Looking back on my first year as a UNV at the RSCE in Uganda

The RSCE Communication Unit with Yannick on the far left.

17 Dec 2020

Looking back on my first year as a UNV at the RSCE in Uganda

Yannick Van Winkel

So, that went by fast! It seems like only yesterday that I was working for that global credit card company, back in a small office cubicle in good old but grey Brussels. I realized not long after I started there that that job in the financial sector just wasn’t going to do it for me in the long run. I might have been physically in Europe, but my mind wandered off continuously to Africa, a place where I had worked before. Not only did I want to change continents, but I also wanted to contribute my time, skills and knowledge to a more meaningful cause, something I couldn’t quite figure out how to do in the private sector. When the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) opportunity at the UN Regional Service Centre Entebbe (RSCE) in Uganda came along, I understood that I had to grab it with both hands.

During my first couple of days at the RSCE, I had little to no understanding of what the Centre does. A shared service centre? Who do we service? Now, just over a year into my UNV assignment, I fully comprehend why the RSCE was called into existence as well as I recognize the huge importance of what the Centre does for all its current 21 client entities.

The RSCE provides administrative and operational support to UN peacekeeping operations and small political offices across Africa. These operations and offices are often located in places struck by conflict and violence in which the working conditions for UN staff are extremely hard and, in some cases, even spartan. Seeing the fact that our peacekeepers, blue helmets, police officers and other in-the-field UN staff are working in these egregious circumstances, it was decided to establish the RSCE in 2010.

To lighten the burden of our colleagues in harsh peacekeeping operational places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic among others; all administrative, logistics and information and communications technology services that can be performed independently of location are done at the RSCE in Entebbe. In this way, colleagues in the field can concentrate on the ‘hard’ peacekeeping work while the RSCE colleagues make sure that our peacekeepers’ travel reservations are in order or that they get their monthly wages in time, to name just two of the ‘outsourced tasks’ which the RSCE performs for its client missions. (For those who want to find out more about RSCE’s activities and the numbers behind them, have a glance at this infographic).

As a communications officer within the Communication Unit of the RSCE, I am grateful to be able to actively contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16): peace, justice and strong institutions. I am aware and content that my work together with the work of my 400+ fellow RSCE colleagues adds that extra tiny layer of solace to those UN staff members in war-struck duty stations. Our work at the silent giant named RSCE makes their job just bearable enough to keep on keeping on doing their vital peacekeeping work, day in and day out.

From the start, I felt like an integral part of the communications team. In our little smoothly running unit of five of which I am one out of two UNVs, the presence of an open corporate culture in which all of us can closely work together and in good spirit with each other is indispensable. I was also glad to note that us UNVs get the same professional responsibilities, workload and duties as our UN staff counterparts. UNVs perform real work, work that is essential for the successful completion of the department’s annual work plan. Some witty colleagues jokingly like to abbreviate ‘UNV’ to United Nations Victims (instead of the correct United Nations Volunteers), referring with a quip to our often-busy work schedule.

Next to the rewarding work I was able to perform during the first year of my UNV assignment, I am also appreciative for being given the chance to have an insider’s look on how a UN Secretariat office in East Africa goes about its everyday business and all the structures and processes behind it allowing for it to do so. There’s just no way one can have the same deep understanding on the functioning of the UN and its numerous subsidiary entities, offices and agencies without having served some de facto internal time within the organization, as a UNV for instance.

Something I could not anticipate when I started a year ago is that I would not be spending near as much time in the office as I pictured. As I am writing this article from my kitchen table in Entebbe in mid-November 2020, I have been working from home for almost eight months due to the precautionary safety measures taken by RSCE management in their pursuit to limit the spread of COVID-19 among staff. That means that I have spent about two-thirds of my UNV experience working remotely. Despite the countless initiatives by colleagues in the form of online meetings and virtual town halls, they sadly do not quite mirror the real-life office experience. This largely prevents me from building any personal and professional relationships with co-workers which whom I would normally just bump into in the corridors or at the Entebbe Support Base coffee shop. Which indeed is a missed opportunity and a real pity.

Would I recommend you become a UNV yourself? Would I tell you to grasp the opportunity to create a positive impact? Would I advise you to take the chance to be a significant force for achieving peace and development? Hell yes! My UNV experience for sure changed my life and perception in ways to create and find that admirable balance between working for both an income and towards the betterment of the world we all live in.

As I am commencing the second year of my UNV assignment, I’d like to recapitulate on the statement with which I started this reflective article: these past 12 months have been nothing less than a whirlwind! I’ve been able to do the kind of work I believe I was born to do, I’ve met many remarkable people be it inside or outside work and I feel like I am doing my part – however little – in the UN’s attempt to maintain international peace and security.

I guess time flies when you find yourself doing meaningful work in a smallish town in Eastern Africa, despite all that happening when you’re confined to your home during a global pandemic…