Staffan De Mistura, a history of service: Grinding your teeth for humanity

Published February 12th, 2006 - 10:32 GMT

By Ehab Shanti

Having begun his career as a young assistant project officer in the WFP in 1971, the current Resident Coordinator of the UN in Iraq, Staffan De Mistrua, is by all accounts one of the longest standing and most dedicated UN officials. Al-Bawaba caught up with him during an important UN meeting in the Hague and discussed with this seasoned diplomat how it all began, how he does it, what makes him tick, and where the UN should go from here.  

An Idea and a Father’s Seed

There are two kinds of people in international organizations; those who work for the glory and prestige of the career, if there is any, and those who are motivated by a sense of mission. With 35 years of humanitarian and diplomatic work in the most volatile if not toughest areas in the world, including Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Iraq, De Mistura is by all means of the latter breed: someone devoted to the very principle of the UN’s founding, and with a keen sense of mission to make this world a better place. 


This seed of appreciating what the UN stands for was planted by his father who became a stateless refugee from Italy after WWII, there after marrying De Mistura’s Swedish mother.  “I became passionate about what the UN stands for because I believed in what my father told me that there has to be a different way of looking at the world than the one we saw in the war, the nations must have a united vision in an organization such as the UN…there must be a UN,” asserts De Mistura. This seed would grow with De Mistura until a very traumatic experience would ensure that the plant of appreciating humanitarian work attached itself to him like a shadow.


The Motivation: “Constructive Outrage”
As anyone who is involved in the business of humanitarian assistance or crisis prevention and recovery could attest, this line of work, while harsh and often brutally stressful, is highly narcotic. Once you catch the bug, you have the disease of wanting to be in the heart of the humanitarian action for the rest of your life, and are often unable to do anything else with lower levels of adrenaline.  De Mistura picked up this bug when, as a young intern and a note taker for a senior WFP official in Cyprus, he witnessed for the first time in his life the death of a human being. In this case it was a child who was standing on the green line that divides Cyprus, killed by a bullet from a nearby sniper. 


As De Mistura explains: “I could not believe what I saw with my own eyes for the first time in my life a child being shot, yet when I look at both sides of the green line, I saw the same people, they had the same kind of moustache, they drank the same kind of coffee, yet one side called it Turkish coffee, while the other called it Greek coffee.”   

Human beings have two choices when they confront a life altering trauma such as De Mistura’s. Either they look inwards and suffer from all the derivative illnesses of self-absorption, or they look outwards and channel the energy of their tremendous experience into a positive cause. If De Mistura’s long standing career proves anything it is that he channelled the shock of this initial experience into a commitment to do something positive for humanity. “Ever since this incident I became motivated as a young adult by a sense of constructive outrage, something that influenced me to study humanitarian emergency relief in university to dedicate my life for this kind of work.” 


Stressful, but Highly Rewarding
Because of his tremendous dedication to the mission of humanitarian work, while De Mistura acknowledges that his jobs have been highly stressful at times, they are also highly rewarding. 


“I admit, I do experience stress sometimes, for example, once my dentist told me that I’m grinding my teeth while I’m asleep, something that shocked me because I usually deal very well with stress. But this was a very stressful time when I witnessed what was happening in Rwanda and was feeling helpless. How could humanity allow such a thing to happen!” 


Thus, even someone with De Mistura’s depth of experience is not immune from stress, especially the brutal kind that kicks in out of concern for others and a sense of helplessness of not being able affect change for the better. 


The question now is what to do with this stress. In this, he offers some very useful advice: “first of all, you need to make full use of all the technical training that you can get in coping with stress. For example, take courses on how to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and how to survive tough negotiations etc…such technical know-how is not only useful, but an essential beginning to coping with stress.” 

But for De Mistura this is only a small part his stress relief, for as he asserts “The greatest relief for me is when I see how the results of my work have affected my beneficiaries. I’m obsessed with results, because I have seen first hand how if I work hard enough to produce tangible results they make a tremendous impact in improving people’s lives. Not only is this the greatest stress relief, it is the greatest reward.”     


On UN Reform
So, what does the veteran UN official think of the need for reform?
On UN reform, De Mistura has some words of wisdom: “There is no question that the UN is here to stay, there is no alternative to the UN, but the question is how can we improve it as an organization?.” While the UN has been affected by problems in recent years that were caused by the mishaps of a very small number of employees, this should not overshadow the fact that the rest of its staff are individuals with high moral and professional calibre. No organization or corporation could have been subjected to the same scrutiny that the UN has faced without turning any bad apples,” adds De Mistrua. 

I would suggest, for example, that the UN should open up more to civil society institutions to harness their tremendous energies, especially in crisis prevention and recovery situations.”


Challenges of the Present and Hopes of the Future
For a man who is in charge of the UN’s office in Iraq, acting on the aforementioned suggestion is not a mere pontificating, it could mean life or death, success or failure.  If one looks just at the challenges that face De Mistura to report to his duty station in Baghdad, and to ensure the safety of his staff, one gets an idea of the incredible commitment of this man. “I’m not discouraged by the situation in Iraq, and know that things will get better, perhaps not now, but in the near future.” 

Why is he so confident? “Because I’m a firm believer in the incredible talents of the Iraqis…They are very bright people, and they know that they are sitting on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, as well as two large rivers, so they will not squander this potential. The Iraqis have had an election and a constitution, and there is an interest for all sectors to participate, and there was no civil war as every one predicted. All of these are indicators that Iraq will have a better future.”


Having De Mistura, a man whose spiritual quest has been the betterment of humanity, by their side is sure to help in the journey.  

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