Interview with Alice Vahanian, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL London representative

Published on Tuesday 10 May 2016

Following its strategic exercise, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL made the choice to open an office in London in order to be closer to English-speaking humanitarian stakeholders. After having spent 10 years in the field, Alice Vahanian now represents our organization there.

Why did you decide to work in humanitarian aid?

I grew up in an international environment that inspired me to travel and to discover other places and cultures. When I was at university, I was part of a small association that helped the homeless and hospitalised children in France. We later initiated development projects in Calcutta, India. These experiences motivated me to associate my taste for travel with meaningful actions and so I prepared a degree in humanitarian assistance in Aix-en-Provence.

You worked many years in Liberia for various organizations (Première Urgence, Merlin, Médecins du Monde, Handicap International). Why this country and why so long?

Initially, I wanted to work in Liberia with child soldiers and their reintegration. I went there right after the war with Première Urgence to take part in a food distribution program in Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) camps for ex-combatants. Soon after, I was recruited by the NGO Merlin for a health program (community health, primary and secondary health care…) in the Grand Bassa County. I later occupied various positions for Médecins du Monde and Handicap International in the health field again (maternal health, mental health, physical rehabilitation centres). I stayed all these years in Liberia because I was really passionate about issues linked to the reconstruction of health systems after 14 years of war and destruction. It was very interesting to be an active member of this reconstruction.

After all these years in the field, why did you choose to return to university?

After having spent seven years in Liberia and a total of 10 years abroad, I wanted to take a break. I especially wanted to formalize these experiences. I integrated the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a famous school which I had seen work in the field on numerous occasions. I did research in public health during three years there.

Alice Vahanian

Now that you are in London as the representative of SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, aren’t you afraid of drifting away from the field?

I had already disconnected a little bit from the humanitarian world but I have always kept the idea of going back to it in a corner of my mind. Now that I live in London, I also wanted to stay in this city a little longer. Why SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL? Because I often had the occasion of meeting the teams in the field and I have always appreciated the way they work. This naturally led me to apply when the opportunity arose. This position allows me to combine different elements and features in my background and personality: my past experiences in NGOs, my skills in administrative management and strategic planning, my taste for networking and representation, my knowledge of the international humanitarian context and my knowledge of the United Kingdom. As for drifting away from the field… actually opening this office in London is kind of like opening a small mission!

What are the challenges you will be facing in London?

Throughout my career, I have always been in favour of opening such NGO representative offices. When working for MDM and HI, I saw how beneficial it was for them to have these offices in London but also in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, etc. They facilitate the recruitment of international staff, especially English-speaking candidates. They also allow the access to more diversified sources of funding. This is one of the big challenges that await me: to strengthen the presence and visibility of Solidarités International in the humanitarian community and WASH sector in the United-Kingdom, to reinforce our relationship with our current partners (financial: DFID, operational: Save the Children, academic: WEDC, etc.), and to develop new partnerships. There are many well-established stakeholders in the United Kingdom and we will have to promulgate and institute SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL as one of them!

Now that you are working for SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, what do you think are the assets of the organization?

For me, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is a real NGO “à la française”, one which affirms its humanitarian commitment to serve the populations, which is truly operational, close to the field and to the beneficiaries and one which is recognized by other humanitarian organisations as an important stakeholder in the fields of WASH and food security. SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is also an NGO that has a well-thought-out growth strategy. Its solid management procedures and technical tools make it a reliable and professional organisation while remaining human-sized. These qualities suit me perfectly.

Alice in 5 dates :

Birth : January, 13, 1978
1st diploma (Marseille) : September 2001
1st humanitarian mission : September 2001 in Cambodia
2nd diploma (London) : 2013
Opening of London office : 2016