Leading the orchestra | Bibi-Masumeh Eng, Chief of Staff

Bibi-Masumeh Eng, the UNMIL Chief of Staff. Photo: Albert G. Farran | UNMIL | 7 Feb 18

3 Apr 2018

Leading the orchestra | Bibi-Masumeh Eng, Chief of Staff

Ms. Bibi Eng, the Mission Chief of Staff, talks about her role in UNMIL, and how she has facilitated Mission activities as an orchestra conductor behind the curtain. A lawyer by training, she also has a degree in international relations and has served on four previous peacekeeping operations, as well as at UN Headquarters and in the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi.

Could you please tell us a bit about your background and how your prior work has shaped your experience in UNMIL?

I have a mixed background, which has played a constructive role in the Mission. I have legal training, and also a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University. I fuse the distinct systems of thought and action together. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I studied abroad twice, and spent 10 years in the Lycée Français, working with many communities, where I became used to hearing different viewpoints and approaches. In the UN, I have served in legal and political capacities, so I have brought all these experiences to this role. And by the time of my appointment as Chief of Staff, I had worked 10 years in Africa, which provided additional context.

I speak several languages, and come from parents raised in two different cultures and faiths. So I understand situations and perform my functions from a lens that is multi-cultural and multi-dimensional, not just political or legal.

UNMIL is the third peacekeeping mission where I have worked under the direction of Special Representative Zarif, so I know his abilities, values and approach – and I have also been molded by them to some extent. My familiarity with him, his style and his orientation helps facilitate mandate implementation.

I also worked previously in order postings with colleagues now in UNMIL, so I was familiar with their strengths and styles. All these factors have contributed to how I perform my functions at UNMIL.

What was your initial impression about Liberia?

I came to the Mission as Senior Political Affairs Officer/Deputy Chief of Political Affairs Service, so I got to know the country first and foremost through its politics. It was my first time working and living in West Africa, as the bulk of my experience had been in East Africa. I also tried to understand Liberia through its connection with American history, which I had learned in school, as well as within the context of the neighbouring countries and region.

" Walking in downtown Monrovia had a similar warm and historical feel, a city that had seen better times and where the stark differences of wealth were evident."

Monrovia struck me as having similarities with the inner city of Baltimore, where I studied and lived. At the time, Baltimore had a high crime rate, and low literacy and employment rates. Walking in downtown Monrovia had a similar warm and historical feel, a city that had seen better times and where the stark differences of wealth were evident.

At the Mission, I could see similarities with the UN missions in Kosovo (UNMIK) and Burundi (ONUB). When I joined UNMIL, most of the Mission leadership had changed, so there were new blood and fresh views. I was fortunate in this regard. While I have continued to learn and understand the Mission achievements since 2003, as with everything else, we are learning what hasn’t worked. The SRSG has had the drive to make up to the extent possible for what the Mission has not achieved, meaning that he has not only built on UNMIL’s achievements, but also actively tried to tackle, within our mandate, residual issues where we could do better. This has been very empowering to me and my colleagues.

Your behind-the-scenes position in UNMIL is not glamorous but clearly challenging, because you have been at the nexus of operational and substantive work. Could you give us a sense of what your role has involved here?

My role is to oversee and facilitate the internal management of the Mission on behalf of the SRSG. This oversight and facilitation extend to areas such as senior-level decision-making, mandate implementation by the substantive components, and mainstreaming of cross-cutting considerations, such as gender, youth, protection, environment, civil society, etc., all of which have been subjects of Security Council resolutions and presidential statements. I manage internal issues so that the SRSG can focus on external issues, especially good offices and peace consolidation. So knowing his priorities and style has helped to guide me.

