Next up in this series is Phoebe Lewis. Back in 2012 she studied Enviromental Geography at Lund University. Today she is located in Cairo, working as an argicultural officer at the United Nations.
Has working for the UN always been a goal of yours?
I come from a family of development workers, some even working elsewhere in the United Nations. As such, the concept of service and the idea of working to support those with less than you were always guiding principles in scoping my career. Oddly, the idea of working for the United Nations was never my first go-to. My career so far has been tied to a single, simple question: where will I be of most use in the global effort to address climate change? With this in mind, the institution I serve is of less importance than the substance of the work. Having said this, the United Nations is currently the place that allows me to deliver in a way that matters.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I work in our Regional Office for the Near East and North Africa. Most of the work I do is providing support to our country offices. This could be providing technical insight on documents or projects, or providing operational support to ensure that work is implemented, monitored and funded. So my typical day depends on the time of year. At some points, you will find me researching and writing reports all day. Other months, I will be on phone calls, in meetings and furiously responding to emails to make sure that our country offices report on their implementation efforts by deadlines. My favourite times are when I go on missions to help set up or inspect projects that we have in the field.
Besides your current work, what have you been doing since your graduation?
My career has been relentlessly aimed at delivering, in my own humble way, on reversing the climate crisis. In the 5 years I have been in formal employment since graduating, I have now come at it from different angles. My first job after university was working on climate change research and communications at the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change based in Venice, Italy. From research, I then moved to Sir Richard Branson’s climate change non-profit called, at that time, the Carbon War Room. There, we worked with private sector to reduce emissions from industry while waiting for policy to catch up. Now, I am on the other side of that, working with the public sector, seeing how those policies can catch up and what practical work can be done on the ground to implement the policies that already exist. In addition to this, I started a podcast called The Bad Environmentalist on how to care about the environment when you are really bad at it. When I am not thinking about climate change, which unfortunately for people who invite me to dinner parties is infrequently, I travel and do as much dance as I can here in Cairo!
You take a big interests in the environment and the topic of climate change – is this something you bring into your role as an agricultural officer?
Absolutely. How we manage agriculture, forests and land are key elements to mitigating climate change. What we eat, what food we waste, and how we manage our land are essential components of both the climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Emissions from this sector account for roughly a quarter of global emissions. And the small-scale farmers that provide so much of our agricultural production are often on the forefront of impacts of climate change that we are already seeing globally and certainly in the region in which I work. I chose to join the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations precisely for these reasons.
Your current work is located in Cairo, Egypt. What has been your experience of working there?
I had never expected to work in Cairo, let alone the Middle East and North Africa. Personally and professionally, the first few months were challenging. There is no denying that Cairo is a vast, polluted mega-city that is difficult to live in, especially as a woman. There is a lot of harassment, traffic, and few things work the way you would expect. Even so, from the first cold winter night that I arrived in the city with a broken suitcase and a guitar that I have rarely played since, I could sense the immense history, culture and beauty of this capital. The more Arabic I learnt, the more I explored the city and country, the more I have come to develop a profound affection for Cairo. It is home. And this is very important for anyone working overseas – to put down your roots wherever you are, no matter how long you will be there.
But once I became grounded – which was quickly – I threw myself into my work. This has been both rewarding and challenging in equal measure. Working in a multi-cultural environment and a host country that is not your own alters the way you communicate. It teaches you humility and encourages patience. I have been fortunate to develop a range of skills I never thought I would. These include learning Arabic and French. They also include learning to cope when the internet cuts out for the fifth time that day. It has been an amazing experience.
You were an exchange student at Lund University, do you think your experience has influenced your work in any way?
My time at Lund University taught me so much about interacting in multi-cultural environments. Most importantly, we native English-speakers seem to go through the world with an expectation that everyone will speak to us in our language. At Lund, I learnt how much effort goes into learning someone else’s language and how much you can learn about someone when you make that effort. The Erasmus Exchange programme was by far the highlight of my university career. I hope it continues so that other students can benefit from it.
What’s one of your best memories from your studies at Lund University?
The people were what made the experience at Lund University exceptional. I had the most amazing flat mates with whom I shared the very best of times. A particularly amazing memory was the trip organized by the Erasmus programme to Lapland. As someone from the Caribbean, swimming in the Barents Sea on a dark December day and coming out to find my feet freezing to the land is a memory that I will always carry with me. I had no idea it was possible to feel that cold.