02 March 2017
Category : Entrevista
We interview Javier Vega to learn about his experience on the African continent.
In our second article in the series on FIIAPP Expatriates, we interview Javier Vega-Barral, project officer of Application of the Rule of Law in the Horn of Africa and Yemen since 2016.
The objective of this project is to strengthen capacities and regional cooperation in counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, focussing on training of the State security forces and their relationship to the rule of law. The project led by FIIAPP, as the European Commission’s delegated entity, includes the participation of agencies from the United Kingdom, France and Italy, and enjoys the support of the Ministry of the Interior (Secretariat of State for Security-SES), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, and the Ministry of Justice.
We talk to him about the project and his personal experience on the ground.
How was your arrival in the country?
I had already been in Nairobi for work, but as part of a short mission. So I already had some idea of the new environment, but obviously that idea was just a small slice of what it really means to be living in Nairobi.
Despite having been informed about my new field assignment in advance, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something I needed to finish before departing. I left my family behind during the first months to prepare for their arrival, but in parallel I was deeply involved in the different project tasks.
I arrived at the Nairobi airport at night, with the project manager (from the Ministry of the Interior) waiting to pick me up. It was raining hard that night, a typical rainy equatorial night. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but it was the first and only night of torrential rains that I had experienced up to then. It marked the end of the “long rains” season, which was especially unrelenting in 2016. But since then, almost all precipitation has been sporadic and has not kept drought from having been declared recently in a good part of Kenya, including Nairobi.
In those first months, I devoted myself exclusively to setting up the project office, establishing relationships with institutions to reinforce the work started by the project manager. I spent my free time arranging my definitive living situation and preparing for my family’s arrival.
What was the hardest thing you faced upon arriving?
The work we do on the ground by definition requires us to be multitaskers. So, at the same time as I was working with the experts on the content of the project, as a FIIAPP representative my main responsibility was to set up the project office and maintain strict control over the allocation and use of project funds.
That task is not just logistical but also one that involves intense institutional relations work. Due to the very nature of the activities and of the project, it’s impossible to separate institutional and personal relationships.
The professional profile of the various people involved makes it a closed and restricted circle in which you have to generate a significant level of trust before the institutions we want to work with will open their doors to us. We can never forget that we are foreigners and that in a matter as delicate as counter-terrorism, establishing a relationship of trust is an urgent and key task for being able to implement what the EU has entrusted to FIIAPP.
Another factor to consider is the fact that the EU is a relatively new actor in the region in terms of security issues. To overcome this unfamiliarity with the EU, it was essential to deploy recognised experts. These experts are from their same professional world and are capable of sharing common experiences, but with different perspectives and approaches, and, ultimately, capable of providing added value to their daily work.
Lastly, I would highlight the fact that, as this is a regional project, we cover an area of 5.7 million km2 with a population of 250 million inhabitants with racial, ethnic and religious differences which are often a source of conflict. This work of forming personal relationships implies the need for direct familiarity with the region and the people, and for maintaining contacts over time.
Being located in Nairobi helps to maintain these contacts, the face-to-face aspect, which is so important in local cultures for generating the necessary bonds of trust, and it requires an absolute availability to travel in the region. Due to the region’s infrastructure, these trips can often turn out to be more gruelling treks that you can imagine.
And the easiest part?
I don’t think anything has really been easy, but it is true that we are seeing good acceptance and a positive first assessment of the efforts of the EU, through FIIAPP, and of Spanish public administrations and the member states involved in the implementation of our activities.
On a personal level, I have to say that a Spanish passport opens many doors, or at least keeps them from closing. The reasons are various. Without a doubt, the fact that we have not had a historic presence in the region, the image of our society as an example of coexistence and overcoming backwardness or limitations, and even the positive image associated with the athletic achievements of the last decade, which I call “sport diplomacy”, positively affect our image, and that makes it easier to approach third parties.
How do you rate the experience of working as an expatriate?
Personally, and while it sounds less glamorous, I believe that we expatriates are first and foremost immigrants and that, as such, we face similar situations regardless of the reasons we had for leaving our country. In turn, migration conditions today are totally different; communication media makes it so that, thousands of kilometres away, people can maintain relationships on an almost daily basis with the reality of their country of origin. The expatriate or emigrant becomes an expert on Skype, Whatsapp and FaceTime connections.
In turn, the Internet makes it possible to stay in contact with Spanish society itself. I think that is extremely important, as one of the risks of being far from Spain is that we concentrate on our daily work and forget that we also represent our institutions, and for this reason, it is essential to take the pulse of Spanish and European societies.
Professionally, being abroad is an experience that I can only recommend; it allows contact with other cultures, but also helps you to acquire the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, which on a professional level means you to have more rapid and flexible responses to the unexpected, especially when working in international or multicultural environments.
And how do you rate doing this through an organisation like FIIAPP?
Working with FIIAPP means having access to the best professionals in the Spanish public administration, and thereby strengthening the presence of Spain, even in places where we previously have not had a significant presence, but which are geo-strategically very important for the EU as a whole and therefore also for our country.
Re-establishing security in the Horn of Africa and strengthening the rule of law should not be considered remote matters, as the impact on Spain can be direct. To illustrate, the majority of maritime traffic from Asia passes through the Red Sea and the waters of the Horn, and places like Valencia and Barcelona are some of the main destination ports for these Asian goods. Likewise, we all have heard about the problems that affected the Spanish fishing fleet some years ago in the Indian Ocean and which led to implementation of Operation Atalanta. Piracy in the region is closely linked to the phenomenon of terrorism. Terrorist recruitment in the Horn of Africa is also worth highlighting, not only in order to operate in the zone but also in order to combat it in the Sahel, and Libya in particular. Therefore, the challenges facing the states of the region are major, which, no doubt, adds relevance to the support provided by FIIAPP.
We would like to know more about the human side of your experience. Is there anything else you want to tell us?
Apart from my activity in FIIAPP, I had the opportunity to become familiar with some associations that focus on promoting employment for single mothers. As is the case all over the world, children are always the most vulnerable members of society. But in Africa this situation is, if possible, even more severe. It’s not rare to see destitute five- to ten-year children wandering the streets. Their powerlessness makes them particularly vulnerable to all types of abuses, and begging becomes their principal means of subsistence. The factors that lead to this situation are various, but in many cases these are the children of single mothers with no employment prospects.
In the area of Kangemi, a slum area, there is an association that does noteworthy work to support mothers, but also children, by increasing household income. An association called Mama Africa started a sewing workshop for women to develop basic skills that will give these women access to employment and to financial resources. Thanks to the efforts of this association, their work can be purchased in a shop located in the Kangemi neighbourhood, and it is also starting to become available in several shops in Nairobi.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the sole responsibility of its author.