Haverford — Spring/Summer 2012
Change Language:
Man On A Mission
Justin Warner ’93

In a 27-year career with the UN’s World Food Programme, Charles Vincent ’77 worked in some of the world’s most troubled places. Now he’s coaching other international aid workers on how to navigate tough postings.

In the mid-1980s, Charles Vincent ’77 was an intern with the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), stationed in Uganda’s arid northeastern Karamoja region. At the time, law and order held little sway there, food had effectively replaced money as the local currency, and no one was safe from roving marauders.

Then, Vincent’s boss and mentor was shot by bandits, lost an arm to gangrene, and had to be evacuated from the country, leaving the young intern in charge of directing food to the area’s severely undernourished women and children. Vincent stepped into the position with surprising aplomb. In fact, the experience taught him that he could handle such situations calmly, without losing sight of the serious risks to his team. That grace under pressure served him well in what became a 27-year career with the WFP, during which he worked in some of the world’s most difficult, and sometimes dangerous, places: war-torn Yugoslavia (where he was WFP’s emergency coordinator), Haiti, post-9/11 Afghanistan and the notoriously chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo (where he served as country director).

In December, Vincent received the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honor, for his service in these treacherous places— during which, remarkably, no staff member was killed under his watch. (A native Frenchman, Vincent has held dual French-U.S. citizenship since 2003.) Now retired from the U.N., Vincent has moved on to a new phase of his career with the founding of the nonprofit DPPD International, which provides individual coaching to a new generation of international aid workers, and team development to a wide range of internationally focused institutions.

As a young man, Vincent could have picked a job that didn’t involve dodging bandits and living without plumbing or electricity. In fact, he had the chance to be a handsomely paid manager at Mobil. Torn between the oil company job and the U.N. internship, Vincent asked his uncle for advice. That same uncle had helped land him the offer from Mobil, but simply asked: “What is your passion?” Vincent’s answer: “Helping people.” The question became a lifelong guide, and is something that Vincent continues to ask both himself and those who turn to him for career advice.

Asked how he developed his passion for alleviating hunger in far-flung places, Vincent, in a phone interview from Cambodia, where he now lives with his family, weaves together several different threads. His Jewish ancestors on his mother’s side spent the first half of the 20th century moving from one country to another to escape persecution; that family history, he says, endowed him with a sense of social justice from an early age. His paternal grandfather embodied what may be a genetic thirst for adventure, having left a comfortable life in France to manage a mimosa plantation in Madagascar. To these predispositions, Vincent added an awareness of food production and distribution by working on an Illinois farm after graduating from Haverford, and then studying agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis, before taking the internship in Uganda.

Telling stories from the field, Vincent doesn’t minimize the dangers he and his colleagues faced, but he reports them in a lively but matter-of-fact tone. At least that’s how he tells of his last month in Haiti in 2001, when, as he was finishing an assignment coordinating food deliveries to 130,000 children a day, he got a phone call that one of his food monitors had been arrested for killing four children in an auto accident.

Vincent immediately began gathering information, and followed a strange instinct: “I asked a driver to go down to the morgue to check for children,” Vincent remembers. The driver found no children there, and Vincent soon confirmed that although the WFP monitor had indeed hit four children, who had dashed into the street unexpectedly, none had been killed. Nevertheless, the man had already been scalped—yes, scalped—at the police station and hastily convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Over the next month, Vincent spent most of his waking hours trying to get his colleague released. At times it seemed hopeless, as even personal appeals to Haiti’s minister of justice and prime minister didn’t change the decision. Finally, through a contact with the Haitian president, Vincent got his coworker out of jail. “When we brought him back to the office, everyone was crying,” he recalls. “People told me, ‘Mr. Vincent, we thought he was in there for 20 or 30 years.’ ”

According to Vincent, however, that man wouldn’t even have made it alive to the police station, had it not been for his staff’s rapport with the local population.

As a leader, Vincent emphasized the importance of respecting the community— not just as a moral imperative, but also as a safety measure. “I told all the drivers, drive slowly. Let people know what you’re doing,” he explains. Those principles paid off at the scene of the accident in Haiti, when onlookers pounced on the driver, brandishing machetes. “People grabbed him out of the car and were about to kill him, and some lady said, ‘No, don’t kill him. He’s a good person. He works for the WFP. They’re helping our children in the schools, and they respect us.’ That saved his life.”

There have been plenty of harrowing times for Vincent. In Sarajevo, he saw an old woman, standing just a few feet away from him, killed by a sniper. On monitoring missions, he had to drive down a decrepit “corridor” road where Bosnians and Croatians were exchanging gunfire: “The dilemma was, do you drive fast on the bad road, risking an accident but making it harder for the snipers to hit you, or do you drive slow because the road is bad, increasing your odds of being shot?” In several countries, convoys and monitoring missions were always at risk of being intercepted by bandits, child soldiers brandishing assault rifles, or IEDs (improvised explosive devices). “He did not shy back from immediately accepting very tough assignments,” recalls former WFP Executive Director Jean- Jacques Graisse, whom Vincent assisted in managing global operations from Rome for three years.

