The interview was conducted by Erwan Berthou for Remarkable Magazine and features Joris van Hees, studying the MSc Global Health Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Joris has dedicated his career to helping others. (Photography by Catherine Thomason & Joris van Hees)
You’ve been working with non-profit organisations for the majority of your career. What made you choose this path?
As part of my first Masters in Southeast Asian studies, I interned for Helen Keller International in Indonesia in 2001, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that was supporting large health and nutrition projects. This was the first time I was exposed to urban and rural environments in which people were living in poverty, and were struggling with day to day challenges just getting their primary needs including water, food, nutrition and sanitation. It made me realize that it is important to contribute to work that can support the most vulnerable populations in the world, and since then I have stayed in this field.
You did not have specific education in nutrition and public health when you started to get involved in these projects. Was it a challenge?
I was very fortunate to work with senior technical directors and advisors who gave me the opportunity to learn about the different aspects of nutrition programming for example, and who have guided me throughout my career, and helped me build technical expertise. I also learned valuable lessons from the actual implementation of activities in the field, for example setting up social marketing campaigns, collecting health and nutrition data, and advising governments on how to roll out nutrition programs. Since my background was not in global public health and nutrition, I always had to do some extra studying to understand the topics ranging from qualitative research to the role of nutrition. That’s why I decided to pursue another master’s degree in Nutrition and Global Health.
Can you describe one of the projects you’ve worked on that really had an impact on you?
I find it particularly rewarding to do work that has content and added value at both country and global level. When I was with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), I worked on projects that tackled vitamin and mineral deficiencies among young children through the provision of specialized complementary food supplements.
It’s crucial that young children in food insecure areas receive the right high quality nutrients in their diets, such as vitamin a, zinc, iron, essential fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, and dairy protein in order for them to develop and grow healthily throughout their lives. When young children, that is from conception to 24 months, are undernourished, it has a life-long impact on their development that is largely irreversible. Being part of the prevention of this – that’s a privilege. I really appreciate being part of a global community of people who are working towards similar goals in addressing these types of problems – from Governments to NGO’s, UN agencies, to private sector companies. It requires everyone to work together.
What was your motivation to go back to school after 12 years of experience in the field?
I felt that I needed to acquire more in-depth knowledge on the fundamentals of public health and nutrition, the epidemiology of diseases, research methods, and on setting up study designs, data analysis and impact evaluation. Going back to school helps me become an all-round public health professional but with specific technical expertise so I can work efficiently and effectively with colleagues in scientific discussions.
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine where I’m currently studying, is a great place to gain this technical expertise. It has a good balance of research oriented and practical learning while at the same time being involved with issues that are on the global health agenda. Take for example how the School is actively involved in responding to the Ebola crisis. The School’s Director, Peter Piot, and other senior staff are advising governments and international agencies and between September and December of last year, nearly 500 staff members, research students and alumni had responded to a call for volunteers, offering their skills and services in various capacities. School staff are now working in the field, training clinical teams, conducting research, providing logistical support, and advising governments and international agencies.
Do you already have a clear plan for what you want to do next, once the diploma is in your pocket?
I see this year in school as a period where I can reflect on my past career experiences and where I can define for myself where to go next in development work. This could mean going into a management, technical, research, or policy role. I also find exchange in knowledge a very important part of global health and nutrition. That’s another thing that I definitely would like to get into more. But then again, realistically, it also depends on the opportunities out there in the world at that time. So in that sense, I am ready to explore what will come my way.