I see the job as akin to that of an orchestra conductor interpreting scores on behalf of composers. Ultimately the UN scores are Security Council resolutions, but also UN leadership guidance, global policies and Member State positions. For this reason, I monitor political, policy and organizational developments, and identify emerging issues that may influence or even enhance our mandate implementation. The Security Council mandate is very political. You need to understand the positions and red lines of the individual Member States on the Security Council, regional organizations and neighbouring states, in order to gauge the areas of maneuverability. I consult and gather information, analyze, and make recommendations to the SRSG or senior management on possible strategies to advance our objectives.

Thus, one could say I interpret the scores to ensure an effective performance.

"I see the job as akin to that of an orchestra conductor interpreting scores on behalf of composers. Ultimately the UN scores are Security Council resolutions, but also UN leadership guidance, global policies and Member State positions."

One example is the Secretary-General’s focus on ‘prevention’ as part of the new peace and security architecture. Our SRSG has also been a big champion of prevention. I actively monitor discussions inside and outside the Mission, to raise opportunities for our good offices function to defuse tensions and prevent conflict.

Another emerging opportunity for peacekeeping is the environment. I am serving on the Environment Strategy Wider Impact Working Group of the UN departments of peacekeeping and field support, which is seeking to increase the level to which peacekeeping missions take into account the wider environmental impact of their deployments and attempt to deliver a positive legacy. We have a variety of people who are engaged in this working group, such as civil affairs chiefs and administrators from different missions. I am particularly interested in the nexus between environmental degradation, natural resources and conflict, and how to better address these issues as a Mission together with the UN Country Team.

This all led me to identify a cross-cutting opportunity, namely food insecurity and the resulting conflict around fishing in Liberia. Local, artisanal fishermen run into conflict with foreign mega-trawlers that take advantage of weaknesses in enforcement by the Liberian State. The artisanal fishermen are using poor fishing gear; their communities have primitive fish processing techniques; and the limited catch does not reach markets and provide livable wages.

Believe it or not, much of the fish here is imported, although we are sitting right on the water. With background from civil affairs colleagues, I came up with the idea for a programmatic project to assist the relevant local institutions and communities in utilizing their resources. The SRSG liked the idea.

"These activities will be occurring in some of the most disadvantaged communities of Monrovia."

The UNMIL Peace Consolidation Service reached out to civil society organizations with expertise in fisheries, cooperatives, and regulation, and several were interested in the concept from their different angles. The Office of SRSG reviewed the concept and guided the development of the project, called ‘Enhancing conflict prevention and peace consolidation through increased food security in the fishery sector,’ which was eventually recommended for approval by UNMIL’s Project Review Committee. The project aims, broadly, to build the capacity of artisanal fisherman and fish processors, who tend to be women, to run their own enterprises; it establishes artisanal fishermen cooperatives to manage landing sites and generate income from the related fees, while also building social cohesion; and it trains Bureau of National Fisheries staff to support these structures. There are also environmental and sustainability aspects that our civil society partners are weaving in. It is a big project of around US$600,000.

These activities will be occurring in some of the most disadvantaged communities of Monrovia. They are often locations of unrest, such as West Point, where people are losing land to the sea due to erosion. I am very proud of the multi-pronged and cross-cutting nature of this project to the benefit of the Liberian people, thanks to programmatic project funding. These are activities also in line with the Secretary- General’s Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism.

"These are the ‘newer’ peacekeeping activities, building peace not only by addressing root causes of conflict, but also by empowering the community to improve its situation. These are broader and deeper prevention activities than traditional military peacekeeping."

These are the ‘newer’ peacekeeping activities, building peace not only by addressing root causes of conflict, but also by empowering the community to improve its situation. These are broader and deeper prevention activities than traditional military peacekeeping.

A parallel area of interest is a mission’s socio-economic impact on the host country and the positive legacy we can leave in this regard. This is not just a matter of the infrastructure that we build for mission activities: it should involve the substantive activities as well. I have combined this interest with my lawyer’s risk management background to integrate socio-economic and environmental risk considerations into our projects, both programmatic and quick-impact/confidence-building. In consultation with the Peace Consolidation, Human Rights and Gender sections of the Mission, the Office of SRSG developed the Environmental and Socioeconomic Sustainability Review Framework for UNMIL Projects and Activities. This was based on UNEP’s Environmental, Social and Economic Sustainability Framework, established in 2015.