For risks like these, there can be correspondingly big rewards. Along with directly or indirectly improving the lives of millions of people during crises, Vincent also started a number of projects that became self-sustaining, including a women’s literacy program and reforestation initiative in Afghanistan, a slum cleaning program in Madagascar, and an HIV/AIDS prevention program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In his many assignments, Vincent also pioneered the now-standard practice of purchasing food locally whenever possible, rather than importing it from abroad.

Along the way, he has also enjoyed some exhilarating adventures. He fondly reminisces about Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a remote, fingerlike projection between Pakistan and Tajikistan where his team drove over 100 miles on a dirt path through the narrow mountain pass. The group camped overnight in an enclave that had been visited by Alexander the Great, where, far from even the faintest trace of artificial light, the Milky Way shone amid a dazzling sky full of stars. They finally arrived at a clearing beyond which only yaks could proceed. Kyrgyz nomads came down from the highest mountains to discuss food security for the coming winter. “These guys were having trouble breathing at 4,000 meters, because there was too much oxygen,” Vincent says.

Michael Jones, who served with Vincent in Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere, holds him in high esteem for the strictly principled approach he took to the work. Jones recalls an incident in Afghanistan, when Vincent discovered that WFP employees were secretly trading U. N. food for private favors with corrupt local officials. According to Jones, Vincent “took them all to task and fired them”— even though their local partners “could have had Charles knocked off in no time.”

“He’s very compassionate and has a real feeling for the people we’re trying to assist,” says Jones. “That was his main priority, and nothing got in its way.”

FINDING A NEW WAY TO HELP

Charles Vincent did much of his relief work around the world while married with two children, who are now in their 20s. (Divorced and remarried, he also has a 2-year-old daughter.) Although some of his most dangerous assignments occurred after his divorce, his first wife and older children accompanied him to Haiti, to then-Yugoslavia, and to all of his other outposts during the marriage. Vincent says that across the board, humanitarian aid work takes “an enormous toll” on family life: divorce and separation rates are high, and workers assigned to high-risk places can spend most of the year separated from their spouses and children. With more and more postings being declared unsafe for families, he says, the conflict between work and personal life is only escalating. For women, the tension between continuing their missions and starting families looms especially large.

During Vincent’s years of service, there was little to do but muddle through these dilemmas on one’s own, perhaps with informal advice from friends. Although professional career coaching has long been available for nonprofit executives—at executive prices—Vincent noticed a lack of affordable resources for people at other levels. So, after retiring from the World Food Programme, he founded Dialogue for Personal and Professional Development (DPPD) to help guide humanitarian and development workers through the unique trials of international work: “Life overseas, expatriation, working in development has a lot of opportunities but also challenges, so they need to talk about those opportunities and challenges with someone who’s been there,” he says.

Vincent describes the kind of coaching he does as “a collaborative, personalized and confidential partnership.” As a coach, he helps clients see what is possible, identify and set goals, and take steps toward them. Though the process requires plenty of critical self-reflection, coaching is not counseling, Vincent emphasizes, but is instead focused on results, and on helping a client achieve personal and professional “excellence and resonance.” Vincent currently conducts his coaching via phone and Skype from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he and his family now live after a recent move from Geneva.

Sarah Pinto of Elkins Park, Pa., is one of Vincent’s clients. A former WFP officer who had worked in New York and in the Sudan, Pinto knew Vincent professionally before she switched gears and became a full-time mother. Five years and two kids later, Pinto began looking to transition back into aid work but found the job search frustrating. She says DPPD helped her reorganize her networking process, gave her deadlines to meet tangible goals, and offered moral support when her efforts didn’t pan out. “It helps to have someone say, look, I’ve been in the business 30 years, and sometimes people don’t respond to me, either,” Pinto says. She says Vincent also helped her identify exactly what she wants and doesn’t want in her life and career. She hopes to find a job in a major city like Johannesburg or Lagos, where she can be close to the people she’s serving without putting her family directly in harm’s way.

To those looking to start a career in humanitarian aid, Vincent warns that the life is, in some ways, even more challenging than when he started. More and more aid workers have been targeted for kidnapping or sectarian violence, in part because of changing perceptions about the neutrality of U.N. operational agencies and some nongovernmental organizations. A happier challenge is that the populations of developing countries have become better educated and better trained, so the expectations for foreign workers’ qualifications have become correspondingly more stringent. Still, for those who are truly motivated, he says, the work will come, and will inevitably be rewarding. “If you do something with passion,” he says, invoking the word that started his journey, “you’re going to do it well.”

—J.W.
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND