International Staff Story – Chen Ling, Afghanistan

A story of personal growth at UNICEF

Chen Ling, UNICEF Afghanistan
Together with colleagues at a supply retreat.
UNICEF Afghanistan/Chen Ling
08 October 2020

Chen Ling, a contracts specialist in Kabul, recently shared her story of growth at UNICEF. From starting as an administrative assistant in Beijing, she now manages the procurement of life-saving services for children in Afghanistan. She told us how she found her own path, supported by colleagues and the development opportunities in the UNICEF system.  

What was the path that led to your current position?

I was a city girl, born and raised in Beijing – it was all very peaceful. I had very little idea of what was happening around the world.

I joined UNICEF as an administrative assistant straight after university in 2006, filing documents and making photocopies in the Beijing office. With the support of my supervisor and the learning and development programmes at UNICEF, I soon had an opportunity to become a supply assistant in the procurement section. I was deployed in 2008 to support procurement and distribution of supplies during the Sichuan earthquake and the Yushu earthquake. I gradually gained experience in managing emergency procurement and supported neighbouring countries in the region and beyond.

It was the international support missions that opened me up to opportunities abroad. My first mission was in 2010, and I have been on missions to India, the Philippines and Myanmar. I experienced working in a completely different environment outside China and learned from international colleagues, through troubleshooting problems and sharing experiences together. Most importantly, I saw that we can make a contribution to children’s lives – even if it’s a small one.

These missions inspired me to apply for a long-term international position. Sometimes, colleagues from China face challenges like language barriers, cultural differences, or being uncertain of how to present themselves to other colleagues. Personally, these challenges helped me grow faster and prepare for new opportunities. There were certainly learning moments: when I left for my first posting in Timor-Leste, I thought I would be based in the capital city and only packed a small backpack. When I arrived, I learned that I was to be posted in a field office in a rural village for a year. But I have no regrets; living in a hut and working in a container helped me become who I am today.

Checking out of Islamabad.
UNICEF Afghanistan/Chen Ling
Checking out of Islamabad.

How do you help deliver results and make the world a better place for children? (What does your daily routine work look like?)

I manage the contracting of services – often things like construction of schools, health posts and toilet facilities. We work with programme experts and international consultants to assess how we can apply the latest technologies to implement UNICEF programmes in unique contexts.

In Pakistan, I managed the procurement of around $120 million goods and services per year. Much of this was focused on providing supplies and services for UNICEF programmes in polio eradication, heath system strengthening, as well as building schools and sanitation facilities.  This is complex work and I have to quickly learn everything about the materials that we are supplying. Even things that may seem simple, like a hygiene kit for a child, can be complex with different requirements depending on a child’s age, gender and situation. The work involves a lot of research and collaboration with internal and external technical experts. We take that knowledge and develop a product, then there’s the whole process of procurement, quality assurance, warehousing, and delivery to beneficiaries.

In Afghanistan, we are supporting government counterparts to build technical capacity with training programmes, providing life-saving vaccines and nutrition supplement as well as providing and building cold chain capacity for safely stockpiling and distributing vaccines. Developing a procurement strategy in a low income, landlocked country with little production capacity is not easy. We are also trying to support the local economy as much as possible and collaborate with other UN agencies to build local market capacity. For example, we decided to procure locally-made carpets and rugs to support local economies, even though imported mass-produced carpets can be cheaper. We also make sure that every child will have their basic and equal rights protected even if sometimes this means budgeting more transportation fees for hard-to-reach communities and last-mile logistics.

What has been your proudest moment so far?

Actually, my proudest moment so far happened when I was monitoring how supplies were being used by end-users at a boarding school in Yunnan, China. During recess, children came out to welcome me in a most genuine way. A group of girls told me how much they were enjoying their mobile library, and how they spent most of their time after class reading books that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The boys eagerly showed off their basketball and football skills, with the equipment provided by UNICEF.

I had a full day of visits planned, but I cleared my schedule so that I could spend more time with these children. I visited the girls’ dormitory to see if they had other needs. I had a ‘girls’ talk’ with a group of adolescent girls, about how they can protect themselves as they become women. I exchanged mailing addresses with one girl and a month later she sent me a letter, thanking me for the talk that she couldn’t have with anyone else. Sometimes a simple girls’ talk can mean a lot.

Tell us a little bit about your experience working in the field in the context of COVID-19.

Working in procurement during COVID-19 has been extremely challenging. The pandemic has changed all the norms of how things work across the world. UNICEF has been working around the clock to supply high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers. Travel restrictions, changing import and export regulations, airlines stopping their services have all made procurement difficult. And it’s not just about PPE; we have had vaccines stuck in transit, ultimately meaning that there were delays to vaccinations that left children exposed to dangerous diseases.

Just like other people, the pandemic has taken a toll on my personal life, too. Working around the clock, I would lose my sense of time, and working at home made it hard to switch off. I missed my son’s birthday and primary school graduation ceremony. I have been through quarantine twice, and was stranded in a pandemic center for 6 months. In Pakistan it was difficult to maintain social distancing, with a lack of access to health care, PPE and clean water.

How did you deal with these challenges?

One saving grace was UNICEF’s supply community, and its huge resources in global supply chain management. The supply community really came together, brainstorming and helping each other deliver in different countries. For example, to deliver PPE to Pakistan the team in Copenhagen arranged charter flights, and the China office worked with the Ministry of Commerce in China to arrange landing rights for a flight within 72 hours and deliver to a third country. Before COVID-19, this type of rapid collaboration between country offices and headquarters to deliver emergency relief supplies was unthinkable. With a big team behind you, you don’t feel like you’re fighting everything alone.

The team during an Emergency Preparedness Training simulation.
UNICEF Afghanistan/Chen Ling
The team during an Emergency Preparedness Training simulation.

What would be your advice to Chinese young people interested in working with UNICEF and international development, especially for the best interests of children?

Work with UNICEF! It is an honour to represent Chinese international staff, but there aren’t many of us (around 30 UNICEF staff working outside of China come from China). It’s like a drop in the ocean compared with the whole Chinese population. UNICEF receives a lot of respect in the more than 190 countries and territories that it works in – with a reputation for care, respect, integrity and accountability. It is a diverse and productive working environment with amazing opportunities to expand your horizons and build professional networks. I have made friends for life from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. Even if other peoples’ thinking and culture is very different, there’s always something you can learn.

To my younger friends: you don’t have to have everything figured out now. Things change along the way. There are many opportunities at UNICEF for self-development and knowledge building. I know colleagues who have moved from the supply section to fundraising, or from programmes to supply – all finding their niche and passion. So have an open mind, accept different opportunities and give yourself time to figure out what your interests and passions are. Try to have as many experiences as you can and find your own path.