‘Social Change Leaders’: Farida Bena, Former OECD, OXFAM and International Rescue Committee, and Master PMC Director

The age we are living in is beyond any doubt one of complex and big changes; in order to understand today’s world, its transformations and problems, it’s important and necessary to have our eyes wide open, great perception and significant experience.

Farida Bena for sure doesn’t lack any of these characteristics; the ultimate personality in the international world of NonProfit and, as of late, Director of Social Change School’s Master PMC  in Project Management for International Cooperation, Euro-Project Management and Local Development.

Her skills, both innate and acquired during her brilliant career, brought her to face and solve some of the most complex problematics concerning international cooperation, from the fields of Central Africa to the offices of European capitals.

It is therefore a pleasure to learn from her own words about her rich and intense history and write down all the advices she has to give to the people who want to follow the path of solidarity.


Q.: Farida, it’s great to have you here. Why don’t you tell us where you come from, what is your background and the professional path you followed?

A.: «I have always liked to meet and experience different cultures and new ways of thinking, not only because of curiosity, but also to understand how to face and solve the same problems in a different way. As I was studying at the University in Milan I volunteered as an activist for various NonProfit organizations; I then started an internship at United Nations Secretariat in New York, something that had a profound impact on me, opening my eyes to the world of humanitarian help. Those were the years of Rwanda’s genocide and the war in the Balkans, and that internship definitively made me realize that my future would be in the world of cooperation.

After the Master I started following an advocacy campaign against the use of child soldiers, at first in Brussels, then in Washington and finally in various countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, starting from Sierra Leon with COOPI and Democratic Republic of Congo with International Rescue Committee (IRC) to South East Asia with Save the Children, CARE and local NGOs. I progressively increased my scope, specializing in child protection and exploitation of children, providing technical support to these NGOs and multilateral organizations like UNICEF and the European Commission. As I was working on cases of abuse and exploitation, though, I felt I needed to go to the root causes of these problems – the deep inequalities that divide the North and the South of the world, the chronic injustices that are preventing entire communities and nations from developing.

This is the reason why, in 2007, I accepted to open the first Oxfam office in Italy. I had already had a similar experience when I founded and directed the Belgian branch of an American NGO, International Rescue Committee. In the following years, I carried out many campaigns on social justice, covering topics like health, education, food safety and the fight against climate change. Besides advocacy activities, I closely followed Italian politics of cooperation with developing countries, particularly the affairs concerning the effectiveness of support to cooperation.

In the last years, I have had the opportunity to further explore these topics at OECD as a political analyst in the Direction for Development Cooperation and then for the main global platform for civil society regarding the effectiveness of cooperation and development, CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness. I have lately become a consultant to offer mainly strategic support to NGOs and governments on major subjects of cooperation.»


Farida Bena advocacy event


Q.: You traveled the world and worked for many important NonProfit organizations: how would you describe the environment of international NGOs?

A.: «Without giving any general opinion, I think it’s a rapidly-growing environment. Until a few years ago, international NGOs were often big groups of English provenance or from the North of the world. Now we have more and more organizations and coalitions from the South with global ambitions and funding, and this encourages an important debate on which role the NGOs of the North should hold in the current situation. Some NGOs decided to move their bases to Nairobi or Johannesburg, but changing country is not enough. An additional value needs to be redefined, ensuring more synergy and less competition.

Nonetheless, the growing professionalization of the NGOs, particularly the international ones, is a horizontal phenomenon. Being a volunteer is important, but it’s not enough anymore. NGOs are looking at the private sector’s business model, where objectives and goals are decided in advance and are constantly tracked.»

Q.: Which were the hardest or most difficult moments and situations you had to face on the job, and which were the biggest satisfactions?

 A.: «There were many, both difficult and satisfying. Being a project leader, I often had to take unpopular decisions, as deciding who should receive a scholarship and who shouldn’t. These are the kind of choices that will change the life of a teenager and of their family. As for the biggest satisfactions, there were the family reunifications of boys and girls abandoned at the frontier between Guinea and Liberia… It was impossible not to cry!»


Q.: Farida, in your opinion, which is the most important characteristic or talent a person should have for a career in the NonProfit? And which things should absolutely be learnt?

