An Interview with Teddy Atim, PhD (MAHA '08)

Teddy Atim

Visiting Fellow, Feinstein International Center

With more than 15 years of experience working with children, women, and families affected by armed conflict, killings, sexual violence and more, Teddy Atim understands the most difficult aspects of life for humanitarian workers. In this Q&A, she shares some thoughts and reflections. Learn more about Atim here.

Please tell us about the work you are currently doing.
I have both a practice and research background, working to alleviate human suffering in times of emergencies. I currently continue with my research work as part of the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, as well as with other think tanks or research institutions in different parts of the world, especially those that promote the dignity of those most affected by crisis. My work entails listening to those most vulnerable due to a combination of violence and conflict, and natural disasters, to better understand how policies and programs can respond to their realities.

One of the latest pieces of work I am involved with is the Apolou research that works with the pastoral group, the Karamojong in Eastern Uganda. In the last year and a half, there has been a resurgence of armed violence in the region, critically affecting pastoral livelihoods, the mainstay of the people there. Many households are no longer able to meet their daily food needs, with many children and adults severely malnourished. The recent prolonged dry spell, (March – July) made the situation worse, with reported hunger in the region and several people having died because they had nothing to eat.

Reading or hearing such reports of the people you know or work with is challenging as a humanitarian and researcher. On many occasions when the news comes up on TV, I worry if the people I have gotten accustomed to during my work there will survive, or if they are still alive.

One particular young man who I have been interviewing since 2019 remains with me. I worried more about him because, for each year that I had gone back to see him, the family had experienced some disaster. The first occasion was the death of his father; in 2020, his sister passed, leaving behind two children; and later his blind mother died. He looks after his three young siblings and the two children belonging to his late sister. Everyone relies on him. He goes out daily to cut trees to burn for charcoal to sell to buy food for the family – it is the only livelihood source for the family.

During my last fieldwork trip in Dec 2021, he told me; “I feel worn out, maybe one day I will break down from all the hard work I do...I will continue to do it until my body fails to do it and sit back to wait for hunger to kill us if by that time I have no alternative.”

This statement broke my heart. I came from that field trip holding him in my heart. There is no way you can simply walk away from such desperation and live normally.

I use this story to highlight the realities that many humanitarians have to contend with daily, besides the dangers of insecurity, remoteness, and other challenges of working in a humanitarian setting. Sometimes, it is not possible to sit by and wait for aid to come in in order to act, but it is possible to act immediately to save a life. You can’t account for these actions to anyone, but I believe it is a moral obligation for humanitarians to do something to save life as they see best. It is rewarding for me to know that he is still there, even though I am not sure for how long he can manage it, but it gives me relief and hope to know he is well at the moment. It is a small but significant action to center the people in the middle of a crisis in the work we do.

How did your experience at Fletcher prepare you for this role?
The Fletcher MAHA degree program was instrumental in preparing me for this role in many ways: I developed the critical and analytical skills that I needed to undertake research, synthesize it, and communicate it to a variety of audiences. It also enabled me to link the things I see on the ground to a larger conversation at the global level, in terms of making sense of what’s ongoing in the field.

The degree has also enabled me to command authority and respect in my field. I have repeatedly been told by other colleagues in the field how prestigious a Fletcher degree is. It has enabled me to occupy spaces and develop critical networks with other like-minded individuals, organizations, and institutions, giving me the opportunity to contribute in many ways to making the world a better place.

How do you recognize World Humanitarian Day?
World Humanitarian Day is the day that I celebrate the work that I do to dignify people affected by the crisis, especially recognizing the contributions and sacrifices that humanitarian workers endure to make the world a better place. I do know that in other emergencies and crises, humanitarian workers face extreme risk because of the work they do; some have been killed, sexually abused, harassed, held in detention, tortured, and more. Such a day is to recognize and remember them wherever they are, and work towards making humanitarian work safer for those who do it. This is how I think others can acknowledge the day.