This article introduces Michael Odong, a project management specialist and social justice advocate from Uganda, and his experiences working in international cooperation. He is Country and Partnership Manager Uganda at Social Change School and he was also a former student of the Master MIDHA- Project Management for International Development and Humanitarian Aid at Social Change School.
This article discusses his journey and experiences working in the field of humanitarian aid.
Welcome, Michael! Tell us who you are.
I am an experienced project management specialist, and advocate for social justice with over 15 years of professional experience in managing development and emergency programs in Africa.
Why did you choose to work in International Cooperation?
As a child, during the conflict in Northern Uganda, the daily priority was to find adequate food for the family. Education was of secondary importance. This was true until AVSI and World Vision arrived in our region, where they provided food assistance and facilitated children to attend school in my region. I learned that any amount of assistance is important in a humanitarian emergency and decided to spend my life bringing hope and making a difference in the lives of people in need, as I myself have been.
Can you give us some details about the life inside a displaced people’s camp? How did you study and grow?
When we were kids, we went to school just to meet the others and keep the connection with the community, but not thinking education would help us in our future. We had no hope for future. That is a typical situation most kids experience in a conflict context. My perspective changed when we moved away from the internally displaced people’s camp and we moved to the town. The education system started feeling different: we felt that we needed to concentrate and focus on it. Of course, being able to stand up in the crowds, I began to realize that I even had some potential and that helped me push on the highest schools and studies.
What is the most exciting thing you have experienced on the field?
When I was community mobiliser for a health and nutrition program that targeted the internally displaced people’s camp in Northern Uganda, especially children under the age of 5. My main role was to identify and enroll moderately and acutely malnourished children and provide them with supplementary food rations, conduct regular growth monitoring, counselling and community follow-up. The most exciting moment was when I saw a mother of a severely malnourished child with the biggest smile over her face as we weighed her kid to see he had greatly improved.
Which experiences shocked you the most?
One of the most shocking experiences was in 2015, in the remotest community in the central equatorial state of South Sudan, when we had to support a pregnant woman deliver on her way to the facility. In the context of South Sudan at that time we were actually the only hope for the population. We were the only ones providing health services, because of the project we were implementing. We were driving and we found this mother in labor. We rushed her to the nearest health facility and on the way there the baby popped out! The basic skills we had in the car with the other colleagues had to be enough in that moment. We were just hoping no complications would come. We donated our clothes to wrap the baby. We did the best we could. I learned a lesson there: if you are determined to work in the field of humanitarian, then you shouldn’t be surprised, and you should always be able to respond. From the eye of the community you are the one that can help.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face in your working path so far?
One of the biggest and the most challenging was when I was the Red Cross’ camp manager for one of the largest refugee settlements estimated to cover a 65 square kilometer in Northwestern Uganda. I was in charge of the reception, receiving an average of 3000 refugees daily, a team of 300 volunteers and 4 water production sites that included water treatment and made safe water available at all times.
One day, we ran out of chlorine and the usual intervention of re-distribution of other treatment sites could not help. All efforts to reach Uganda National Water and Sewage Corporation for any excess stock were all negative. We just couldn’t distribute the water like that, because of course it’s contaminated and the next thing you would see is the spread of cholera or another outbreak like that. But water need was extremely high. At that point, in order to solve that dilemma, we had to find a way to filter the water on our own, over and over, and that was the only way to get the water while waiting for chlorine to arrive. For 24 hours we had to wait and distribute filtered water in all the settlement.
How do you think Master MIDHA is responding to the needs of the sector right now? (with a particular focus on Uganda and nearby regions)
Uganda of late has hosted the largest number of refugees in the region, they include refugees from the DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia. Besides that, Uganda also experiences major natural disasters such as landslide and floods in the Eastern and Western part of the country. Such dynamics not only narrow the gap between development and emergency programs, but also require certain skilled professionals to effectively manage such challenges.
MIDHA’s program is strategic in equipping professionals to be effective in both development and emergency programs. It provides needed skills in assessment, planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of the program. Project development is a skill most professional undoubtedly need in Uganda, as most of them are only experienced in implementing the already developed project, a problem of most development programs.
What’s the “big cause” that you care about the most?
I care about the well-being of mothers and their children in a disaster situation. This of course also comes from my personal experience. We were raised in a conflict situation in Northern Uganda, we were displaced as a family. We had situations in which you had to run in your own direction for safety, and you didn’t even know where your mother and father were, your family. You can physically see how mothers and children are the ones that suffer the most from these disasters and conflicts. You see a woman running with a baby and luggage, not knowing where they are going to settle. Having personally gone through that experience and understanding it as I grew up through it, I personally feel that I really want to make an impact and help someone in need in such a situation, so my main cause is the well-being of a mother and their children.
What do you like the most about your current position at SCS? And of the Social Change School?
My current role has considerably expanded my network and given me the opportunity to work with highly determined individuals with outstanding personalities to see that we make a difference in the life of people in need.
I am also proud to be associated with the highly reputable Social Change School with a global recognition by international organizations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, AMREF, UNDP, and many others.
And the last question: what message would you like to leave to our students and those working in the Non-profit sector?
You are the seed of change, it begins with you and that requires you to live a life of purpose, with clear vision and mission.