When it comes to humanitarian responses to the ongoing crisis in Syria, the risks to aid workers are beyond debate – bombings and kidnappings are frequent in the region. For Vicki Aken, Country Director at GOAL Syria, the danger can lead to the question of whether GOAL should be operating in Syria at all. But as she says, “if you put that same question to my staff inside Syria, they say, ‘How can we call ourselves a humanitarian organization if we don’t work in areas like this?’”
To a bystander, the task of professionally developing humanitarian staff in Syria can seem a luxury for later times, given the stakes. But with her team inside Syria 100% committed to the crisis response, Vicki sees it as her role to find ways to support them.
Vicki, who is currently based in Antakya, Turkey, said that although she has over 400 staff inside Syria, only seven people can cross the border point at a time. “We just have to figure out new ways of getting [our staff in Syria] training,” she said.
Vicki is the inaugural winner of the Eric Berg LEAP Award, named for LINGOs’ Co-Founder and CEO Emeritus. The award honors a leader in the learning and capacity building sector who has demonstrated a commitment to “leaping while trusting the net will appear” – an old maxim of Berg’s about not missing opportunities to make a difference.
Vicki’s commitment to field-based training and local capacity building has been long-standing, beginning with her work managing a community technology center in Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer. In 2008, she developed a prototype online course for the Project Management for Development Professionals (PMD Pro) training, a professional certification that has now reached over 10,000 development and humanitarian workers in over 140 countries globally.
As GOAL’s Country Director in Sudan, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and now Syria, Vicki has advocated for and disseminated a range of online and offline training to develop and build the capacity of the staff and partner organizations working most closely with communities—workers who don’t always receive access to world class learning. Of her dedication to developing staff in tough locations, Eric Berg, a longtime mentor of Vicki’s, says: “It’s not something you can toss off and say, ‘I could do that, too.’ I think it takes a different kind of person, and that’s one of the reasons I think so highly of Vicki.”
“Looking at Vicki’s current leadership role, it would be easy to offer reasons for why Syria is perhaps not place to invest in the human capital of her team—to take a more ‘fire fighting approach’,” said Chris Proulx, LINGOs’ CEO. “But Vicki is unwilling to accept that as a status quo. She’s continually finding creative, flexible ways to invest in her people – to professionally develop staff doing difficult work in a near impossible situation.”
Most recently, Vicki has spearheaded a number of capacity building projects in Syria—building the skills of local NGOs in one of the world’s most challenging crises. For example, she deployed innovative uses of technology such as Blackboard Collaborate to continue developing and remotely managing staff in Syria across the closed border.
It’s a familiar page from the private sector’s book, Vicki says. “[Organizations in the private sector] hire the best people no matter where they’re located, and they figure out how to work with them virtually. So why do we have to keep thinking about it as remote management? Why not think about it as just a different type of management?”
This ability to turn constraints into stepping stones resonates in her advice to young professionals looking to make their start in the sector. Touching briefly on her experience working with the Common Humanitarian Fund in Sudan, for which she eventually was an Advisory Board Member, Vicki says: “I had no idea how it worked, and when the [NGO I was with] was looking for someone to be the representative liaison with it, I volunteered to do it, because I figured that was the best way to [learn] how it works.” She laughs.
“To just start working with it and with the people who set it up – you have to be willing to do things like that.”
About the Global Learning Awards
Presented annually at LINGOs’ Global Learning Forum, the Global Learning Awards celebrate individuals and organizations that have significantly supported LINGOs’ mission: ensuring that its members and the NGO community at large have access to affordable, appropriate learning wherever they work.