International NGO Safety Organisation

Meet INSO

Ermina

Function: Country Director
Location: Afghanistan
Nationality: Romanian

Ermina, INSO’s Country Director in Afghanistan, says some of her most memorable moments with INSO have also been the most challenging.   

What was your journey to becoming Country Director in Afghanistan?

I was working in Afghanistan with the UN for two and a half years before joining the INSO team. I came to learn about INSO’s depth of knowledge, presence on the ground and expertise in enabling humanitarian and development NGOs in Afghanistan. INSO has a solid reputation as a pillar of the NGO community in Afghanistan, but also as a key discussion partner for analysts. I also saw that, while some other organisations seemed to be retreating, INSO was expanding – opening new offices and applying a common-sense approach to staff security.

All of these observations persuaded me to want to be ‘on the inside’ with INSO and apply for the Safety Advisor – Central role, which I did in the fall of 2016. Once ‘inside’, I discovered an excellent team of dedicated and knowledgeable analysts. I stayed with the organisation in Afghanistan for nearly six years, becoming Deputy Director in 2018, and then Country Director in the following year.

What makes working for INSO unique?

The diversity of the team and their skillsets make INSO one of the best places to work. INSO work is unique in the level of engagement with a variety of stakeholders: employees are not only immersed in the NGO community but take a lead role in guiding NGOs operationally as well as strategically.

INSO is also an NGO committed to staying and delivering. A clear example of this was in August 2021. The majority of NGOs evacuated many of their staff during the IEA takeover. But INSO remained in country and stayed operational, and its presence encouraged other NGOs to return. Similarly, when the COVID-19 took hold in early 2020, INSO continued to provide vital assistance to NGOs responding in the country.

Being familiar with INSO before joining the organisation, did what you expect match what you experienced?

Yes, I was in the fortunate position of knowing INSO well – both some members of the team and INSO products and work – meaning that I got what I came for: the opportunity to work together with exceptional people, to engage in analysis on a broad range of matters, and to learn and further develop my understanding of the operating environment.

I expected and received opportunities to get to know Afghanistan through travel to the field and interactions with NGOs as well as communities. Advancing to country management level, I received incredible support from the INSO team as well as from NGO partners and was able to be involved in strategic discussions on humanitarian coordination.

Not a day has passed without learning something extraordinary, feeling welcome and as part of a family, striving to become a better human inspired by those around me. I’m thankful to the many Afghans and internationals I’ve crossed paths with during my eight and a half years in this country.

What do you think is INSO’s biggest strength?

I strongly believe that INSO’s strength lies in its diversity. INSO brings together people from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, at different stages in their careers, all with a shared commitment to humanitarian principles and support for safe and dignified humanitarian access to affected communities.

Can you describe a day in the life of Country Director in Afghanistan?

One of the most attractive characteristics of working for INSO is that no day is like the other. The rhythm and activities are different each day, the interlocutors are different, the challenges and opportunities are different.

Some days involve numerous meetings with NGO partners facing challenges or wishing to receive updates about the operating environment, other days are spent behind a computer writing analysis or responding to government or donor requests, and still others are spent in the field with communities and the NGOs assisting them. Unfortunately, some days also bring about real tragedies, such as NGO staff casualties or high-impact attacks on civilians, or natural disasters which are becoming more frequent due to the changing climate.

Such events usually require INSO to mobilise crisis support resources, and the Country Director is involved in liaison, coordination, providing operational advice and analysis, or even deploying to a specific area of the country.

What moment with INSO has been most memorable for you?

The IEA takeover was probably my most challenging, and therefore memorable, moment with INSO. Together with several international staff, we decided to remain in Afghanistan even as the airport was being overwhelmed, as many NGOs closed offices and evacuated, and as our own families were urging us to leave.

Staying allowed INSO to support its Afghan staff, to initiate discussions with the new authorities, and to give confidence to NGOs and their staff that it was possible to operate in Afghanistan – which was essential. Staying was not without hurdles, including detentions of staff, navigating new administration and staff departures. But that said, the team as a whole demonstrated remarkable resilience, while the NGO community supported INSO every step of the way in this new operating environment.

What advice you would give to a new colleague?

I would encourage a new INSO colleague to keep an open mind and take time to listen and learn. Genuine intellectual curiosity about the context will go a long way to make the work seem like no work at all. Be prepared to be flexible, and understand that some situations may be draining. Have tools to cope with stress – whether sports, arts, reading, or socialising, finding good ways to decompress is extremely important. Finally, try and learn local languages – even a few phrases will contribute to acceptance and every new language uncovers a new person in you.