Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Geneva Headquarters: Meanwhile, back at headquarters ...

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata oversees UNHCR's worldwide operations from a headquarters that is very field-oriented.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata is often asked what personal traits are required to lead a worldwide humanitarian agency responsible for protecting and assisting millions of often desperate people.

"A warm heart and a cool mind," replies Mrs. Ogata, a former Japanese diplomat and academic who was recently described by one writer as "chief surgeon in the world's emergency room."

Her response reflects the philosophy of an organization that must be compassionate and refugee-focused while at the same time confronting the cold, hard realities of war, massive displacement, "ethnic cleansing," closed borders, growing xenophobia and shrinking resources.

From her modest seventh-floor office in UNHCR's Geneva headquarters, Mrs. Ogata oversees the activities of more than 5,000 staff in some 250 offices in 120 countries. About 950 of those staffers work in Geneva. Their tasks range from all of the basic functions required for the smooth operation of any large corporation, to highly specialized skills needed by camp planners, epidemiologists, water engineers and nutritionists. They include secretaries; lawyers and refugee law specialists; medical personnel; resettlement officers; accountants and finance officers; fund-raising staff; personnel officers; communications and computer specialists; statisticians and archivists; travel and visa staff; logistics, transport and procurement officers; food aid coordinators; specialists on the environment and women and children refugees; administrative officers; programme and budget specialists; field security officers; programme coordinators; public information staff; emergency response teams; distribution specialists; desk officers for UNHCR activities in every region of the world, and many others.

Although the paper flow is enormous and days are filled with meetings, reports and phone calls, UNHCR headquarters staff do not generally fit the widely held stereotype of the desk-bound U.N. bureaucrat. Most have extensive field experience. And for most professional staff, a stint in Geneva lasts no longer than four years, when they once again "rotate" to a field post. At heart and in mind, Geneva staffers are very much field-oriented.

The same applies to Mrs. Ogata, who prefers to re-direct any praise of her leadership to the thousands of UNHCR staff serving in many of the world's most remote and dangerous places. "I'm often asked how I can cope with the enormous human suffering that we must deal with," Mrs. Ogata says. "Of course it's depressing, but the ones who really face it head-on and who deserve most of the credit are those people who are out there on the ground doing whatever they can to help refugees. Theirs is not an easy life. It's not me I'm worried about, it's them."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)