Geneva and the field
‘Geneva and the field’
– By Gilles-Emmanuel Jacquet, lecturer at GSD
Geneva is a very unique city by its size and its role in international relations as it hosts 34 international organizations, 255 permanent missions and delegations representing 175 countries  as well as hundreds of international and local NGOs. Every year more than 2500 meetings are organised in Geneva and attended by around 203 000 delegates but also thousands of diplomats, experts, NGO representatives, Human Rights activists, lawyers and reporters.
During their internships in permanent missions, in NGOs or at the United Nations, GSD students are able to witness the intensity of Geneva’s diplomatic life, especially during the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council or the peace talks on Syria. The UN in Geneva offers a very interesting mirror of contemporary diplomacy, geopolitical rivalries, as well as current international and humanitarian crises. The presence of foreign diplomats, NGO delegates and Human Rights activists, their reports, testimonies, campaigns, demonstrations or fancy receptions usually give the impression that the whole world is in Geneva and sometimes it can lead to the distorted feeling that Geneva is the world or even its center.
Important issues are discussed in Geneva, many information are available and we can be tempted to think that we already know what is going on in the whole world or in its most remote places. Students can learn a lot through classes or conferences, with the books or reports they read, by all the information available nowadays on internet but it will never replace field experience. Working on the field as a volunteer or a professional is the most valuable kind of experience as it’s a way to put in practice what has been learned, to continue learning, to acquire additional knowledge and new skills but also to confront yourself and your beliefs to the real world. Being on the field can be a tough experience as you may have to adapt yourself to difficult living conditions, different cultures and complex situations challenging what you’ve learned, what you think or believe to be true.
It can be emotionally hard to face the sufferings of others and to try to find solutions or at least to bring them some relief. We can feel powerless but we can be also inspired by ordinary people who are able to maintain their dignity in spite of all the hardships they endure. What you can learn in developing countries or war zones goes beyond conventional professional skills or academic knowledge. Friendship and solidarity in difficult conditions, living without electricity and clean drinking water, courage or self-control in front of danger aren’t taught in classrooms but learned on the field. Maturity, practical skills and knowledge earned on the field constitute valuable assets for a career related to international relations or diplomacy.
During my internship at the UNHCR in 2006 I wasn’t able to go on the field as I was based at the HQ, in Geneva. It was a very interesting experience as my tasks were dealing with legal analyses related to the treatment of minorities in Central Asia and the treatment of Lebanese refugees in Syria but I was still in Geneva’s bubble. In 2009, through the European Volunteer Service, I worked for the Co-operation and Cultural Action Service of the French Embassy in the Republic of Moldova and for the « Alliance Française » in Chisinau. Moldova is a beautiful country and it was quite easy to adapt myself to this new environment as I spoke a bit of Russian and Romanian, I was familiar with local culture and I had local friends. As my first Master thesis was dealing with the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict it was also a very interesting experience from an intellectual point of view. I was able to go several times to the self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria, its capital city Tiraspol, Bendery (Tighina for the Moldovans), Dubasari and the Moldovan enclave of Molovata Noua. During the Perestroika and Glasnot era Moldovans started to agitate for their cultural and linguistic rights before calling for independence from Soviet Union. Transnistrians opposed these claims as they wished to preserve USSR and the Russian-speaking population of Transnistria was scared by the will of the Moldovan People’s Front to reunite with Romania. When USSR collapsed this serious political crisis escalated in 1991 and led to a conflict in 1992. The area is now quiet, even though tension increased with the Ukrainian crisis in 2014.
After the vineyards of Moldova and the quiet blue belt of the Dniester river, Afghanistan represented a very different kind of environment and experience. Surrounded by mountains, Kabul is a very old city which saw Alexander the Great and which later played an important role in the Mughal Empire, as illustrated by the presence of Babur’s tomb. Kabul saw many foreign invaders and wars as it was briefly occupied by the British Empire during the 19th century and heavily destroyed in the 1990s, during the civil war following the retreat of Soviet troops. Working there in 2012 and 2013 as a university lecturer was a challenging experience as the country is one of the poorest in the world and is still affected by an armed conflict between governmental troops supported by Western countries and Taliban insurgents, or more recently ISIS fighters. Summers are very hot and winters extremely harsh, earthquakes occur frequently, sandstorms are impressive and can last for more than one day, power failures are frequent, water is not clean and terrorist attacks as well as kidnappings are common.
Knowing a country in peacetime and then in wartime is a sad experience, as it was the case for me with Ukraine. Since spring 2014 the civil war cost the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, Ukrainian soldiers and Eastern Ukrainian fighters . The Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 failed to establish an effective ceasefire as it’s regularly violated. In summer 2016 I was there and Donetsk suburbs were bombed every night by governmental forces. Most hospitals work with 20% of their usual staff, with few resources and in very difficult conditions, sometimes without the most basic drugs and equipment. Some civilians continue to live on the frontline but some local and foreign NGOs do their best to support them. Bombings continue and prospects for a durable peace in the region are currently very limited.
 « La Genève internationale en faits et chiffres », Mission Permanente de la Suisse auprès de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève et des autres organisations internationales à Genève : https://www.eda.admin.ch/missions/mission-onu-geneve/fr/home/geneve-international/faits-et-chiffres.html
 « Escalation of hostilities has exacerbated civilian suffering – UN report », OHCHR, 15/03/2017 : http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21383&LangID=E