Ameerah Haq: ‘I’ve Had a Great Run — 40 Years’

Ameerah Haq
Ameerah Haq, who is in charge of peacekeeping field support for the United Nations, visiting Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in 2012, above. After nearly four decades, Haq is retiring from the UN, but she is helping to lead a high-level panel review of UN peacekeeping operations through the spring. UN PHOTO

Ameerah Haq, who will serve as vice chair of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s newly appointed high-level panel reviewing United Nations peace operations, has strong views on putting torn countries back together. Haq, a UN official about to retire after nearly four decades in the organization, began her career in the farming fields and villages of Asia and later the refugee settlements of Africa, learning what works in basic development, or doesn’t work, before she moved into conflict resolution and political leadership in peacekeeping missions.

Achieving long-term peace relies on linking security with the improvement of people’s lives, she said in a recent interview at her office in UN headquarters. Going into a peacekeeping operation for the long haul with commitments to stick with a mission and not to end it prematurely should be expected of all relevant players involved, including the Security Council, which sometimes cuts corners to save money; UN member governments skeptical of nation-building; missions on the ground and voluntary donors to projects not covered by peacekeeping budgets.

“Otherwise what happens is that the country will just revert back into conflict,” she said.

Haq added that she will urge the review board — formally called the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations — to think long-term as its 17 members conduct the first thorough study of UN peacekeeping in 14 years. That earlier panel, whose last, bold report was published in 2000, was led by Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who was for years the UN’s top negotiator and leader of numerous UN missions, among them in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The UN now has 16 peacekeeping operations around the world, with 122,485 people deployed, more than 100,000 of them in uniform as troops, police and military observers. It is expected to operate on a current annual budget of just over $7 billion, a pittance compared to most member nations’ defense spending.

Never far from controversy, UN peacekeeping has many critics who see human-rights abuses by peacekeepers, inept field commanders, too-cozy relations with oppressive governments and a past record of insufficient or tardy responses to acute crises. In most cases, the UN peacekeeping department has countered by pointing out that it must have the backing of host governments to deploy a force and has little or no control over the behavior of battalions sent as peacekeepers from the security forces of various nations — a source of income for poorer countries. Peacekeeping is sometimes seriously constrained by limitations on personnel and funds imposed by the Security Council. Debacles in Bosnia and Rwanda are prime examples.

Haq, who has been the under secretary-general in charge of peacekeeping field support since 2012, will work alongside José Ramos-Horta, the peace-review panel chairman. The two got to know each other well during the three years from 2009 until 2012 when Haq led the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (Unmit) and Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner, was the Timorese president.

Haq has led an international life since childhood, absorbing new cultures and lessons as she moved from her earliest school days to UN assignments in Asia and Africa. Born into a Muslim family in Bangladesh (then still East Pakistan), she briefly attended a school in Dhaka run by American missionaries — Sisters of the Holy Cross — who felt they could not offer her enough to meet her potential and persuaded her parents to transfer her and her two sisters to a better school in the Indian hill station of Shillong, in Assam state, run by Irish Catholic nuns of the Loreto order. “At that time on the subcontinent the best schools were these missionary schools,” she said.

Haq said she thrived on the Loreto Convent boarding-school education and its setting. “Of course, Shillong is   beautiful, a picturesque town,” she said, recalling long evening walks in the hills. “You were amongst friends all the time. The climate was great, so there was good healthy living as well.” She also remembers how the experience became a formative one in her life.

“I think who I am was probably shaped a great deal by that school experience,” she said, adding that being away from her parents from age 6 for nine months at a time taught her independence.


 

 

“To a certain extent, of course, it was a Western upbringing. We all became voracious readers, so there were many different things that influenced us. I think it opened up a lot for me. I imagine that had I grown up at home, in Dhaka society, I’m not sure that I would have been as open to these ideas, concepts — the confidence in yourself, saying I can do this.”