This framework also fulfills the UN peacekeeping requirement, under the Mission Environmental Action Plan 2017-2018, that project proposals include an assessment of potential environmental impact. This plan also emphasizes the need for integration of local cultural awareness and respect as well as protection of cultural rights into our activities. The impetus came from the UN Mission in Mali, which has a mandate to protect cultural heritage. Although Liberia cannot be compared with Mali, with its unique experience in terms of conflict affecting cultural heritage, we can still apply good practices where relevant.

So, the Sustainability Review Framework is a risk management tool which allows the Mission, in particular the substantive components, to identify risks of harmful environmental and socio-economic impacts of our activities on communities, and remedy them in the project design and implementation phases, or turn them into opportunities for positive impact. By its nature, using this framework requires increased consideration of cross-cutting issues, consultation with stakeholders, and a rights-based approach in keeping with the organization’s Human Rights Upfront policy.

Residents of the urban slum of Wespoint,
Monrovia live beside an erosion prone shoreline
contained only by sandbags.
Photo: Bibi Eng | Dec 16

The framework also builds in more visibility for our projects, which touches upon another area that I oversee, strategic communications and public information. It enables a nuanced, holistic approach to project implementation. This framework is in its first year of implementation, and I am proud of how far we are able to progress with it, even though more could most certainly be done.

What would you identify as most notable achievements you’ve made here that you feel proud of?

A lot of the work I do is internal. Unlike political and civil affairs officers, I am not on the front lines of the Mission interacting with Liberian communities, politicians and Government officials. Instead, I enable those interventions to happen by coordinating the work of the substantive components and facilitating their operational support – and helping direct projects to serve the Mission’s good offices and advisory work.

I have also tried to integrate my planning and legal experience along with cross-cutting considerations toward enhancing our impact by means of effective project review. To do that, we developed the SRSG’s Guidance on Developing Programmatic Funding Projects for the FY 17/18, based on our lessons learned. This Guidance requires identifying implementing partners with the greatest comparative advantage, as well as capacity, in executing projects. From my experience in UNEP where I worked with many project-related documents, I have been able to assist the Mission in implementing guidelines to run more effective projects. Developing and implementing programmatic projects is new to peacekeeping. We stipulated the need to show in the project template the link to our mandate budget goals, and the national priority that would be addressed. The sustainability of each project must be detailed: what are the costs over its life cycle, and how can we get the best value for the money received? If we are working with an international civil society partner, we may insist that a national partner also be involved. This is in line with Security Council resolution 2282 (2016) on the peacebuilding architecture, which stressed the role of civil society organizations in advancing efforts to sustain peace, and the need to build close strategic and operational partnerships with them. All these factors serve to maximize the impact and benefit to Liberians.

Thus, we are seeking to effect the recommendations of the report of the High Level Panel on Peacekeeping Operations (HIPPO) of 2015, which set some new directions for peacekeeping. An important element was the acknowledgement of the need for missions to help increase the capacity of civil society as much as possible before they leave.

From the Mission’s inception to the present, while it has been working on security and democratic transitions, what would be the most notable and significant achievements so far?

" From my perspective at the end of the Mission, I would point to promoting a culture of dialogue, peace and reconciliation; enabling a degree of decentralization; and strengthening rule of law institutions and community-based initiatives."

That is for those who have been studying peacekeeping and Liberia to answer comprehensively. From my perspective at the end of the Mission, I would point to promoting a culture of dialogue, peace and reconciliation; enabling a degree of decentralization; and strengthening rule of law institutions and community-based initiatives.

