Ep. 030: Joe Washington

Show Notes


Susan takes time to thank her team that collaborates on the podcast and introduces Stephen Gray, her co-host for this episode.

Stephen has been in the international peacebuilding field for 10 years. He is originally from New Zealand and has spent time in the USA, but has done peacebuilding projects in Myanmar for over 5 years, Cambodia, and South Sudan. He began his career with the United Nations, then switched to non-governmental organizations. Later he got into consulting and later, academia. He is excited to take a step back and think about peacebuilding as a field, what do we do, why are we doing it etc. which is why he wanted to work on the pod with Susan.

Susan introduces Joe Washington who she met about 5 years ago in Juba, South Sudan at the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission South Sudan (UNMISS). He has been there for a long time doing a lot of the hard work for roughly 10 years. He’s now retired from that field work and is living in Italy. He is a part of the Global Vision Institute which is a network, catalyst, and think tank promoting a universal values driven international system. When you are with Joe, he is the kind of person that is the glue for the entire peacekeeping mission. He has a warm and intelligent demeanor. He was the spirit of the place in this very challenging atmosphere.

What stood out to Stephen and Susan as they reflect on this episode:

Stephen talks about the uncertainty of beginning a career in peacebuilding and the difficulty of creating this international career. Towards the beginning of the interview, Joe talks about how he got into peacebuilding and how the conflict in the Middle East was being spoken about as a Holy War. This was a contradiction of terms for him due to his faith background. He talks about that background and experiences he has that drew him to a career with the United Nations in Sudan and then South Sudan. The next point that Joe comes back to several times is separation between the international peacebuilding organizations/the United Nations and the local population. For example, when the local leaders don’t show up for a meeting and the international partners think that they are disinterested in the process or lazy, but all these feelings get lost in translation. The local people have different priorities and needs. They might have basic livelihood needs that take precedence. Part of being a good peacebuilder is understanding these international contexts and priorities. The final point that Joe comes back to several times is thinking about what is a criticism of the United Nations in that they are sometimes isolated from the local populations, both physically and ideology. Local people see them in fancy cars and with more resources. The local population doesn’t see people who work for the United Nations as having the same interests as them. The questions to be asked are:

“How can we bridge these divides so that the mission of these groups become one? How can we indicate that our interests are the same so that these perceptions from local people don’t undermine the process? In what ways can the United Nations be better at engaging with local people?”

This is helpful for people looking to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the United Nations.

Susan speaks about her time in the United Nations mission in South Sudan before things really went downhill. She left the mission just before things really fell into chaos and there is a huge tension between people working there and wanting to keep themselves safe, but also wanting to effectively contribute to these projects.

Susan asks a question during the interview which is a great question to consider about these United Nations Peacekeeping Mission which is, “What is the opportunity cost? What about other actors? Could this process be more efficient?” These questions are often asked regarding the relevance of the United Nations and Joe answers it wisely. He believes that the United Nations in South Sudan could have prevented a genocide during the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in 2013/2014. We can’t know this for sure, but who else could have done this job? Foreign governments and the business community can’t do that kind of work independently, so this does really speak to why the United Nations is still so necessary.

Dr. Scilla Elworthy is coming for the next interview to discuss opportunity cost and her new book The Business Plan for Peace

This is a bit of an odd interview in that Joe and Susan continued to speak after the interview was over but this lead to some really fruitful information that Susan asked if she could include in the podcast. Joe really speaks to the realities of living life in one of these United Nations Peacekeeping Mission camps, particularly in South Sudan. He talks about the kinds of people who do this kind of work and “live in containers” and sleep in their clothes so that they are ready to confront an issue if it arises. Some people thrive in this environment, but it takes a certain kind of person. The more present everyone is and how well the project is managed will really make an impact in how effective the efforts are, but this is difficult to achieve. Susan uses the analogy of conducting an orchestra: Joe discusses how things need to be running smoothly within these projects and actors need to be working in harmony. However, senior management will often be looking outwards, towards external partners, instead of conducting the internal orchestra and paying close attention to local dynamics. If you’re interested in working on a peacekeeping mission, this podcast will be really interesting and informative for you.

