2009 - Tom Vens, a former Belgian JPO with UNDP in Afghanistan, is now working in Brussels at the Headquarters of the European Commission in the Africa Directorate.
"Doe wel en zie niet om"...
Where are you from?
What is your background?
I am a political scientist with a masters in international relations and in multi-media and information science.
When and where have you worked as a JPO?
I was assigned to UNDP Afghanistan between November 1994 and November 1996. Due to the security situation, we were temporarily - but permanently - relocated to Islamabad, Pakistan, which meant many air miles on UN aircraft to and from all corners of Afghanistan!
What has been your assignment as a JPO?
I was the programme officer mainly dealing with urban rehabilitation programmes (implemented through UN Habitat). It was wonderfully exciting - urban planning, rebuilding social cohesion in the cities, working with communities in the absence of functional governmental authorities. Some of that work was unfortunately not sustained because of the difficult situation on the ground. It was the period that the Taliban made major advances and eventually took Kabul. I was also involved with a programme that supported vocational training for persons with a disability and their re-integration into society. These were mostly victims of landmines.
Which random words come to your mind when thinking about your JPO years?
Experience: The challenges were huge in war-torn Afghanistan, the outcome uncertain but the rewards from the small victories were heart-warming. As a young professional I was very privileged to be part of a small dedicated team of professionals who were trying to make a difference in a part of the world which at the time was very much out of the spotlights, but where the human suffering was immense and where the opportunities to make a contribution were plenteous.
Excitement: There is no denying that Afghanistan was a dangerous place, without the most basic of facilities. It meant hardship for the Afghans, but it added a serious pinch of adventure to my daily life.
Bureaucracy: We were, in a way, lucky to work under exceptional circumstances in Afghanistan. There was no counterpart Government. There were no donors in situ. And very few partners to work with. But bureaucracy there was!
Do you remember your "best moment" as a JPO?
There were many overwhelming experiences. The places I visited and the people I met. One favourite moment was in Mazar-i-Sharif, where we were promoting women's rights. A revolutionary idea in the Afghan context. Women were/are very much marginalised and on the streets you only ever saw them hidden underneath their burqa's, the traditional garment that does not even allow a glimpse of the eyes. I remember walking into the place where the project had gathered the women to educe and train them. They had all taken off their burqa's and for the first time I could see the expressions on their faces which undeniably beamed hope.
In what way do you think your JPO assignment has shaped your career?
For me it was the beginning of an exciting international career. It was an important stepping stone where I gained very valuable experience in the development and the larger international relations fields.
What has been your career path until now?
After my two years with UNDP, I became the economic advisor at the European Commission Delegation in Angola where I stayed for four years. After Angola, I was transferred to Ethiopia and became the Head of Section (EC) initially dealing with food security matters and then with economic, trade, social sector and governance issues. From Ethiopia I went to Uganda, where I was Head of the Economic and Trade Section. Since September last year I am working at EC Headquarters in Brussels in the Africa Directorate.
In what way has your JPO assignment shaped your career?
It opened doors and gave me the exposure necessary to continue in the same field. It is where my ideas about development and international relations really started to take shape. It is where my ideals and ambitions were first tested and where I became determined to pursue an international career.
What are your major lessons learned during your career in terms of professional growth, career planning and opportunities?
Believe in what you do. Be inspired by a vision and don't be tempted by cynicism. Recharge when you feel the urge to recharge. Be grateful. And take a genuine interest in the people and countries that you work with. Take advantage of your contacts to network. The rest will follow.
Most enriching professional achievement so far?
Is it the conclusion of a trade deal in Uganda, against the odds; or the liberation of some project staff who were taken hostage in Angola? Or the progress that was achieved towards policy change on food security in Ethiopia? There is in fact not one that really sticks out and achievements tend to be fluid and are the result of efforts by many persons. The more enriching professional experiences however invariably relate to encounters with fascinating persons, sometimes political leaders, but mostly common people. The life story of a poor farmer or a child soldier; the coping systems of the people in a system that works against them.
What kind of advice would you give to JPOs?
I recommend that you also engage with the community you work for, outside the remits of your professional environment. E.g. do some volunteer or cultural work. It will probably give you great satisfaction and a better understanding of what your work is all about. Be honest about the harsh and difficult realities on the ground - but don't be discouraged by failure but learn from mistakes. There lie opportunities in every situation.
By the way...
The last favourite book you read:
The Divide, by Nicholas Evans. But if I may recommend, a classic for anyone with an interest in Africa: The shadow of the sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski.
Behind the suit:
I love to be dragged into a little musical adventure.
"Doe wel en zie niet om" (Jozef Cardijn): Do what's the right thing, but don't be discouraged if not everyone does the same.
It's all in the novel by Kapuscinski that I mentioned earlier.
If you have a taste for music: I recently discovered an unpretentious song by Sarah Bettens that holds a lot of truth: Don't Stop.