There are still areas that need to be tackled by the international community which will remain in Liberia after the departure of UNMIL. While there are always areas where a peacekeeping mission can do more, I would say that UNMIL has achieved a relatively fair amount, particularly in helping rebuild a country after 13 years of civil war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and even more rape, where very little was functioning, as well as help it to turn into a viable state capable of resolving its own problems, most recently an electoral dispute. Liberia’s advances are attributable to the collective efforts of the international community, the Government, local civil society and the Liberians themselves.

One of the key functions of your position is to set standards in staff behaviour, to implement and enforce UN staff policies. Can you talk about your role in these areas?

We try to ‘lead by example.’ I personally don’t like to do anything that I would not approve of in others. I am obviously talking about a broader context of conduct here, and while I do not want to underplay our zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), I believe that there are or should be zero tolerance for some other inappropriate behaviours of international civil servants. I supervise and work closely with the Conduct and Discipline Team on UN guidance on “outside activities,” as some of these activities can serve to compromise the Mission’s impact.

In terms of SEA, I have fostered synergies in support of the Secretary-General’s new approach to victim protection. As a former legal officer, I have advocated for the Organization’s immunities, and I understand their necessity and purpose. At the same time, I am equally convinced that those negatively affected by our operations should be protected. Thus, the theme of the socio-economic impact of the Mission’s activities reappears.

I guided our conduct and discipline colleagues on the development of quick-impact projects in support of communities in which some victims of SEA by Mission personnel live – they are usually located near our camps and bases. Let’s not forget their vulnerabilities, and the background to how they ended up as victims. Many in these vulnerable communities are effectively illiterate, and these projects aimed to provide basic trade and business skills for the participants to be able to form cooperatives and small businesses in tailoring, baking and soap-making, so that they can sustain their lives with their dependents. These dependents sometimes include children born out of sexual involvement with members of our contingents.

"I refer to them as survivors so that they don’t continue to see themselves as victims. The project allows these individuals to build confidence to proceed with their lives, by improving their skills and livelihoods."

I visited some of these communities and met with SEA survivors. Despite low levels of formal education, the leader of the women affected by SEA was so articulate about their needs. I refer to them as survivors so that they don’t continue to see themselves as victims. The project allows these individuals to build confidence to proceed with their lives, by improving their skills and livelihoods. We also hope to follow it up with a literacy project financed by the recently established Secretary-General’s Trust Fund, which UNESCO will take lead on after UNMIL’s departure. The idea for this project was triggered when one of these women stepped up and asked for skills to be able to help with her child’s homework. I view this project as a positive outcome of a situation resulting from SEA. Horrible situations do not need remain or end horrible.

Do you think that other misconduct issues are somehow ignored because of the attention and strong messaging against SEA by the Secretary-General?

I worked as legal officer with various misconduct issues for many years. I was always guided by thinking about what types of behavior as an organization we would wish to encourage. Conduct that is pursued in harmony with, or in furtherance of UN policies and mandates, is generally good. As long as one doesn’t get involved in political positioning or an activity that would call into question one’s impartiality or interfere with the performance of one’s functions, pursuit of activities in support of UN global principles and policies should be encouraged.

Two youths hang from the side of an
artisanal fishing boat in Monrovia.
Photo: Bibi Eng | Dec 16

On the other hand, I try to discourage engagement in activities which do not represent well the conduct of international civil servants and the Mission in general. I tend to be sensitive to the use of power within the organization. I am aware that some people are using power in very subtle ways for their own personal or even private benefit. I don’t tolerate that well. Working closely with the Director of Mission Support, I aim to decrease the opportunities for fraud. As my grandmother used to say, “Lock your doors and put away your knives so your neighbor cannot become a thief.”

 have an open-door policy. As the Chief of Staff of the Mission, I have encouraged personnel to feel comfortable to raise things with me. Thus, I try to project a balanced approach, involving a large amount of confidence and clarity. One cannot abuse trust within the organization and expect to prevail.

