“Be a team player, be creative and be honest with other people and yourself.”
Amélia Russo de Sá, Deputy Representative, UNICEF Angola.
After 6 years as Deputy Representative in Angola, Amélia is leaving the UNICEF office in Luanda to start her new post as Senior Advisor for Communication for Development (C4D) in Child Protection in the East and South Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in the north of Mozambique, in a province close to Malawi. My parents were Portuguese functionaries and I lived in several of the provinces of the country during my childhood and adolescence because of my parents’ work. In 1973 I started Arts university in Maputo and completed 3 years. When independence from Portugal came, I decided to remain in Mozambique and participate in the construction of the new nation. I started working in the Ministry of Education, as a teacher. Later, I integrated a division that was responsible for the preparation of the first school-books after the independence. At the age of 22, I was the responsible for the national training of Portuguese teachers for the first two years of secondary school. It had been enriching, very interesting and very challenging for a young person. In 1985, I got a scholarship to go to France and finished there a Master degree in socio-linguistics. When I came back to Mozambique, I was appointed the dean of the Faculty of Arts of the High Institute for Teachers‘ training. In 1991, I joined UNICEF.
What do you do?
I’ve been Deputy Representative in three countries in different regions of Africa in the last 13 years. My background and my experiences in UNICEF as National Professional helped me to act as Deputy for a long period. I find this position is one of the most difficult to perform and, at the same time, the most interesting and enriching at country office level. At least it is my preferred one, as it offers you a global and in-depth knowledge of Programmes, a good knowledge of Operation issues and Human Resources management, which provides a very good background in supporting the Representative, in leading with section chiefs, in bringing new perspectives… and a platform to interact with colleagues and promoting new talents.
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
My work is to help a group of people that knows things about education of children, child’s health and child protection to get better organized and to do something good for the children, in particular the poorest, together with the Governments and other adults.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a teacher, which in fact I was. I wanted also to be a lawyer when I was adolescent, which I never was (however, I have 3 people in my family working in Law.) And I also wanted to be a dancer, which I never succeed to be (but I love dance and I believe I do it well!).
How/when did you join UNICEF?
I joined UNICEF 25 years ago, in 1991, as a National Officer in Mozambique for a project on Health Education. Because of my background, I also worked on Education Section, and later as Child Protection and Communication for Development. I knew I wanted to be International staff and I applied for several positions, and for some time when I was going to give up, I was accepted for a post in Niger, followed by Chad, Tunisia and Angola. And now, I’m moving to the East and South Africa Regional Office for another assignment.
What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
To build a team, with all the challenges this involves. It is very satisfying to get to a point that you feel the team is with you, that the same vision is shared, and all work together despite the differences. Also, it’s very satisfying when we reach the results we planned for.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
For a Deputy Representative it is really crucial to have a good working relationship with the Head of the Office, and share the same strategic vision. When this is not there, it’s very challenging and makes working life difficult and tense. Other challenging aspect of my job is to be able to find a good balance between the need to go for results and performance indicators; and the need to work with good processes. I mean, you can reach some results, but if the process is poor, for me it’s not good. You can also have a very good process and not reach those results, which is not the ideal… Reaching the balance is challenging.
What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
There are so many, it’s difficult to select one. There is one that will remain with me forever as something extraordinary. It happened in a village in the center of Mozambique. I was working in the Child Protection and Communication section and, together with a Health colleague, we were there for a mission. One day we were approached by a group of people that were seeking our help. A newborn’s mother had died during delivery and the family wasn’t allowing anyone to feed the baby as this was against tradition. Therefore, the baby was going to die. The baby’s father was not even consulted and he couldn’t say anything against this imposition. We decided to act immediately. We met with a teacher, who was also a priest and was very respected in the village. He came with us to see the family and we had a long discussion of 5 or 6 hours. With the help of this teacher, we were able to reach a consensus and an agreement on asking one woman of the same family to breastfeed the baby. The baby was saved. It was a unique experience for me and my colleague. We learned so much about social norms, about power in family, about community power. We went back to our office in the south full of joy and very proud of the achievement in name of UNICEF, and I remained forever touched by this fantastic story.
What are your passions? How do you spend your free time?
I love reading, dancing, theater… and in general everything related to art. After my retirement, I’ll try to learn some aquarelle painting. I love travelling, talking with people, and exchanging ideas with people.
What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Be a team player, be creative, and be honest with other people and yourself! You have to like people and to interact with them. You have to be open to different opinions, but you have to be brave to know when you have to say “OK, I listened to you but this is my final decision”, because you have the final responsibility… Finding that balance is very important.
My colleagues don’t know that…
I played theater for many years.