Representative in Sudan, to describe a moment that stands out among her experience of Africa and something else emerges. The image she chooses reveals much about the spirit of the continent she has grown to love and much about her own optimism, quiet determination, and humanitarian commitment.

At a remote school established by UNICEF for the children of nomads, the students had assembled to perform a welcoming ceremony for Van Gerpen and other guests. Among the school’s four grades and seventy children were only a handful of girls, most of them very young. “For Class 3, behind a line of about ten boys,” Van Gerpen recalls, “there stood, in a back row consisting only of herself, a girl named Maqboola. In her full-length, long-sleeved dress, red headscarf, and blue flip-flops, 11-year-old Maqboola was singing with as much gusto as the boys. The only girl who hadn’t dropped out by Class 3, she very much wanted to be a doctor. But because of societal strictures, the lack of schools, and her poverty, her education almost certainly will end there. Her family will be reluctant to let her go away to school because they will not be able to prot ect her.”

The eldest of five children, Van Gerpen grew up in suburban Cedar Falls, Iowa, where her father was an engineer with John Deere and her mother a busy volunteer and housewife. In high school, in addition to music, dance, and swimming, she explored international issues in debate club and participated in Model UN, an interest she carried with her to college at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). “Involvement in Model UN definitely led me to my current work,” says Van Gerpen. “I always had a strong interest in travel and other cultures, and I quickly gravitated to the international studies side of political science.”

Transferring to the University of Texas after two years at UNI, she earned a bachelor’s degree in government and international studies before moving to Washington, D.C., where she worked from 1973 to 1979 for several nongovernmental organizations. Starting as a receptionist, she rose through NGO management positions before enrolling at HBS.

“I became convinced that with more management training, I could better help those organizations,” Van Gerpen recalls. “I was drawn to HBS because it seemed to recognize the importance of the nonprofit sector.” After graduating, she worked for eight years in Boston, as a project manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and as an administrator and financial manager for pediatric medical services at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Then, in 1989, came an opportunity with UNICEF. “It was the perfect match with my interests and experience,” she says. “Doing development work overseas had been a dream from an early age.” Beginning as an administrative and finance officer, she spent three years in Sudan. Subsequent postings included Nepal, Armenia, and Somalia, where she was named senior operations officer shortly after the “Black Hawk Down” incident, serving from 1993 to 1996. Three years later, she was appointed UNICEF Representative in war-torn Sierra Leone, eventually returning to Khartoum and her current post in 2002. “I’ve never specifically chosen Africa over other continents,” Van Gerpen reflects. “But I do love Africa. It is so full of life — bright colors, warm people, and wonderful music.”

Her 70- to 80-hour workweek is filled with staff meetings, conferences, public events, negotiations with government officials about programs and their implementation, and donor-relations work with local embassies. She finds that all these various activities are supported by her knowledge of strategy, marketing, accounting, and IT. “I’m the human face that goes along with the UNICEF name,” Van Gerpen explains. “A lot of it is making people aware of what the agency does and identifying opportunities for support. It’s a constant push.” Visits to the field are less frequent, but extremely rewarding. “They are what keep me going,” she says. “You feel like you are making a difference. Without UNICEF, for example, Maqboola would never have gone to school at all.”

The largest country in Africa, Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956. Civil conflict between its Arab Islamic north and black African Christian and animist south, on and off since the mid-1950s, has mostly ceased as a result of a peace agreement between rebels in the south and the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. But as the major powers squabble about what to do in Darfur, ethnic cleansing continues. President George W. Bush (MBA ’75) has called it “genocide.”

The UN says that in Texas-sized Darfur, some 2 million black Africans (who, as it happens, are almost all followers of Islam) have been displaced. As many as 300,000 may have died, the victims of a campaign of concerted attacks by the Sudanese air force followed by marauding bands of Arab paramilitaries and bandits. Even after destroying hundreds of villages, these janjaweed (armed horseman) continue to prey on those survivors who have fled to refugee camps. For women and girls who venture outside the camps in search of firewood, the janjaweed employ rape as a weapon of terror, psychological devastation, and social disruption to a horrific degree.

“Despite the peace agreement between north and south, people are not returning home,” Van Gerpen says. “They are unsure about security, which is very important to us as well. Although UNICEF has made great progress, despite ongoing violence, in meeting the humanitarian needs of the people in Darfur and in other parts of Sudan, without security we cannot fully carry out our mission and our fundamental programs.” Those programs are low-cost, time-tested efforts to improve child health care, nutrition, and education and to try to protect children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. These initiatives form the cornerstone of UNICEF, founded by the UN in 1946 as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. The agency (which has since dropped “Emergency” from its title while retaining UNICEF as its acronym) operates today in 158 countries and territories. With 7,200 employees, nearly 90 percent of whom are in the field, UNICEF spends more than $1 billion annually on its worldwide programs. (Of the agency’s $1.2 billion in outlays in 2002, 6 percent went to management and administration.) For her part, from her Khartoum office, Van Gerpen manages a staff of about 170 people and a budget of approximately $35 million.

UNICEF is funded by governments — 64 percent of its total income in 2001 — and contributions from individuals, foundations, and businesses. Van Gerpen would like to see the private sector, for one, do more. “There is a responsibility, particularly in a global economy, for corporations to invest in educating children around the world,” she says. “A lot of the insecurity in the world stems from populations that are largely uneducated and therefore without access to a reasonable livelihood.”

Van Gerpen, who is single, brushes aside questions about her personal safety. “What’s worrisome is not my own situation,” she says, “but having to make decisions about sending staff into potentially dangerous situations. And then there are heartbreaking experiences, such as the therapeutic-feeding clinics or working with machete-amputee victims. But with our resources, we can respond with some level of support. That’s what makes this a great job — you feel like you can save a child’s life or provide an education. There’s no reason for pessimism. Our approach is that, sooner or later, all problems can be solved.”

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