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Alumni Interview with Zhicheng Ding

Interviewer: Emma Nijssen

Zhicheng Deng is a Senior Humanitarian & Emergency Affairs Program Officer at World Vision in Guangzhou, China. She graduated from the Graduate Institute in 2019 with a Master’s degree in International Affairs and a specialization in Global Security. She joined us on March 25th to share some insights from her experiences in the humanitarian aid sector in China. She also shared some words of wisdom to students wishing to pursue a career in humanitarian work anywhere in the world. We thank Zhicheng for her time and valuable advice.

1) Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you studied at IHEID?

My name is Zhicheng, I was born and raised in Guangzhou, a southern city of China near Hong Kong, and I did my bachelor’s degree in law here in my home city. In my final years of my bachelor’s degree, I went to Egypt, Cairo as a volunteer to provide legal services for refugees who would like to get their refugee status recognized by the UNHCR. This was my first work experience in the humanitarian sector. It was a 6 month experience consulting with the refugees, and then investigating their claims to submit to the UNHCR and related legal bodies. This experience was really what first got me out the door for my application for the Graduate Institute. After this experience, I joined the Institute as an MA candidate in International Affairs, with a specialization in Global Security. At that time I was still figuring out the humanitarian field, so I just chose courses based on my personal interests, very much focused on conflict. I took courses on political order in Africa, gender and international affairs, introduction to humanitarian law, and the negotiation techniques workshop. My first year was very much laying the basis for my future research, including quantitative and qualitative analysis skills. In my second year, I started to explore internship opportunities in the city. I started an internship with a small-scale international organization which focused on providing legal training for lawyers to equip them with the ability to represent marginalized clients. After that, I started an internship in UNAIDS. I did my thesis in security and the impact of US drone strikes campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan in achieving counterterrorism goals. Then, I came back to my home country and started my career as a humanitarian officer. The one thing I regret is not having much professional experience before taking the masters program, so I could not really have a very deep understanding of the issues. I feel like if I had a few years of professional experience under my belt, I would have benefited more from workshops.

2) Could you describe to us your current job at World Vision and what you do on a daily basis?

In China, there are a few big international organizations operating, and the rest are more small-scale organizations. I am in the humanitarian emergency affairs department, I’m mostly in charge of anything related to emergencies, for example disasters and the COVID19 response. I’m also responsible for coordination with other departments. Currently, I’m the project manager for our national COVID19 responses, including sectors like child protection, health, and MHPSS. In China, according to the law, you need to register in the province in which you’d like to operate. We are registered in eight provinces, and we have all sorts of programs there, from food and shelter interventions to child protection. Sometimes, if a disaster happens like last year’s flood in the Henan province, we will also respond and mobilize funding to respond to the needs of affected populations. So sometimes, we can also operate in provinces we are not registered in, but this would be only in very pressing cases. My daily tasks include capacity building activities for the frontline staff on disaster management, ranging from the preparedness phase onward through the entire disaster management cycle, including technical support to area programs that are doing risk reduction projects.

3) When you say “capacity building,” what does this mean exactly?

We adopt a very community-based approach: we have area teams in very remote rural areas in which we have deemed it necessary to have long-term development programs. For most programs that are this local, we also hire local staff who are close to the community. From our experience, we have identified that they need constant support and capacity building such as child protection: how might they identify violence, or child negligence by the family? We also have programs in schools, for example if schools need renovation of their toilets, we can equip them with more hand washing facilities. This means that local staff are actually managing various projects ranging from child protection to disaster management. We are the technical department, they need us to equip them better with the knowledge and skills needed in this field.

4) Could you give us an example of a way the local staff might be taught to identify violence?

In China, we are working with local organizations and actors. For example, China established a system which aims to have “child directors” in every village. These people organize activities for children in the village, and try to keep up with the most vulnerable children. We identify three groups of children to be the most vulnerable: first, the “left-behind children.” We call them “left-behind” because their parents have left to the big city to work, while the kids are left in the rural village with their grandparents. We identify great needs from these left-behind children, there may be some kind of violence or negligence from their grandparents, and there may be very strong separation anxiety among them. We have very strong programs for them to foster positive parenting and harmonious family relationships for these children and their family members. The second group is children living in poverty. For this group, we provide all kinds of livelihood support including agricultural production assistance and climate change production for local farmers. The third group is children living with disabilities. There are around six million people in China living with disabilities (PWD), so I think there is still a big space for us to promote their visibility, rights, and opportunities to fully fulfill their dreams.

5) What made you decide to move to Cairo and then Geneva? Was your decision motivated by your job entirely, or did you have other reasons for these decisions? And what made you return to your home country eventually?

For Cairo, I was always interested in Middle Eastern cultures since high school, so in my last year of my bachelor’s I decided to use my legal background and skills to see the world. I found this website called ReliefWeb, which promotes a lot of humanitarian job opportunities, and I ended up volunteering with one called St. Andrew’s Refugee Services. I totally 100% recommend it to everybody who would like to work with refugees because it’s really down to earth and provides direct services to asylum seekers in Cairo. There’s a massive population from Ethiopia, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, who need services from social support, to legal services, to cash, to everything. I would say St. Andrew’s is a really great organization, they really use most of their funding for the people they serve. I recommend it to everyone, my friends also all found it amazing!

