As part of our “Americans in the UN” project to share the stories of Americans who work for the United Nations, we talked to Stephen Anderson, the World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director for Yemen, which is facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with more than 17 million people food insecure. Anderson, who was born in Nairobi, spent part of his early childhood in Beaver, just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family is originally from western Pennsylvania and over the years has scattered around the U.S., including Clinton, South Carolina, just outside Memphis, Tennessee, and Portland, Oregon.
What motivates you to work for the UN?
Stephen Anderson: I am motivated mainly by the fact that the UN plays a unique and often indispensable role in many humanitarian emergency situations because it is the only body that monitors overall needs and gaps (food, water, shelter, etc.), and acts as a broker/go-between with the government, donor countries, and other important actors. Many UN agencies such as WFP, UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, and others have staff and operational reach that make a difference in the lives of millions. WFP is 100% voluntarily funded, which means we must work hard to earn and maintain trust.
From your experience, what is an example of how the UN has made a difference in someone’s life?
SA: I have personally seen many examples of the UN making a difference in people’s lives in places I have worked in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I particularly remember early in my career in the Sudan when I volunteered to join a UN relief train (part of the Operation Lifeline Sudan) in south Kordofan that provided assistance to conflict-affected people in southern Sudan. At one point, we came across a sudden influx of southern Sudanese displaced people who had been completely cut off by conflict for a considerable amount of time. Seeing starving adults, with skin and bones similar to footage from concentration camps in World War II, came as a major shock to me personally. Seeing them in this condition made us want to do everything within our power to help these people live. Thankfully, we were in a position to provide them with food and other assistance. If we had not been there, they would likely have died.
What is your message to Americans about the importance of the UN?
SA: While the common perception of the UN among many Americans tends to focus on the UN’s political role, including the UN Security Council and UN Secretariat in New York, which are important in their own right, I just wish more Americans could come and witness first-hand the practical work on the ground that WFP and other UN agencies do in places like Yemen, where critical functions are carried out in hazardous conditions and amid incredible obstacles.
How did you first learn about the UN?
SA: Growing up for part of my childhood in southern Sudan, one of my family’s friends was a man named Bob Koepp, who ran the WFP office in Juba. He was very warm, full of interesting stories, and fully committed to doing his part to support the rehabilitation of southern Sudan during the 1970s after its first experience of civil war. I distinctly remember someone telling me that Bob cared first and foremost about getting food to those who needed it, with less concern about the paperwork/hierarchy.
What is the favorite part of your job?
SA: My favorite part is the sense of pulling together as a team when faced with a particularly challenging situation, which often includes providing logistics and IT services to other humanitarian agencies that rely on our support. I particularly admire observing the professionalism of our WFP logistics colleagues in action, whether they’re running air passenger service and airlifts, dispatching truck convoy, chartering ships, or purchasing food or equipment.