Disaster Risk and Global Health – Insights from an internship abroad with the UN


by Nicole Spence

Reflecting on my internship with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, I struggled to capture six months in 500 words. When I first arrived at the Palais des Nations, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I came in with an academic background in global health and equipped with information about the agency, like its mandate to serve as the focal point in the UN system and provide support to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

The Sendai Framework reflects a global shift away from disaster management and towards disaster risk management. Disasters are an indicator of development failures, meaning disaster risk is a measure of sustainability of development, which can be affected by a number of risk drivers, including poverty and health inequities, rapid urbanization, and climate change. To underscore its importance, 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals have targets related to disaster risk.

Under this mandate, I expected a formal and bureaucratic environment. What I found was a small agency with an inviting, diverse, and social environment that supported creativity, partnerships, and innovation.

My Role

My role with the Knowledge Management Unit included a variety of activities. My primary role was content management and editing for PreventionWeb, a participatory web platform for the disaster risk reduction (DRR) community. Its purpose is to facilitate an understanding of DRR through knowledge brokering activities and to offer tools for exchange and collaboration. I also conducted feasibility exercises, edited, and conducted knowledge translation for two Words into Action ‘how-to’ guides (National and Local Strategies and National and Local Platforms), as well as provided support to the secretariat during several sessions of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Expert Working Group on Indicators and Terminology Relating to Disaster Risk Reduction – a quintessential UN experience. Global health research is crucial to the development of these resources and informs communities of practice in areas such as health care, vulnerable populations, and resilience, among many others.

(Unexpected) Cultural Differences

In each of these roles, I was acutely aware of my global north perspective, but I was surprised by the cultural and organizational differences between Canada and Europe. My “North American perspective” was so regularly examined that I quickly learned to question my assumptions of workplace standard practices, for example, accountability, transparency and collaboration were valued and practiced with external partners, but not always feasible or exemplified within the  organizational processes. Furthermore, I learned that knowledge translation can be very political, and with multiple audiences, it can be difficult to find landing zone. In this mental shift, I became a subscriber to the proverb “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” I also learned to follow a more iterative approach and embrace a European work-life balance.

Now What?

When I am asked “was it worth it?” I admit it was no small task – I arranged the logistics myself, including travel, housing, and visas. But I can easily say the experience exceeded my expectations for a greater understanding of knowledge management, disaster risk, and a complex international organization’s structures, cultures and processes. Through unparalleled mentorships, I identified my skill set, including strengths and areas for opportunity, providing clear next steps for an international career in global health. Now back in Vancouver, I hope to bring this growth and insight  to my new role with the Provincial Health Services Authority, my networks (including the CCGHR SYP network), and strive to increase global health research capacity within and beyond Canada.

IMG_9449Nicole Spence is a graduate student of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria, with a focus on Global Health and Development. She is currently an advisor with Health Emergency Management BC in Vancouver, a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority. She completed her practicum with the Population and Public Health department at Fraser Health and recently worked with the Panorama Central Support Team at the BC Centre for Disease Control. Her interests lie at the crossroads of climate change, global health and disaster management, which led her to join the CCGHR SYP network.