Start of interview

Susan welcomes Joe to the podcast.

She asks about the process of Joe getting into South Sudan.

This is a long story. He grew up on the southside of Chicago in the United States and felt the need to pursue an international career to make the world a better place. He watched the evening news with his parents as a young child and heard about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East. This was described by the media as a “Holy War” which seemed contradictory to him. He thought if he could just sit down with these actors, he could explain this contradiction and get the actors to stop fighting. He is from a religious background and went to church and learned about God and Jesus as a child. These ideas started coming to him around the age of 12. People killing one another in the name of various gods is not what he was learning as a child.

These feelings put him on a “Crusade” to find out how to be in a position in order to help people in conflict. His first answer to this was to be the Secretary of State, but this did not seem like a reasonable goal for an African American due to the racial biases woven into past and present culture in the United States. When he saw an increase in representation in political offices, he began to think that it may be possible, but he did not want to be bound to the foreign policy pursued by the United States.

Susan says she had a similar contradiction in her own life because she wanted to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, but she didn’t like what they were doing.

This led him to the question of how one could become an “independent diplomat.” This led him to several conflict management and negotiation trainings and human rights education because he thought that these two disciplines would compliment each other. He pursued a career in public service working in the mayor's office in Chicago. He received a Bachelor’s Degree from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. He wanted to continue studying for a doctorate combining the fields of conflict resolution and human rights. This led him to the Netherlands and Italy to continue studying. He was organizing a training course in Italy where he met people working at the United Nations who appreciated his design of the course and asked him to consider a career with the United Nations. He was accepted to work in the training unit on a Peacekeeping Mission in 2006 to work in Sudan, later switching to the second mission in South Sudan.

Susan asks if he can paint the story of what it was like to be there for 10 years. Susan mentions that she has been to the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan several times and remembers Joe’s presence in the mission as the “connector.” Everyone seemed to know him and he seemed to be involved in everything.

Joe says that he felt fortunate because working in the training unit allowed him to interact with people from all over the mission. He saw new staff first and this allowed him to have so many relationships with people. He was the leader of the “inductions” which he took very seriously. He emphasized to newcomers that if it was easy, they wouldn’t be there. But, there is a network of support from colleagues in the field and they are expected to do good work. People were, in general, there because they wanted to make a difference.

The people there were truly a melting pot- people from all over the world, military and police staff. There were people from different cultures, religions, backgrounds, etc. all trying to learn how to interact with each other and work together. During a group discussion, one of the police trainers was sharing a frustration that they were training the local police in South Sudan and they would wait under a tree for the local police to show up to be trained. The police trainer expressed his frustration that he had come all the way from his comfortable home country to help, and the South Sudanese did not seem to be showing up and participating to the full extent. Joe validated these frustrations, but encouraged him to look from the other point of view. You are providing your knowledge and expertise, but the South Sudanese man they waited for might have a wife and children to feed and he’s not getting paid to show up for this training. This might never be a priority for him because he can’t afford it. The people there to “help” have to constantly challenge themselves to understand the priorities and perspectives of the members of the host country. Some of the humanitarian programs provide education, food, shelter, etc. while the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission is providing a “process” and dialogue that it long term. This lack of a physical immediate benefit that speaks to the locals’ priorities will make it difficult to get people to actively participate.

Susan asks for a clarification between “The Former Mission” and the South Sudanese Mission.

The United Nations mission in Sudan was formed in 2005 and the mandate was to support peace agreement between north and south. They had offices in the north and south. Their job was to help parties fulfill their commitments laid out in the peace agreement and to make unity attractive to both parties. The South would have a referendum to determine if they wanted to unify or if they wanted to become an independent nation. In 2011, they voted to be an independent nation and the United Nations mission was renamed “The United Nations Mission in South Sudan,” as opposed to the original, “The United Nations Mission in Sudan.”

