"Always keep the focus on the purpose of your work."

Irishman Marcel Grogan currently works as a Risk Management Advisor with UNHCR in Iraq.



UNHCR staff member Marcel Grogan (right) crossing the river Nile in Northern Uganda.   © Marcel Grogan


After nearly thirty years working for different aid agencies around the world, Marcel Grogan is now based in Baghdad, Iraq with UNHCR. Despite all challenges he faced over the years, even being shot at while on mission, he never lost sight of why he is doing the job.

We caught up with Marcel to hear about his experiences and what keeps him motivated after almost three decades as a humanitarian worker.

How did you initially become involved with UNHCR?

I started as an idealist – working with an Irish Aid project in Zambia in 1990. I was always interested in social/development work and left for Zambia immediately after I qualified in finance. My father had previously worked in West Africa and I had visited my brother who was a volunteer worker in Nigeria, so there was some connection with the continent in the family.

Susequently, as the Head of a Field Office for the International Rescue Committee at a remote location in Rwanda in 1997, I met the then UNHCR Field Office Programme Officer, who I married later on. We now have four children.

Luckily for me, my wife and I were both involved in humanitarian work before we met, so we were able to continue our careers and have a family. It wasn’t always easy because my wife would move location every three to four years and I would start over looking for work.

However, because my previous experience was also in the humanitarian sector I was often able to get a job in the new location after some time. This enabled me to have a very diverse work experience while my wife moved from posting to posting with UNHCR. Almost 15 years after we met, I also started working for UNHCR.

Moving every few years with a young and growing family, taking on new roles with different agencies and contexts can be challenging. While such challenges often push you out of your comfort zone, this is also when you have to stretch yourself and reach forward – which can be both alarming and rewarding!

You have been working in the humanitarian sector for more than 25 years now. If you look back over the last few decades, what has been the most significant change in that field?

During that time I’ve spent over ten years in sub-Saharan Africa, including most recently five months in Uganda working with the influx of refugees from South Sudan and DR Congo. It was a great experience, though somewhat deflating to see how little has changed in the socio-economic conditions of most citizens of equatorial African countries over the years.

In my opinion, poor governance at national level, as well as the unjust economic fundamentals at global level, often impede development across that region and lie at the heart of much of the instability and conflict which continue to generate huge flows of refugees.

In the humanitarian sector, there has been a move towards increasing specialization, which has advantages but also disadvantages in the sense that – both within and among agencies – the roles have become more siloed.

The most important thing I learned over the last few years is respect – for the people we serve and the societies and communities that host them, and also for yourself, the team and ‘rival’ agencies. Keep the focus outward – on the purpose of the work. We’re all in this together.

I can see many inefficiencies and mixed interests in the sector, but also much genuine care for others less fortunate than ourselves. Despite the many valid criticisms of the humanitarian sector, the world would be a crueler place without it.

You had to overcome a lot of challenges as a humanitarian aid worker. Was there any situation in particular that sticks in your mind?

In 2000 I was on a humanitarian mission with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Serbia. This time I was not so lucky. Some nervous informal Kosovar combatants in the Presevo valley (in Serbia near the Kosovo boundary) shot first before asking questions – mistakenly thinking our UN vehicle was Serb military. Such chaos often happens in situations of conflict.

But psychologically it is important that the shooting was not intentional. I was wounded in both legs, but fortunately (and with the help of those who shot me), I was able to get across the boundary to the US military hospital at Camp Bondsteel where I was operated on. It took some time to heal the wounds (and I still have a bullet in my thigh) but I recovered in a couple of months.

Why, in your view, is Ireland’s support to UNHCR so important?

Ireland has very little strategic interest in refugee producing countries – its support to UNHCR is therefore a great example of real global solidarity. It’s a practical expression of Ireland’s commitment to the principles on which the UN is founded.

You have worked all over the globe now. What do you miss, if anything, about Ireland?

Although I have no regrets about leaving Ireland I love to visit as often as I can. It is still where I feel most at home. I particularly love the landscape and fresh air while hiking on the West Coast, and of course the Irish sense of humour.