As for Geneva, I came to the Graduate Institute because I knew Geneva is home to the headquarters of many organizations. It was great to study at this school with so many resources and opportunities to engage with academia and policy makers, it’s a really great school for people starting to step into this field. Like many students, I also worked with UN agencies, unfortunately unpaid. I would say that for the UN, your experience really depends a lot on your supervisors. It did not match my expectation, but for anyone who has extra cash, you can try it out.

I moved back to my home country because of the visa, it’s not easy for non-Europeans to stay in Geneva. Most job posts will ask you to have the right to work before you get the job, so it’s very challenging. At the time, it was COVID as well. I didn’t just want to continue being an intern any more, and this staff position in my home country opened up and I decided to come here and continue to be a humanitarian!

6) How would you say your time at the Graduate Institute helped prepare you for your current job? Did the IHEID network or career services help you find your current position?

I would say that most of my courses don’t directly contribute to my career right now, but they largely shaped the person who I am, and helped me to be more determined on the career path that I would like to pursue. I learned a lot from my courses about governance and data, for example, and even though I didn’t like every single course, some classes like the Arab and Israeli Conflict course really galvanized my interest in crises and humanitarian issues. I thought about being a security analyst at some point as well. I think I used the Career Services once to look at my CV, and I found my internship at UNAIDS via the job portal. But after that, I didn’t use it much because most jobs in Geneva (except for the UN) require a right to work and cannot sponsor a visa. I see that most of my classmates who stayed in Geneva are European.

7) What are the skills you acquired from IHEID that have been most helpful for your professional experience? Were there any specific classes or professors that have helped you prepare for your current job?

The basis would really be the research skills and critical thinking, and the attitude that there’s no right or wrong way to think about issues. I participated in a project about defending or opposing European asylum policies. These kinds of exercises helped prepare me to think about the root causes of issues. For example, people criticize refugees in European countries, right-wing French politicians oppose “étranger” in their country. But what do you think is the root cause of refugees who are so-called “making problems?” Is it because they are from different cultures? Or are they just criminals? Or is it because we don’t have a system where everyone has equal and dignified access to services? How can we make society welcoming to everybody, whether they’re Syrians or Chinese? When I come across any issues, I try to see the root cause and how we can directly contribute to that. It’s not about security, it’s about people and what we can contribute. This is a really important principle in humanitarian action, how to remain impartial, neutral, and human-centered. We need to focus on the needs of the people and the suffering of the people. Of course, not everyone at the Graduate Institute goes into humanitarian work. But you’ve really got to find your principle of your work, and what’s your main focus. For me, it’s always: how are the people affected, and what’s the root cause of the problem? I think the Graduate Institute prepared me to be a professional, and to have my own way of doing things. From all our courses, we learn that there are a lot of humanitarian issues. We will never lose our jobs as humanitarians, because there are always, always, crises. For centuries, we haven’t been able to create peace. So we should draw our attention back to focusing on the most pressing issues: people’s suffering.

I think the most brilliant course was the Gender and International Affairs course, the professor was really very good. Although other courses maybe didn’t touch me as deeply, doing the readings really helped prepare me for my career by contributing to my thinking and research skills and analysis, learning to go directly to the most pressing issue among hundreds of pages of readings.

8) A lot of students at IHEID are looking for internships/jobs now that the summer is almost here. Do you have any advice for students looking to enter the humanitarian field?

From my experiences, working in high-level organizations felt very distant to me. I would say that in humanitarian affairs there are two ways of thinking: in the headquarters you’ll do a lot of advocacy and policy analysis work based on papers. But many people say you really need to go into the field, to find out what the pressing points are and interview people on the ground. For me, the field work is really important, because I feel that if I hadn’t experienced any disasters, I couldn’t fully understand what the advocacy and policy is actually talking about. Student life is like an ivory tower in peaceful, rich Geneva, and sometimes you feel a bit too distant if you want to be a humanitarian. In the field you will encounter every day some challenges and restrictions in operation and implementation, whether it’s from COVID19, the government, budget limitations, or difficulty coordinating among staff. I would really encourage people who would like to do humanitarian work to have abundant field experience, to inform yourself how to bridge the gap between international policy mechanisms and local realities. The local staff often don’t understand why you have so many rules. Their most important focus is on how to get the job done. But as a technical support provider, we need to bring the best practices from other countries and policies and relate them to the local level. When you’re in the field, you need to listen. Don’t come in very intrusive, bringing your fancy international ideas. You need to listen to the local staff and their experiences. Be humble, and find a way to help them understand better what you are promoting in order to gradually adopt some of it to contribute to a better humanitarian outcome. It’s a long process and there will be many barriers.

It will be difficult to get your first job in the sector because organizations will demand some work experience. Try to do volunteer jobs first, you will learn a lot. Then use this to knock on the door of other paid opportunities. Also look into opportunities with UN JPO and UN YPP, depending on your nationality. Many of my friends are still with the UN because they started as an intern and eventually transferred to a staff position. But you have to get lucky because you never know whether your team will have the budget to retain you.

We thank Zhicheng for taking time to speak to us. For additional questions to Zhicheng, contact


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