There are misconduct-related issues in the Mission beyond SEA to which I like to bring ‘consistency’ in dealing with. Human resources management at Headquarters tends to have a view driven by UN Dispute Tribunal judgments, and not by the need to effectively manage personnel on the ground. It is shaped by risk aversion and not by organizational effectiveness. Ultimately, news of punitive measures or lack thereof go around in the mission, and a great deal of resentment builds up in personnel when they, from their viewpoint, see inconsistency in the treatment of misconduct. People are imaginative, and personnel come up with all manner of reasons to explain outcomes, and the reasons are not always justified. But perception is key, and personnel don’t necessarily want to hear about legal intricacies. They see some bad apples taking advantage of the system and getting away with it. So that demotivates, and in an environment when you need all hands on deck, such a state of affairs is not ideal. Therefore, where we can, we push for consistency and fairness in the treatment of misconduct.

UNMIL has made headlines with SEA scandals: can you talk about an experience you have faced that has risked the reputation of the Mission and potentially affected its ability to function?

UNMIL has dealt with conduct issues from SEA to financial fraud. Often the absence of ethical conduct in one area is tied to the same in another. I started my work in the Organization dealing with internal justice disputes and misconduct cases. Fortunately I had supervisors who approached matters seeing the big picture in organizational policy and messaging on matters of misconduct – not just seeing each case individually. So, we do our best to hold personnel accountable, and mitigate SEA’s negative impact, particularly on those individuals who were directly harmed. As the Mission has been closing, we have reached out in the regions where we have already closed our offices to ensure that we have missed no victims. Some remaining ones do come forward with information, and we provide psycho-social and legal support to them as required. If we are able to link the alleged perpetrator through a name or picture, we notify UN HQ which contacts the Member State whose contingent committed the abuse to request investigation. There are positive outcomes from these efforts. My focus now is to minimize any harmful impact towards the end of the Mission’s mandate, which should also feed into the legacy of the Mission.

What sort of other work are you involved in?

Strategic communication and public information can be very beneficial to the perception of an organization. Specifically, I consider UNMIL Radio to have played a very important role as a communication tool and also by building the capacity of local journalists but also the public who have been engaged listeners. In anticipation of UNMIL’s closure, we launched the programmatic project ‘Operationalization of the ECOWAS Radio’ to support the transfer of UNMIL Radio to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which intends to expand it into a regional radio station, while hopefully enabling our experienced national staff to continue at the station. In the past, UN missions have either closed down their radio station, or turned it over to national governments with mixed results. Building on lessons learned, we are banking on this transfer being sustainable, since a regional radio was mandated by an ECOWAS Summit decision of over 15 years ago, and their Member States have already committed to supply radio frequencies and towers. Long-term funding options are being pursued. I am pleased that the SRSG was able to help support this request by facilitating approval from UN Headquarters and the Liberian President. This is where the SRSG’s vision and experience in heading public information also became salient.

In terms of perception of the Mission, I have tried to bring synergies and cross-cutting considerations to my management of strategic communications and public information. I have tried to maximize the use of our communications capacities, including social media in support of our activities and messaging. Social media has been somewhat neglected in our organization, and we should and could do more at the mission level. Many Liberians have smart phones, and many are on Facebook. So I have encouraged our public information staff to increasingly promote our work and messages on various social media. I have also encouraged substantive section heads to provide information on the positive impact of their projects so that we can share it – not just to promote our work, but more importantly to inform of the existence of a service, to diffuse tensions, or to educate on political, civil, social and economic rights.

It is important that the population become familiar with the fruits of advancement, as well as the nature of progress itself, which is not always linear. Communications is also an important element of the Mission’s project review. For example when we develop a handbook for a professional practice, we ensure that it is made broadly available, including by uploading a PDF version onto our website and social media.