After finishing school in Shillong, she spent two more years of further secondary education back in Dhaka at the American college run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who had earlier recommended the Loreto school to her parents. She began to think about going abroad to finish her education.

“Initially, I thought I wanted to study law, in the UK. But with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, I started in college studying psychology and sociology and I was quite intrigued. I started writing to American colleges to see whether I could get a scholarship because my parents couldn’t have afforded to send me there.

“A tiny little women’s college in Ohio responded and said, Yes we are ready to give you a scholarship,” Haq said. “It was called Western College for Women, in the town of Oxford, Ohio. So that’s where I finished my undergraduate studies, and then I came to Columbia and NYU and did two graduate programs. That college in Ohio was very interesting because it was 400 women, and 80 of them were foreign students. It was really a small community of scholars, and I think it was the best way for me to have made that transition. If I had arrived straight into New York City I probably would have pedaled right back.”

While completing her first graduate degree at Columbia University on community organizing in the school of social work, she did internships with the New York Urban League in Harlem and the American Council for Nationality Services, working with immigrant groups. She was struck, she said, by the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of some of the programs that she saw that were funded by federal grants, and decided to go to New York University for a degree in business administration.

It was there that she turned her focus to international development and, in 1976, saw a notice announcing that the UN was interviewing on campus. Three interviews later, she had a UN job, and was sent straight to Indonesia as a junior officer in the UN Development Program.

Two years later, Haq was transferred to Afghanistan to be assistant resident representative during a time of political turmoil and a Soviet invasion. After assignments in New York in the 1980s for the UN Development Program, including as desk officer for Thailand, Myanmar and Bhutan, she returned to Asia in 1991 as the program’s resident representative in Laos followed by Malaysia, from 1994 to 1997. In 2000, Haq was appointed deputy special representative of the secretary-general as well as UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator for Sudan.

Haq recounts lessons she has learned about dealing with people whose lives have been disrupted by conflict, which breeds not only displacement and flight as refugees search desperately for help, but also a loss of culture, livelihood and purpose, fueling anger among youth and domestic violence in the home. A peace agreement cannot undo these tragedies overnight.

In Laos, she saw disoriented ethnic Hmong being returned from refugee camps in Thailand, where they had spent years or even decades after the Indochinese wars. “I remember a scene vividly,” she said. “We had gone up to the mountain area where some of the Hmong had returned. We had done a mulberry project — growing mulberries, then silkworm cultivation and then making silk. I still see the expression on one’s woman’s face. She came to me clutching cash, and she said, ‘This is the first time I’ve had cash in my hand.’ It had taken four years for the project to begin paying off, but change had come.”

What struck Haq was what it meant for the Hmong to return to rural Laos after years in refugee camps.


 

 

“They grew up in a camp environment, in a camp economy, and a dependence on services, and then we resettled them back to their agricultural land and they knew nothing about agriculture,” she said. “It took a long time to convince them that this was good and it was going to bring a means of livelihood for them, rather than what they were used to, not only in the camps but predating the camps: going out and foraging for food and killing some wildlife. It was mainly a barter economy, and they would trade skins for oil or sugar or something like that. All of a sudden, there was this concept of ‘I’ve got cash and this is going to buy me something.’ To me, it’s the ability to stick with it till they experience that moment.”

It had taken a long time, Haq said. “There was a lot of resistance from the people. They didn’t even know what a mulberry was. The community organizers and others systematically were going there day after day after day, so you have to stick with it; you have to stay with it.”

Ameerah Haq. BLAGJOC GRUJIC/UN PHOTO
“Time and money are often what post-conflict development experts lack most,” Ameerah Haq said in an interview. The scene above, with Haq at the center, is on the tarmac at the Gao airport in Mali.  BLAGOJE GRUJIC/UN PHOTO

In Timor-Leste (formerly the Indonesian-occupied region known as East Timor), domestic violence was the dominant civil crime after the end of a battle for independence. “I think this is an element of post-conflict psychology,” Haq said. “Men who have fought, running a command and so on — suddenly the adjustment back to domestic life is taken out on the women. If the food isn’t ready, beat up the wife. If they don’t have money for the food, beat up the wife. They can’t make the transition. It takes time.”

