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Navigating Leadership in Humanitarian and Development Arenas: A Conversation with Anita Kiki Gbeho

Anita Kiki Gbeho, Deputy Special Representative in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, recently sat down with Scenius Hub's Nelson Kwaje for a discussion on her extensive career and the challenges faced by youth in South Sudan. With over 25 years of experience in strategic planning, coordination, and management in political, development, and humanitarian affairs, Gbeho's insights provided valuable guidance and inspiration for young leaders. The session was attended by over 100 youth from various stakeholder groups under the auspices of Dr. Ademola Olajide, the country representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in South Sudan.

The event featured showcases and presentations from youth groups supported through various UNFPA programs. Highlights included a presentation from the recently concluded Innovate Family Planning Bootcamp winner and an exhilarating boxing match by female boxers from the South Sudan Boxing Federation. These female athletes, who currently receive support from UNFPA, are advocates for transforming social norms and promoting gender equality by encouraging women and girls to engage in boxing.

Gbeho’s career with the United Nations began serendipitously. Originally from Ghana, she pursued a master's degree in international relations from the University of Ghana, Legon. She recounted her early days as a tour guide at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, a role that ignited her passion for international affairs. "As a tour guide, you had to learn everything about the UN," she said. "What grabbed me was the fact that it was about supporting people, about helping people."

Her journey from tour guide to influential leader in various conflict and post-conflict settings is a testament to her dedication and hard work. Gbeho has held significant positions, including Deputy Special Representative (Political) of the Secretary-General in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and Deputy Joint Special Representative of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). Her career also includes roles in Namibia, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, and Sudan.

In her current role, Gbeho wears multiple hats. She is the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, the Resident Coordinator, and the Humanitarian Coordinator. "I have the task of trying to bring together all the international community working here in South Sudan," she explained. Her responsibilities involve coordinating development and humanitarian efforts to support South Sudan's goals, a role she likened to "herding cats."

Throughout the discussion, Gbeho emphasized the importance of hard work and perseverance. "Do the best that you can, you will be noticed," she advised. She shared anecdotes from her early career, such as her experience in Sudan during a crisis involving 90,000 refugees. "My boss at that time said to me, 'You have one job and one job only, Kiki. It's to make sure that nobody goes 24 hours without food,'" she recalled.

Gbeho also highlighted the significance of preparation and taking risks. "Always be prepared because you never know when opportunity will come knocking," she said. She encouraged young leaders to "dare to be different" and not fear failure. Reflecting on her career, she admitted that there were moments of regret, particularly during the famine in Somalia. "We were slow to act," she said, expressing her guilt over the delayed response.

Gender and Leadership

As an African woman in a leadership position, Gbeho's journey has been particularly inspiring. She noted the challenges of being a woman of color in a predominantly male-dominated field. "When I started out, you wouldn't see a me. We just did not exist," she said. She urged young women to be ambitious and take their place at the table. "See yourself moving forward. Don't just wait, take that space."

While Gbeho has achieved remarkable success, she remains humble and focused on the future. When asked about her aspirations for higher positions, such as Secretary-General, she deflected the question with grace. Instead, she emphasized the importance of bringing others along on the journey. "As you step up, turn back, stretch out your hand and pull at least one person with you," she urged.

In the Q&A session, Gbeho addressed questions on how to effectively advocate for policies that support youth engagement and the evolving relationship between humanitarian aid and politics. She acknowledged the complexity of maintaining neutrality in highly politicized conflict zones but emphasized the importance of staying committed to humanitarian principles.

Anita Kiki Gbeho’s conversation with Scenius Hub provided a wealth of insights for aspiring leaders and humanitarian workers. Her journey from a tour guide to a senior UN official demonstrates the power of perseverance, preparation, and a commitment to making a difference. As she continues her work in South Sudan, Gbeho remains a beacon of inspiration for young leaders striving to create positive change in their communities and beyond.

Scenius Hub in Juba is a unique space dedicated to nurturing the potential of South Sudan's youth. This vibrant center fosters entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation among its more than 600 members. Recognizing the immense potential within South Sudan’s young population, Scenius Hub empowers them to become agents of positive change and contribute meaningfully to the nation’s socio-economic and political development.

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