I learn so much from media, through specialized newsletters, in-depth stories, analytical pieces, blogs, interviews, social media posts, etc. In Liberia, we had to go back to basics, to personal outreach to many communities which had no media as we know it. I think that a lot more can be done at all levels of this society with communications. It is important to have this dialogue and information flow. We are a communicative species, and it is through communication that we can solve differences.

You are closing a 14-year-old Mission, which has been successful. At the same time, there might be areas where the Mission was unable to achieve its goals. What would be some issues that UNMIL could have approached differently from the very beginning?

I have focused on achieving with the score I was given to conduct until the end of the Mission. Everyone had to deal with certain challenges during the time she or he served, including limitations in the mandate, capacity, support, and so on. I was fortunate in this particular role, as I have had the support of many colleagues, and from my boss. In the course of any mission, there are challenges in getting buy-in.

Due to their coordination and facilitation role, it is important for chiefs of staff to be strong. I consider that my own varied background has helped me perform this function. The Chief of Staff must have the trust of colleagues generally and particularly of the Head of Mission; she or he should have a certain number of years of experience within the Organization so as to know the UN’s benefits and limitations. I would also argue that having a vision is advantageous.

In this drawdown mission, the military and police presence has been reduced. What are your main challenges?

Security responsibility was handed over to the Government in 2016, so we see a very low level of our military and police presence. What we have focused on recently is good offices, and capacity-building. We have done our best to ensure a smooth handover process. Within the Mission, I have done a lot of facilitation in this regard. If the chief of staff cannot facilitate, at least in this organizational setting, it would impact mandate implementation.

I must emphasize the facilitation aspect of my role. I endeavour to keep processes oiled, and maintain relationships which will at times require a form of internal ‘shuttle diplomacy’ between support and substantive or military and civilian components, to explore solutions. Such facilitation may require firmness to allow for flow in certain activities. It’s not appreciated by all at all times, but I am not here to be popular but to exercise a particular function.

Any unfinished work you can think of?

There are certainly things unfinished, but I am only able to be realistic about my role. I have facilitated the executive direction and management of different pillars, and provided guidance and support to enable more effective substantive product and service delivery in the sections’ respective areas. In short, I facilitate the ability of the organization to maximize impact within the organizational frameworks. I feel I have in a very small way contributed to Liberia’s development, which will have to be a long-term endeavour.

You are part of the closing team of one of the largest missions deployed by the UN. What is your sense of confidence in the future of Liberia, do you have hope?

Yes. The outgoing Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, who has led the Mission’s peace consolidation work, is expected to be leading the UN Country Team presence, and will accompany the new Administration in Liberia. The Mission left a lot behind. Obviously there is more to do. It is also up to the Liberians to remain engaged, and we will continue to support them in doing this till our departure.

What recommendations do you give to internationals who work here?

"In back offices, one might feel disconnected from one’s impact on society. But the individual impact we in the Mission have tends to be very positive."

I recommend not to become disconnected or disillusioned. In back offices, one might feel disconnected from one’s impact on society. But the individual impact we in the Mission have tends to be very positive. I say so not based only on my experience in Liberia, but also in other missions. One can talk to local individuals and learn how they view the UN, in terms of the impact on individual or societal levels. It is important to have this interaction to know the various perspectives of the local population. I hope and wish our languages, interactions, and our acts generally are a source of inspiration and learning for our hosts, as we come from so many different backgrounds and provide varying perspectives to approaching things. In my view, this impact tends to be underestimated and undervalued.

I’d like to ask about your personal commitment: what does the work of the UN mean to you?

I feel most comfortable being part of this culture and its end goal. I am not saying all mandates are 100 per cent correct, but I am referring to the motives of the Organization. Ultimately between what the UN Charter provides, what the UN’s various purposes are, and what we can do individually in our functions, we collectively in the UN can bring many benefits to the table. I worked as a lawyer in the private sector once. I did not have the same sense at the end of the day going home, that I was contributing to overall benefit of the society.