A peripatetic life
Mauritania, Somalia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Italy, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia. Those are just some of the countries Smaro Skoulikidis, Artsci’80, has spent time in during the course of her career with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
“I feel sorry for my parents!” she laughs. “The older I get, the more I realize how dangerous some of those places were.”
That she began working for the UNDP at all is, by her own admission, “a complete fluke.” A history and politics degree at Queen’s led to an MA in Middle Eastern studies at U of T and a recruitment fair where representatives of the UN were in attendance. She applied and, about 18 months later, received a letter in the mail that said “Congratulations, you’re going to Mauritania.”
“And I thought, Where on earth is that? I had to look it up on a map!” she says.
However, the three subsequent years that she spent as a program officer in the African country during the time of the Mauritania-Senegalese border conflict not only launched her career, they were also instrumental in helping Smaro finding her niche in the intersection between emergency humanitarian relief and development work.
Following her posting to Mauritania, she went to New York to run the innovative Disaster Management Training Program (DMTP). “Until that point, humanitarian work and development work were two separate worlds,” she explains. “By contrast, the DMTP was all about the impact of disasters on development. It was my work with the DMTP that led me to countries in conflict and exposed me to peace-keeping and reconciliation work.”
Now, as head of the resident coordinator’s office in Liberia, Smaro heads up a multi-national team of specialists and is responsible for coordinating other UN agencies that are present in Liberia, including the peacekeeping mission. Her focus, among other things, is strategic planning and ensuring a collective and coherent UN response to Liberia’s national priorities, which include issues such as basic services, youth employment, and gender equality. Advocacy and resource mobilization also fall under her team’s remit.
“The impact of the UN system in any given country is much greater when there’s a peace-keeping mission involved,” she says. “You feel that you’re making a difference, that you’re making history. Whether that difference is positive or negative, that’s another story.”
The evolution she has seen taking place in Liberia over the last four years is clear. When Smaro first arrived there were few paved roads outside the capital and youth unemployment was extremely high. Now there’s a lot of construction, the economy is growing, and there is renewed emphasis on infrastructure, education, health, and poverty reduction. Under current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa (just re-elected for a second term), the country is on the road to recovery.
And for Smaro, it’s time to move on. She’s chosen to return to the more difficult environs of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for her next posting. The deciding factor behind her move is that it will take her closer to her husband, the head of civil affairs in the peace-keeping mission in DRC. It’s also a promotion that will see Smaro become head of the integrated office, a role that incorporates, among other functions, the resident coordinator office duties, humanitarian coordinator duties, and peacekeeping mission responsibilities.
Whatever new challenges come her way in DRC, Smaro is keen to affect change and be part of the process of transformation.
“I enjoy community-based recovery,” she explains. “I like to see effort resulting in practical gains. In post-conflict countries or those that have suffered from natural disasters, there’s a tremendous window of opportunity to make some positive change.”