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We're not the U.N., but...

January 31, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' multicultural staff in Sudan includes Jameson Gadzirai of Zimbabwe, Andre-Guy Soh of Cameroon and Rodrigo Ordoñez of Spain. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Today the deputy chief of party for one of our U.S.-funded programs, a Bosnian woman, drove us to the town of Abyei. We rode there with a Spaniard, a Zimbabwean and a Cameroonian. After meeting the head of our office there, who is French, we were led on a tour of several agricultural projects by a program manager from Sierra Leone.

Of the nine Mercy Corps field programs I've visited, Sudan boasts far and away the most diverse expatriate staff. Around the world, roughly 95 percent of our staff hail from the country in which they're working, and nearly every office has a handful of internationals, or "expats," usually experienced agency hands hired to fill country director or finance manager posts.

That's true of our Sudan staff — which is more than 500 members strong — except that the expats here hail from a whopping 24 different countries. They usually serve from one to three years and mentor national staff, who are groomed for key management roles.

"We recruit that way intentionally," Country Director Richard Haselwood, an American from South Carolina, told me. "For starters, Sudan is an extremely complex and difficult environment, and it helps to have managers with prior Mercy Corps experience. I have found it extremely beneficial to recruit stellar nationals who have risen through Mercy Corps' ranks in their own countries. Sudan benefits from their knowledge and they benefit from their first challenging expatriate experience."

"Also," he continued, "in the context of Sudan, where political, religious and ethnic loyalties play heavily into the dynamic here, our work is best carried out by a staff that doesn't bring any biases to the table. With what's at stake here, I think it's appropriate that our staff represents the global community. And given the colonial history in East Africa, and the staff development we do, it's important to have multicultural mentors."

Richard's staff — both expats and nationals — certainly seems to value his approach.

"It's encouraging to see Mercy Corps recruiting from many places," says Sam Sosten, the human resources/finance officer in the Agok office who's from another region in Sudan. "And it makes a difference in our work because we benefit from the diversity of experiences that our coworkers bring with them."

"The minute I met the team, I knew working alongside each of them would be very enriching," adds Communication Manager Rodrigo Ordoñez, who's from northern Spain and joined the team last August. "Everyone's story is different, and sharing those previous experiences makes me learn something new every day. In fact, Sudanese are very open to foreigners, and curious of new cultures, so it fits well in that context, too."