By Adam Beyer
Since graduating from the Sanford School of Public Policy, Cynthia Viveros-Cano, MIDP ’04, has taken her expertise to conflict zones in South America and the Middle East, and to United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Viveros-Cano is now stationed in Damascus, Syria, as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Viveros-Cano’s role is help ensure aid gets to the people who need it most. Serving the people of a country that has been at war for more than six years is difficult and stressful, she said. “You have to be very well grounded to remember why you are there and to put the interest of the people who are in the crossfire first."
Cynthia Viveros-Cano's career took a turn after she came to Sanford. Previously, Viveros-Cano had worked in the private sector helping firms monitor their efforts to be socially responsible. Getting her master’s degree in international development helped her pursue her goal of making an impact on a deeper level.
After spending most of her life in Mexico City, Viveros-Cano initially was hesitant about coming to graduate school in Durham, a much smaller city. She said her MIDP peers made her experience a positive one, and they still stay in touch.
“Thanks to them, in addition to my professors, my experience was wonderful,” she said.
Duke gave her academic rigor and the ability to go beyond what is easily available. Once, she complained to a professor about there not being data available for an analysis she had hoped to run. The professor instructed her to create the dataset herself and told her the resources of the university were for her.
“Whenever I fall in that same place, I go back to that moment and it helps me find the way forward,” she said.
Viveros-Cano said she was attracted to the United Nations because of the opportunity it provided to make a difference for people around the world. While participating in the yearlong process of written exams and interviews for the UN, she worked for the Organization of American States in Colombia assisting in the post-conflict demobilization process. She received an offer to join the UN in New York as an evaluator for the secretariat to help monitor and assess its internal structure.
Later, she decided she wanted to work on the UN’s humanitarian side. Last June, she got a post in Syria.
Posted to a war zone
Highlight for Basic Page
Advice to Other MIDP Students
Want to work for the United Nations or another such agency? Cynthia Viveros-Cano has simple advice: stay curious and listen. She also hopes students will learn to trust their own conclusions and be willing defend them, but to do so with humility. Listen to Viveros-Cano on the Policy 360 podcast.
“It’s very different, the pace of work in the headquarters and the field,” she said. “I think it’s important to learn how to navigate both. The things that happen in the Security Council have a real impact on our daily actions in places like Syria.”
In Damascus, she stays in a hotel with other UN personnel. During the day, walking around the city is permitted, but if staff want to go further, they must travel in armored vehicles.
Her team constantly analyzes the ongoing dynamics in the country. They work with government, NGOs leaders and other stakeholders to create openings for aid and convoys to get safely to civilians in hard-to-reach or besieged regions of the country. Sometimes airdrops are necessary."
“We do whatever we can to help the people in need,” she said.
Arranging for a convoy requires extensive preparation. Loads and personnel have to be checked and checked again for security. The parties in conflict have to be informed of the itinerary so the convoy can pass unhindered. Delays are common as the trucks are stopped at multiple checkpoints.
The warring factions know their responsibilities under international human rights law, but they do not always comply, Viveros-Cano said.
“It’s unpredictable, but if everything goes according to plan you cross the line and you get into the targeted location with daylight,” Viveros-Cano said. The team tries to visit health centers, schools and other facilities to assess the community’s needs. Time is limited and the team must work fast.
Most of the time, Viveros-Cano works from the office in Damascus, but sometimes she goes along with the convoys. It’s a good reminder for Viveros-Cano of why she chose the job. After all the aid is distributed, the team makes its way back to Damascus and prepares for its next trip.
“I think the phrase ‘moral dilemma’ has taken acquired a new sense now because you have to make decisions with very little information, with very little time,” she said. “If you fail to make a decision, you might lose a window to deliver assistance to a particular area.”
Compared to other humanitarian challenges around the world, Syria has received heightened international support, but the needs remain great and continue to grow, she said.
Viveros-Cano encouraged people to pay attention to the situation in Syria. When she first went, her family and friends knew little about the conflict, she said. That changed and they are now following closely. She maintains hope for the situation to improve, however.
As the alumna speaker at the Sanford School’s 2017 graduate ceremony, Viveros-Cano encouraged graduates to pursue their passions, while enjoying the things that happen along the way.
“Find what keeps you going, what makes you tic, and go for it,” she said. “There are many ways to get where you are going.”