Interview with Ala Almoman, the newly appointed Chef de Cabinet at the International Organization for Migration

Ala AlmomanMr. Ala Almoman was recently appointed as Director, Chef de Cabinet at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but before that he enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the United Nations in Geneva and various field missions. He is a hardworking man with a big heart. His office is like a museum with souvenirs and memorabilia from the different countries in which he has served, including photos with Heads of State, UN SGs (Boutros Boutros Ghali, Kofi Annan and Ban ki moon) and gifts from his colleagues, not to mention from the historical events at which he has been present, beginning with the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
Q : What is your background ?
I undertook post-graduate studies in political science and economics in Geneva and Lyon (France) in the mid-1970s. After that, I became acquainted with the UN diplomatic corps and began working with the Arab League. I spent 17 years with the Arab League before joining the UN in 1994. My first assignment was in South Africa from February to July 1994. It was a pleasure to be included in that mission. Working with the Special Representative, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, was an honour in itself.
After returning to Geneva, Mr. Brahimi was appointed Special Representative for Haiti and asked me to join him there, which I did in November 1994. The United Nations mission in Haiti evolved with four different mandates under four distinguished Special Representatives over a period of five years – and I worked through them all as the Chief of Protocol and Liaison in charge of External Relations.
In January 2000, I left Haiti and joined Mr. Jacques Paul Klein, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, stationed in Sarajevo, where I worked in the front office for three-and-a-half years as Chief of Protocol and Liaison. I was then appointed in July 2003 as the Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary-General’s Special Represent-ative for Western Sahara, Alvaro de Soto. After only one month, Mr. de Soto was asked by the Secretary-General to do some mediation work in Cyprus, and I then became the officer-in-charge of the mission before returning, in July 2004, to UNOG.
Q : Were these peacekeeping missions a success ?
Peacekeeping is very sensitive and every move is determined by the Security Council and by the Secretary-General in close concert with national actors. Success comes from this relationship.
These peacekeeping Missions were a success in implementing their respective mandates of the UN Security Council. There are many positive stories, but journalists, as you know, often overlook the positive events and focus on sensational issues, or on peace processes that have faltered. It is the hotspots that interest the media, not the success stories. For instance, South Africa was a very positive experience ; Mozambique was another success story ; Bosnia and Herzegovina ; Cyprus is going well ; Cambodia is a positive example ; in Latin America there is Guatemala and many others from 1948 to date. We proceed from peacekeeping to peace building and development and then we leave when the job is done. Despite what people say, the presence of the United Nations has contributed a great deal to global peace and stability.
Q : Do you think that the UN has lost goodwill ?
I don’t think that the UN has lost goodwill. The UN does a great deal of good – but people out there do not receive adequate information. They say : « Where is the UN ? » But you are familiar with the mechanism. It is the Member States and often the host country that decide what to do in a country, not necessarily United Nations’ peacekeepers or the Secretariat.
It is supposed to be the mandate that tells you what you can and cannot do. I can tell you from my personal experience that some peace-keeping missions have developed their priorities and programmes only after they have arrived in the host country.
For instance, military peacekeepers have built schools in the areas where they have been located. They have also attempted to print school books, always with limited resources in areas where the UN partners are not located. If a military force possesses a medical unit and that unit is not required to treat military personnel, they care for the local population.
We do these things when we are in the field and they are welcomed by the local population. They can see what the United Nations is doing. If there is the possibility of doing more on the social side, we would do it !
Q : Why aren’t these kinds of things promoted by the media ?
If you were to look closely at the websites of each mission, you would find descriptions of these activities. But, as I have already said, it’s not generally attractive for the media.
There are many things that we do in the field that are recognized by the local population. It is important for the peacekeeping mission that the local population recognizes it. It is an important job for information to reach not only the public but also the international journalists. I think that our colleagues in the field are trying to do their best and they place a lot of information on the web and work by interested journalists.
Q : Some people say that being in the field is when you really know that you are doing a useful job. Do you share this point of view ?
Actually, I would like to put it differently. In the field you can immediately see, relatively speaking, the results of your work, whether it is in a peace building or peacekeeping Mission. Meanwhile, in a duty station or at UN Headquarters you may not see the immediate results of your work. However, you have the exposure to political processes and colleagues from a wide range of disciplines, which makes this career experience invaluable. You merely work toward the success of the mandate of that mission. In duty stations, there is a general mandate, and the results are not as visible as the ones we see in the field.
Q : What do you consider to be your main achievements ?
