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A Role to Play

By Kush Thaker

Disclaimer: The views are those of the author's alone and do not represent the views of UNA-Canada.

As cornerback of my high school football team, it was my role to contain runs and cover routes. It was a clear role. Now, as a citizen of the world team, playing to win and achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), my role is not nearly as clear.

Here are some reflections on how my IYIP assignment as an Operations Information Management and Reporting intern with WFP Uganda helped me go from unstructured confusion to pragmatic aspiration and realize a clear role to play in solving global problems.

Unstructured Confusion

The ever-increasing domain of complex issues in the world today makes it confusing to know what to work on. It's not just that there is death and suffering in the world. It's that when left unattended, global problems become more painful to contain, oftentimes irreversibly so.

In my final year of studies in the Systems Design Engineering program at the University of Waterloo, I took an introduction to complex systems course. The professor showed us a model of interactions between population and resource systems called Limits to Growth.

It was a report that concluded the behaviour of the world system follows the tendency of overshoot and collapse. The authors made a stunning conjecture that “we can thus say with some confidence that, under no major change in the present system, population and industrial growth will certainly stop within the next century, at the latest.” [1]

It was an epiphany of sorts for me where logic and emotion converged. I knew that whatever I did, I somehow had to work on this problem in a structured way.

Figure 1: Limits to Growth World Model Standard Run

Pragmatic Aspiration

There are institutions that actually make it their purpose to take a structured approach to solving global problems. It was early on as a kid part of Ontario’s legislative page program when I observed first-hand the fiery theatrics during question period and the meticulous business of the chamber. It instilled a sense of pragmatism to see such a large system of people and process, the Government of Ontario, as a living body. Its function was to create laws and run programs for everyone in the province.

The United Nations is a similar intergovernmental body (they call their principal functions “organs”) that makes everyone’s peace and security its mission. It is hard to fathom the sheer magnitude of machinery of the United Nations system. However, it exists, it’s tangible, and it’s a practical force for good in the world.

Realizing this has made me more pragmatic and optimistic about humanitarian interventions. When I observe World Food Programme (WFP) operations in Uganda from the inside, I see diligent personnel, sweating the details, doing their part in a grand operation that transfers food and cash to 1.5 million people every month in refugee settlements across the West Nile and South West regions [2]. Uganda is only one of many countries in the East Africa region, amid unstable humanitarian situations in Northern Ethiopia, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few.

Figure 2: Uganda: Market Monitor - Refugee Hosting Areas

Figure 3: Refugee Settlement Price and Market Functionality Snapshot, 1-31 August 2021

In 2020, WFP delivered 4.2 million metric tons of food and supported 120 million beneficiaries in 88 countries amidst the pandemic. WFP is also only one of many specialized UN agencies cooperating globally on relief and development. It is comforting to know that at a time when nationalism seems to be on the rise, a pragmatic system like the UN exists to promote internationalism and share a blueprint for sustainable development.

Of course pragmatism by itself is not enough. There are valid criticisms of the UN system that fit its scope and scale. It is not enough for these institutions to simply exist as they are. Pragmatism needs aspiration. The idea that the UN system can evolve and be better is a pragmatic idea that is also aspirational. If you could see the work up close, you might also start to think, the system can actually win at its mission of peace and security.

A Role to Play

In my role I prepare donor reports on the performance of WFP operations in Uganda. All the government humanitarian aid offices (CIDCA, ECHO, FCDO, USAID) that contribute to food and cash assistance have stringent reporting requirements in their grant agreements. My job is to meet those reporting requirements so that donors can evaluate the impact of their taxpayer dollars.

To play cornerback well, I first learned the basic skills of how to backpedal and read the play. Now, 3 months into the role, the basics of writing operational reports are getting easier. As I start to work at more advanced skills, like integrating different WFP datasets, I see a role to use operations information to contribute to better intervention design. Effective interventions should be short-term and produce the circumstances for stability, development and political resolution. At the least, they should prepare developing nations for future shocks. Now I have a clear role to play to use information systems in solving global problems, and I have a pragmatic aspiration that the world team can win.

[1] Donella H. Meadows [and others]. “The Limits To Growth; a Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind.” New York: Universe Books, 1972 [Jan 19 2019]


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