Susan says that she always heard that the United Nations got “kicked out of Khartoum” (the capital of Sudan), which Joe says most people would agree with. Joe says that the “cartoon” government at the time did not see the United Nations as an unbiased body and that they believed that the United Nations was advocating for the independence of South Sudan. They needed to blame someone for this loss, so they blamed the mission.

The “Mediator,” in this case, the United Nations mission, was perceived as biased, which is a very difficult problem. Susan asks Joe what he loved about the mission and people he worked with on the mission.

Joe loved organizing training courses and watching the participants conversing with one another and realizing that they really understand the material. He loved the determination of everyone there who was so eager to make a difference, despite the obstacles. He loved the intermingling of people from all over the world that would never have come together unless they were all their for this purpose. This broke down many cultural barriers.

Susan asks what he did not love and asks him to give a picture of what it was like there.

The mission was a bureaucracy which he compares to his city government job in Chicago. You have a variety of individuals who are hardworking and passionate, you have those frustrated/disenchanted and burnt out, and you have those there just for the paycheck. His challenge was: how do we find one another? Connecting the individuals who are eager and those who still want to make an impact was essential. Bureaucracy and politics kept things from changing at any decent pace. This gets into the issue of support and lack thereof-- who do you blame? Is is New York (the location of the United Nations headquarters)? Sometimes at the headquarters level, people in the field think you are the problem. There is a lot of finger pointing instead of reflection on “circles of concern” versus “circles of influence.” Joe encourages people in these situations to ask: “What is it I can do in my own little circle?” This is often larger than you think. Finding like minded people and working together would allow them to all expend their circles of influence. More colleagues should use this method because this is how grassroots causes gain traction.

Things changed dramatically from when he started in 2006 in Khartoum where he had a comfortable apartment with many amenities. Often, the United Nations will begin a mission and peacekeepers will start arriving to a city or location and all the prices for regular goods in that area will skyrocket, creating huge issues for local economies. He was transferred to Juba in the following year. He was told he was lucky because they just started living outside of tents into small shipping containers. They had a single bed, table, chair, wardrobe, mini fridge, and he brought his own mosquito net. They had shared bathroom areas and he remembers waiting in line early in the morning with male and female coworkers waiting for a shower. As he stayed there, conditions gradually improved. These conditions are simply indicators of his previous statement: If it were easy, we wouldn’t be here. Peacekeeping missions are not in areas where everything is nice and comfortable. There is a balance you need to make with the country conditions and the comfort you are accustomed to.

Susan asks about the security situation. The last time Susan was there, the mission was invaded right after she left.

Joe’s friend was living outside of the mission and he said that “The best security is the local community.” A worldwide trend of the United Nations is to isolate itself from the host population. There are security reasons for why this happened, but it has consequences. The mission has its own water, electricity, food, that the local population may not have. The only time the local population sees the United Nations staff is when they are out in town spending money on things the locals can’t afford. In terms of reform for the United Nations, this needs to be considered because it  prevents the building of connections between the United Nations mission and locals.

Susan understands the South Sudan in one of the largest United Nations Peacekeeping Mission. There are billions of dollars going into this mission which is funded through United Nations member states. Each Member State pays a certain amount based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and United Nations Security Council members need to pay more. The largest funder is the United States. There is no option for what the Member States get to pay for, it goes into the United Nations budget as a whole.

What are Joe’s thoughts about the opportunity costs of this mission and what are the alternatives? Can this money be used more efficiently?

Ban-Ka Moon went to Juba on 3 occasions. One was after the conflict and one of his comments was the the United Nations may have prevented a genocide in South Sudan with the presence of the United Nations military. For the lives that were saved, this was money well spent. While Joe calls this a strong statement, he says that it could be true. The question then becomes: were billions of dollars needed to do this? Also, saying that it was the military that prevented a genocide undermines all of the local and non-military programs that were used to prevent genocide and keep peace simultaneously. People also argue that United Nations Peacekeeping Mission should only be used when there is peace to keep. If there is no peace, the missions should not be used. If there is no peace, do you just send in the military and call it something else? Maybe peace enforcement? After the condition is stable, then you can send in the civilian component.