I think my achievement is that the work in the various Headquarters departments or services where I have been located, or the peacekeeping operations where I have worked, have functioned smoothly and with high morale and teamwork. Even since my most junior days, I have shown that I can implement the visions — the mandate — of my superiors effectively and efficiently. My real achievement, if one can summarize it, is to have used effectively my accumulated and diverse experience, adaptability in all prevailing situations and, according to some, my foresight and intuition.
Q : You are of Iraqi descent.
I’m proud of being from Mesopotamia, which means « the country between the two rivers ». It is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and I’m proud to be Iraqi. I’m honoured to be Swiss too. I have three passports — one Iraqi, one Swiss, and one United Nations !
Q : One of these passports is neutral and another one is for service to humanity : the United Nations.
Before I joined the UN, I had published many articles in Arabic newspapers about the United Nations, not only because of my close proximity to, and contact with, the United Nations and its specialized agencies but because I was in charge of the Division of United Nations and International Organizations at the Arab League in Geneva. At one stage there was even an Arabic newspaper here in Geneva during that time. My purpose was to promote the work of the UN and its agencies, some of which were unknown to the general public. For instance, in those days the International Trade Centre (ITC) was playing a huge role, and I still believe that its work represents a considerable achievement. It operates in its field to promote trade in developing countries. It only has one meeting a year to adopt its budget. The rest of the time it works to carry out its mandate. Other articles were published at the time regarding ITU, ECOSOC, the UN Secretary General and others.
Other agencies, as you know, have a mandate split between implementing programmes and addressing political matters.
Q : Congratulations on your new position as Chef de Cabinet of the IOM. Does this mean that you will be in charge of administration ?
First of all, I would like to say that it was an honour that Mr. William Lacy Swing, the new Director General of IOM, appointed me to this position. Chef de Cabinet is a managerial position to assist the Director General to implement his mandate. The incumbent should not only have wide administrative experience and personal skills but also political acumen. Therefore it is not solely an administrative function, especially as there is already a Director dealing with Administrative Support. The Chef de Cabinet organizes the work with the other departments, in coordination with their respective Heads and all IOM colleagues, according to the Director General’s vision and instructions. He is the filter between the secretariat and the outside world — meaning Member States, our offices abroad (because IOM has 430 regional and national offices worldwide).
There is a lot of incoming information and requests for information. The Chef de Cabinet’s job is to organize it, and then to coordinate follow-up inside and outside the Organization… At the same time, the Director-General’s visions and instructions have to be implemented and information filtered to him. The appropriate information must go to the appropriate levels. As you know, 97 per cent of IOM staff is field-based and only 3 per cent at Headquarters (200 staff members). With my experience, in the field as well as at Headquarters, I think I can fulfil the tasks entrusted to me by the Director General. As you know, IOM works closely with the UN country team in the field and is partner of the UN in many fields, especially with UNHCR and the peace building process.
Q : So you will be one of the key players at IOM ?
It is a very challenging position, although I have been used to similar challenges throughout my career. As one of my UN colleagues said to me : « Ala, you are the example of mobility. » This was because, when I returned to UNOG, I had been moving from one position to another — from Director of Publication Services, to Chef de Cabinet of the UNOG Director General, to Director of Central Planning and Coordination Service of the Division of Conference Management and then I moved again in February this year.
I believe that, whoever is concerned, mobility has its merits and I also think of it as a challenge. It is not simply a question of moving from one place to another, but whatever the field of expertise there should be challenges — services, political, administration. Each of these challenges is important for career development.
Q : Now you are dealing with migration, one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century ?
More than at any other time in recent history – migration in its various forms is related in critical measure to labour migration and the global economy. This phenomenon corresponds to demographic, economic and labour market dynamics : the growing labour demands and deficits in industrialized countries due to ageing populations and dramatically declining birth rates, combined with rapid population growth and the search for employment in much of the developing world. Other factors drive human mobility, such as climate change, natural disasters, conflicts and instability. Moreover, the current global financial crisis adds further serious complications.
I knew IOM from my time in Geneva as a delegate and from time spent in the field. Now I am learning more about the Organization from the inside. As far as the mandate of the organization is concerned, we have a major challenge before us, but also a number of potential opportunities, in increasing IOM services to Member States despite economic austerity as Member States and other governments seek to address new economic realities. IOM is proud to support the international community in addressing the problems associated with migration and I am pleased to play my part in assisting the new Director General, Mr. William Lacy Swing, in implementing his important programme for the Organization.
Thank you.