A.: «I think a combination of leadership and moral integrity are needed. Often you find yourself facing huge problems that you cannot even think of facing on your own. In my opinion, a good NonProfit manager is a person that can pick the right people and knows how to motivate them in order to run a project or a campaign. At the same time, it’s important to remember why you decided to work in the NonProfit field and always keep that idealistic drive strong in your mind. No sector is perfect, not even the NonProfit , but the fact that you are working hard to reach a social goal should never justify improper behaviors against your colleagues or, even worse, against the ones that are receiving our help.

It may seem obvious, but in the field of cooperation it’s particularly useful to learn from one’s mistakes, because you often need to try new management approaches and you only find the right way after many attempts.»


Q.: Farida, which were the most significant professional episodes you remember?

A.: «Rather than single episodes, I think of many recurrent experiences that taught me relevant realities.

Firstly, if you work in the field of cooperation in a developing country and come from an advanced economy, and maybe you even have fair complexion and western traits, you will almost always be the center of the attention of the community you are working in. This could be an extremely good or bad factor, depending on how you plan to use your position. It’s important to be aware of it and to take on your role with humility and courage, keeping your feet firmly on the ground.

As a campaigner, it sometimes happened to me to promote actions that honestly weren’t actually realistic and sustainable. I did it because I firmly believed in it, because I wanted to reach the goals of my organization at all costs, but with the benefit of hindsight I would now spend more time trying to understand the context of reference, planning campaigns only after having understood my target properly and spotting those factors that hinder the change of ideas and attitudes.

Lastly, I would like to say that learning to change the world one step at a time has been an important lesson. Even the biggest cooperation programs are made of daily actions, sometimes boring or bureaucratic. Keeping motivation high, continuing to do things properly even in these situations is not easy, but these things are the ones that bring us closer to the goal. And the same thing can be said for people. Of all the kids that left the armed groups to go back to their home in Congo thanks to the programs I managed, sometimes I think that most of them might have taken up arms again because of desperation. Or maybe not. I will never know for sure, but even if just one of those kids stayed with their family, then it was worth it.»


Q.: You have worked in Europe and in the rest of the world; what are in your opinion the most relevant differences between the various labor markets for operators of the sector?

 A.: «As I was mentioning before, there is an important change going on in the cooperation sector. The focus is shifting more and more towards the direct management of cooperation projects by local associations in developing countries. Most of the local NGOs are taking on a major role in carrying on national and global advocacy activities and campaigns. All these things are aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals established two years ago by the United Nations.

Therefore, I advise all the people that are coming from the North to hone not only their skills to manage things themselves, but mainly to share their knowledge to the local staff they are working with. The strengthening of skills will play a focal role in the cooperation of the future.

In the sector of emergencies, given its nature, these considerations need to be balanced with the need to answer to humanitarian crisis in a short time. The idea of capacity building is still vital, but maybe more from the point of view of preparation to crisis and natural disaster.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many of the countries we define ‘poor’, like Nigeria, over the years actually became middle-income countries, with all the complexities this term entails. The people who work in cooperation in the 21st century need to be ready to find themselves in ambiguous and multifaceted environments, far from the monolithic stereotypes that are often conveyed by media.»


Q.: Farida, you are working on a blog ( Kiliza.org) that gives voice to citizens of the South of the world. Who are you referring to with this definition?

A.: «I am referring to the ones that are called ‘beneficiary’ of humanitarian and development projects or of other actions that aim to fight the worst effects of climate change in the South of the world. These people rarely have the opportunity to make their voice be heard outside of their village, their country or their nation.  They can be consulted by NGOs or donors, yet this process often happens in a perfunctory and hasty way. The voices of the citizens of developing countries can hardly ever impact global politics of cooperation.

Yet these ‘beneficiaries’ are the ones that know the environment in which they live the best. They often possess specific knowledge that would help the sector workers handling their projects better. Sometimes they end up being a greater help than many ‘experts’ coming from London or Sydney, yet few listen to them. This is why I decided to create a blog exclusively dedicated to their opinions. What do these people think when others call them poor? What do Syrian refugees ask NGOs that distribute water in Lebanon, for instance? What worries young women from Uganda the most when thinking about their future?

I think that we’re globally moving towards the right direction. Some private foundations are experimenting new approaches and technologies – included a heavy use of mobile telephony in countries of the South – in order to better include citizens of the South of the world in their philanthropic activities. It’s time for a mental jump: before becoming our potential ‘beneficiaries’, the people that we want to help through international cooperation are men and women like us, with their personal ideas and beliefs. These people have a right to voice their ideas.»


Q.: What were the biggest practical problems you had to face in your job? How did you overcome them? 