People argue against this saying you need the military and civilian component at the same time because the civilian component is essential to the safeguarding human rights, civilian affairs, and facilitating the  disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process. This substantially increases the budget of these programs because the military has to be compensated and much of the materials and equipment have to be bought or rented. This wholistic, integrated approach is very costly and there is always the question of whether or not this money could have been used more effectively.

What were your impressions of other actors such as Peace Direct? What were your feelings about their level of progress and effectiveness when compared with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission?

Joe says that everyone has space to contribute and all actors, at a minimum, should know what the other actors are doing, even if they are not directly working together. However, many civilian, humanitarian organizations do not collaborate with the military component because they are neutral parties and if local people see them with the military, they will assume a certain bias. However, there are mechanisms in place on the ground where different non-governmental organizations will meet and discuss their independent initiatives and share information. For the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, the two central components are human rights and civilian affairs. They take a leadership role where they lead outside organizations and local civilian actors to work together and share information.

If Joe could hear the “whispers of the future,” and if we got really serious about creating a more peaceful world, what could the future hold in this realm, particular in South Sudan?

Joe refers to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror and uses this to talk about being a “reflective practitioner” which is something we don’t do enough of. This past year, he had the opportunity to reflect on time when he had recently shifted a leadership role and asked his new team to brainstorm their own ideas about training that really works. The United Nations requires them to do a great deal of mandatory trainings that may not be completely impactful. Joe was requesting that his team come up with ideas of more effective trainings they could implement. One of the members of his team asked: “Why are you asking me to think?” Joe was baffled by this question and the conversation with this team member did not go well, but when Joe had a chance to reflect on the situation later on, he understood why someone would say something like that. The people managing these teams on the ground are often not living the daily experience of local or average humanitarian workers interacting with local people and organizations daily. Joe says that this leadership is often subject to change, so humanitarian workers will adapt their projects based on the latest requests of whoever is in charge. There is not ample space for creative thinking-- it is more of simply implementing what your director wants from you. For Joe to create a space to hear the ideas of his team was unusual. After more consideration, Joe realized that he should have approached the situation differently and should have spoken to this team member one on one in a private conversation to address his concerns and fears to see how they could work through them together. There has to be a commitment from everyone involved of thinking: “What is it that I can do?” There is a lot of blame and self-pity, but each person should stop pushing the responsibility off to another party and start personally contributing to the greater good.

Susan says that these feelings are natural, but they don’t take us very far.

Joe discusses a program through Global Vision International, which started as essentially a therapy group of idealists and the premise was that they were disenchanted with the way the United Nations was living up to it’s values. The notion at the start was: How can we evaluate our own values to see to what extent we are living up to the UN’s values? This has been a great new chapter in values training and this is key to motivating people to succeed.

Susan asks what some of the values are the Joe sees diminishing

Peace, diversity, tolerance, accountability, transparency. Every organization in the world needs to hold itself accountable to these values.

Wrap up time. Add anything to the interview?

Joe doesn’t have a “greatest learning moment” but he did have his ideas about listening reaffirmed several times in his work. He uses the famous Native American quote (that Susan always thought was attributed to Thomas Jefferson-- go figure!) of “We were given two ears and one mouth so we could do twice as much listening as speaking.” For Joe, it was a wonderful gift for people from different cultures wanting to share their stories with him and how important it is to stop speaking and just listen. There are so many people out there who want to make a change and finding them and working with them is inspiring. In 2006, the camp at Juba was far from comfortable, but things are getting better now. Things do change, but the frustrating question for him is, “How much closer are we to achieving peace in South Sudan?” But this process only happens “shreya shreya” or slowly slowly.

Susan thanks Joe for his time and compliments his smile and constantly warm and comforting personality and the interview ends (but they continue speaking!)

