Irene Dawa: “MSF makes a big impact”

An HR and finance manager from Uganda recently returned from her first field assignment in Liberia. She shares her motivation for doing humanitarian work and explains why she joined MSF.

“Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we reach that goal," says fieldworker Irene Dawa, quoting Martin Luther King. “My name means peace and because I believe in being the change you want to see, these words inspire me.”

Irene grew up in Uganda, where she did her undergraduate studies in administration in human resource (HR) before landing her first job at the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), in a programme helping ex-child soldiers in Yumbe district, Uganda.

Her work exposed her to the realities of life in an unstable environment, and after speaking to a German colleague who worked as a peace advisor, she was inspired to study further and build a career in a similar field.

So she moved to Austria, did a postgrad in peace and conflict resolution at the European Peace University, and joined the German Development Cooperation in Khartoum, Sudan and then in Juba, South Sudan working as a peace advisor.

After completing her masters in international relations in Italy, with a focus on international law and human rights, she joined Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and embarked on her first field assignment to Monrovia, Liberia in 2016.

“I always knew MSF was for doctors and nurses. But then I chatted to a former classmate from Austria who worked for MSF in New York. I asked him what he did for MSF. He told me his story and I was motivated to apply,” she says.

“MSF has made a big impact on reducing HIV/AIDS in the Arua district of Uganda, where I came from. No one has and will ever have the impact MSF left on the people of Arua. So I wanted to be part of this result oriented organisation.”

‘I have never seen this level of care before’

In Monrovia, MSF runs a paediatric hospital with an emergency unit, malnutrition ward and general paediatrics ward. There, Irene worked as an HR and finance manager, helping recruit local staff, assist with salaries and other administrative work necessary for the hospital to run.

“There is a shortage of Liberian medical doctors, so the hospital relies heavily on expats from different countries who usually work there for 6 months at a time. But MSF is trying to work with intern doctors from Liberia, to train them so in future there can be more local doctors working there,” Irene says.

Health problems in the area are mainly related to malnutrition in new-borns. There are also cases of measles, skin diseases and malaria, she says.

“Not coming from a medical field proved to be difficult to watch all these patients come to our hospital,” Irene says. “It was painful to see all these children and not be able to do anything to help them. So I avoided going to the wards as much as possible.”

“But I have never seen this level of care before. From the moment the patient walks in to the moment when they leave, MSF takes good care of their medical needs.”

‘People there appreciate our presence’

“As an HR person you have to deal with a lot of people from different cultures. This was very difficult because I wasn’t able to communicate effectively with many of the staff.

We spoke different languages and sometimes the meaning would be lost in translation,” Irene says about the daily challenges she faced at the project.

“But instead of giving up, I used what I learnt in previous jobs negotiating difficult situations, and that helped me understand and be able to provide and meet the needs of every staff member.”

“What I learnt from my mission was that every MSF staff is dedicated to their work, they want to help people. This made my job very easy because everyone knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.”

“MSF has a positive impact in the Liberian community and the people there appreciate our presence. MSF is where I want to be for the rest of my life.”

Read more about MSF’s work in Liberia.