Time and money are often what post-conflict development experts lack most. The problem is built into the system, Haq said.

“If the Security Council decides to have a peacekeeping operation, it’s [funded by] assessed contributions, so member states are assessed the amount and they pay,” she said. “As head of a peacekeeping operation in Timor-Leste, I didn’t have to worry about raising funds — it all came as part of assessed contributions. But when I have been the head of UNDP programs, I was spending maybe 70 percent of my time just raising the resources because voluntary funding is what it is, and so unless you make a compelling case as to why a particular donor should support that project, you don’t have the staying power to see it to its successful conclusion.”

“You have to build up capacity,” she said. “You have to make sure that the services are there. But when the donors are giving voluntary funding, overnight you’re supposed to have transformed a health delivery system when you don’t even have sufficient water sanitation engineers in the capital. In Afghanistan, I think that at the time we went there were like four water sanitation engineers in the country.”

“If people are not going to get the services that they need, they’re not going to get the jobs. That is a very important element of conflict prevention. I believe firmly that if people had jobs, and if people had livelihoods, they would have the ability to concentrate on whether their children were going to get educated, what path they are going to follow or whatever else.” Without jobs, without a future, she said, the young are “disgruntled, frustrated and ready to take up arms.”

Haq’s UN career stands out among women in the organization. “I’ve had a great run — 40 years,” she said.

Asked why there aren’t more women like her in the UN, she answered: “There are plenty of women like me around the world. The challenge of the UN has been to find those women and bring them in. I remember when I was in Malaysia and Singapore there was this call for all of us there to try and see if women were interested. There were plenty of women who were holding high posts. But in Malaysia and Singapore, UN service was really not attractive in many respects — women didn’t want to uproot themselves. I spoke with many brilliant women and very successful women, and they didn’t feel that in terms of what they were doing then that the UN was something they would leave their established lives for.”

UN service is more attractive to women in other parts of the world. Haq said. “When I meet young women who have just graduated and come to me for advice, I think, Wow!, if the UN could take all these women, it would be such a different organization. The experiences that they’ve already had in their young careers — living in remote regions, doing innovative things — are really phenomenal.”


 

 

Governments can help identify good prospects for UN work, Haq said, adding that the peacekeeping department has been engaged in a project seeking women wherever they are.

“I’ve told my staff I want to see some of those women employed,” she said. “Within the space of a year, we’ve appointed four people from the pipeline into senior positions. They’re in peacekeeping missions now. And that’s great.”

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Ameerah Haq: ‘I’ve Had a Great Run — 40 Years’”

  1. Having known her for years, I find this to be very accurate picture of Ms. Ameerah Haq — the person, the woman, the successful UN officer. Alas, it omits Ms. Haq, the mother. She raised two successful children with great academic credentials, radiating and outgoing personalities, and great and generous hearts. I tip my hat to Ms. Haq, the mother, her son, and her daughter.

    • Point taken, Benoit. I thought about this a lot and in the end — given the amount of material I had on Ms. Haq — I decided that I would apply the “if this were the profile of a man would you write about his children?” test. She did speak about the benefits of life abroad that her children in enjoyed, especially when they were very young in Laos and Malaysia. Many other women in international service of the UN would say the same however. Maybe that’s worth an article in its own right.

  2. Inspired with this piece of writing. I know Ms. Haq from my childhood and I feel very proud for her since she is the only high-ranked UN official from Bangladesh. Feeling very proud of being a Bangladeshi too! Ms. Haq is also a great inspiration for many Bangladeshis like me who are now pursuing UN assignment all over the world. LONG LIVE MY IDOL!!

  3. Many thanks for your outstanding contribution not only to PeaceKeeping but to the UN on the whole and thanks for being an inspiring role model for women in the UN, myself included. I wish you good health and much personal success in your retirement.

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