They chat about how quickly the podcast goes and Susan says that this is frustrating because there are so many more colorful stories to be told. Susan asks what would he want to include if they could redo the podcast--

Concretely address the issue that the UN should be working as one-- UNHCR, UNICEF, etc. But there needs to be more unity in the organization. There are the humanitarian staff on the ground, there is international staff, domestic staff. There are all these divisions within the United Nations prevent the organization from getting the job done. They need to build common ground within the organization that is trying to build common ground.

Susan talks about a woman whom she met at dinner at Joe’s house in South Sudan. The woman was living in a rural area of South Sudan where there had been constant fighting. She was a humanitarian worker and she was living in her container in a heavy conflict zone. This seemed like a very difficult job but that she enjoyed it because there was a lot of adrenaline. Susan says that she remembers how grateful this woman was for her Kindle because it had a long battery life and she could read when she was stuck in her container for a long time and could not go out due to conflict.

Joe says that the last time he was evacuated, which was in 2016, he came across an old friend who was currently working in a similar camp is Somalia. The friend said that he sleep in his container every night with his clothes on because they never know when they are going to be attacked and they need to be ready to flee. This was fairy normal. Joe wondered how a person could even be healthy in that kind of environment. You’re always living under siege. The organization doesn’t take this seriously enough. The people working for the mission very have to face and deal with trauma constantly. Another thing people in the mission discussed was the concept of “going home” because many of them did not have a concrete understanding of where their “home base” really was. A lot of people felt angry with the “two UN’s,” one that also free mobility and the other that people feel stuck in peacekeeping and they can never get out.

Susan is always interested in the parallel system of 1. What’s happening with the intervener and 2. What’s happening with the outside system? There were a lot of ways that the mission couldn’t come together from the top to the bottom.

Joe says that this issue is all about communication. A found memory he recalls in 2007 in Juba and the mission was relatively small. Every Monday morning, they would meet at the cafeteria at 9 and the head of office would do an update in the life of the mission. The political affairs officer would let them know what was happening between the parties. The security people would give them notice of any criminalities and fighting. There were announcements of people coming and going and there was a family atmosphere. As the mission grows, this becomes more difficult. However, Joe thinks that, to some extent, an effort needs to be made to have these kinds of interactions. This could mean that the high level people on the mission could have “town hall” style meetings with the entire team every 2 or 3 months. However, this doesn’t happen because the high level staff get “too busy saving the world.” High level staff then will just tell the people under them what’s happening, but this information never makes it all the way down to the average, container living, humanitarian worker. So, many people are walking around the camp wondering what’s going on and why they are even there in the first place.

The focus of leadership is outside instead of really focused on their team.

Joe thinks it would be interesting for someone doing a communications study on the management of organization for them to look at peacekeeping mission. The staff is technically all informed via email of what is going on, but there is a lot of information and Joe’s impression is that no one really takes the time to read what’s going on. Most people don’t bother reading the broadcast because there is such a plethora of information that no one wants to read for an hour to find the one piece of information they are interested in.

Susan points out that, not only was this environment totally in chaos, but the organization structure itself was in chaos.

One of the activities Joe used when switching from the old mission to the new mission was having everyone read the mandate of the new mission. He broke them all up into groups and had them all read different sections. They then had to give a little presentation about what information was in their section of the reading and tell the group what their specific role is according to this section of the mandate. Susan say this is important for the staff to being to take their personal commitment to the mandate and the mission seriously. It’s important for each person to understand how their particular role contributes to the mandate specifically.

Joe also wanted to mention the “Conflict Competence Training.” This is the notion that the UN is mandating specific training for personnel but there is nothing related to training staff about conflicts that may arise in their everyday lives with colleagues. There should be a training in how staff should approach conflicts in their everyday work environment. There should also be staff that become “mini-mediators” who can help other staff members get through these conflicts. Joe had so much positive feedback and staff members asking for someone to mediate inter-staff member conflict. Joe hopes that the UN office in New York takes up the concept and moves this forward on other missions.

Susan thinks that if the UN can mediate the conflicts within itself, then it can  really begin to live what it preaches.

Stephen thanks the listeners for tuning in.

Contact Joe

You can contact Joe via LinkedIn.