A.: «Practically speaking, the biggest difficulty was for sure to make my passion for working in the field coexist with my personal life. At some point, you have to decide where you want to live and make your children grow up. For the ones who work in advocacy, it’s somewhat easier because you can often do it in a place, whether it’s Rome or Kathmandu. In my case, I tried to score as many experiences as I could before having children, but I know others that have done the exact opposite, that being having kids when they were very young and then leaving to work in the field of cooperation when they were older.

The other great challenge has been to learn how to find the right people to work with. I strongly believe in team work and as time passed I have learnt to be more selective. At the end of the day, there’s real people even behind the greatest institutions, with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to find talent and humanity… Possibly in the same person!»


Q.: Do you believe the fact that you are a woman affected your career? How?

A.: «It affected it a lot. I am sorry to say that the NonProfit is not immune to discriminations and prejudices against women, particularly when it comes to reaching the most desirable positions. Maternity further complicates things, slowing down professional growth, or at least this was my experience. Nonetheless, I think that, with time, merit and determination ultimately have the better, bringing the expected recognition.

Yet something that is still missing is an open and honest debate on gender discrimination in no profit. In Italy as in many other advanced countries, women themselves choose not to talk about it because they fear seeming inappropriate or not impartial, given the fact that they are a concerned party. This is why it’s extremely important to also involve male colleagues in a campaign of sensitization on women’s rights. Also because when there’s gender discrimination, it’s not only the woman that is suffering, but the whole family. And the organization in general suffers too.»


Q.: Farida, no profit is a reality that is based on dreams: the dreams of those who work in the field and the dreams of those who are in need. What are your dreams?

A.: «This is always a fascinating question! At the moment, I don’t have many ‘professional’ dreams, but those few are very ambitious. I dream of dedicating much more time to my blog Kiliza, to make it more useful, particularly in those countries that give and receive help. I would also like to continue my current job as a consultant, namely to test various theories about social change directly with NGOs from Kenya or Vietnam. I would like to understand together with them how it works when active citizenship projects are running and why, how and thanks to what an effective and durable change is generated. And obviously I dream of contributing to make Master PMC the best course possible of its kind.»


Q.: Let’s not change subject! You have recently accepted the Direction of Master in PMC of Social Change School; do you have any advices for ‘your’ students?

 A.: «We are talking about highly qualified and determined students. During the academic year that is about to start, they will receive suggestions and advices at will, so for now I will just give some basic tips.

The first thing I would like to say to ‘my’ students is that they should periodically ask themselves WHY they chose to take this Master. Motivation is a key factor in professional success, and it’s fundamental to know what is truly pushing us to work in cooperation. Having your motivation clear means you know yourself, your ambitions and your limits quite well.

Secondly, PMC students should take into consideration the sacrifices they are willing to make if they want to work in the world of no profit. Some are already known: a normally modest remuneration, long or unusual working time, low safety conditions for those who decide to work in countries that are in conflict. Other risks are less apparent, but always to be kept in mind: for example, to let yourself get too emotionally involved in situations of extreme poverty. Or being away from your family for an extended time. Or stress and weariness that can lead to a typical mental and physical collapse, if not handled in time.

The other side of the coin – luckily – largely compensates these risks. Working in cooperation often generates a sense of deep satisfaction. You feel useful, needed and sometimes even important (with due attention, as stated earlier). Our work gets more and more meaning, especially when the results are concrete. In many cases, I met people who work on cooperation or campaigns that felt their job was their only reason to live. In a world where millions of people hate their jobs, it’s enthralling and marvellous to have the chance to dedicate your full time in something you believe in.

Ultimately, there are no magic recipes to succeed in international cooperation. Maybe this is the allure – everybody contributes in their own way, combining different ingredients like spirit of initiative, motivation, creativity and empathy. Besides these talents, the Master in PMC will need two main qualities: persistence, like the capability to study even on Sunday afternoons or Tuesday nights, without losing the view of the final goal; and self-confidence, in the things ‘my’ students will want to offer the world. To all of them I say: believe in yourself and you will find your own path.


by Guido Pacifici


Read other posts by Farida Bena for the Social Change School’s Blog4Change:

New Directors for the International Masters PMC and FRAME!

CSO Partnership: an impossible acronym or a chance at Cooperating?

Blog4Change: People at the centre of humanitarian aid. Mission possible?

Texting for better policies


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Photo Source: Farida Bena’s Twitter Account



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