Passionate About People
A conversation with Birgit Philipsen,
the first female regional director of ADRA.
By Kimberly Luste Maran
But Philipsen is not new to the relief organization. After attending college in Collonges, France, with her husband, she taught high school in Norway for a short time. The call of ADRA was too loud to ignore, and in 1991 Philipsen joined the staff of ADRA/Denmark as a secretary. During this time she and her husband raised their three daughters, and Philipsen learned everything from finances to logistics to program development. In 2000 she became ADRA/Denmark’s country director.
Although more than 70 percent of her time in the past two years has been spent in grueling travel around Africa, Philipsen is enjoying her new role in ADRA. She is uniquely equipped for the position. In addition to her passion and experience, Philipsen’s graduate work in development, through a program from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States has paid dividends. Philipsen wrote her master’s thesis on post-traumatic stress disorder in development workers. Her research showed that similar to soldiers, development/relief workers are exposed to high levels of stress and trauma through working in regions inundated with war and poverty. They have also been, in many cases, subjected to personal risk of rape, assault, and theft in areas where people are desperate. Some—mainly spouses and volunteers—suffered stress because they had no clear purpose or job description. She discovered that training that prepares the relief worker (and their spouse) for what may lie ahead in the field, as well as follow-up in the coming months and years after a worker has returned to “normal life,” is crucial and can promote a successful outcome for all involved.
Speaking Faroese as a child, Philipsen also knows English, Danish, Norwegian, French, German, and “quite a bit of Creole.” She is currently learning Kîswahili. What follows is a conversation I had with Philipsen in 2007.
How Does ADRA Work?
KM: When did you become interested in relief work?
BP: In high school in Norway when I was 18. I saw a film about missionaries and all of a sudden I felt like God was calling me to go to Africa. I got some very clear answers to prayer that I was supposed to go to Africa, so at 19 I went as a student missionary. I had actually planned to become a teacher in Norway, but I went to Africa instead. I spent one year in Sierra Leone. After getting married, teaching in France, Norway, and Denmark, and working for ADRA in Denmark for 15 years, my husband and I moved to Africa in 2006.
Have you had the opportunity to share your faith through your work?
I have that opportunity every day. Working in a donor setting provides contact with government and embassy people—people who are very highly educated and highly placed. I have found so many opportunities to talk about what ADRA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church are doing. And I have always made it a point to explain to them that ADRA is the agency of the Adventist Church. Often they say they don’t know a lot about the Adventist Church; and that leads to many good conversations.
When we bring evaluators and journalists who know nothing about us out to our projects they become some of our greatest spokespersons. They’ve seen our programs and how we work, and they go away impressed.
There are a lot of relief and development agencies out there; explain why ADRA is special.
Our connection with the church. I have worked very much in the donor world, with most of my experience in Denmark. We had quite a few evaluations and visits of consultants from the government and outside companies, and one thing I heard many times is that they were amazed at the commitment they saw. We are a faith-based organization. ADRA work is not just a job—it is a calling and a commitment, and you can sense it even among people of other faiths who work with us. They’re influenced by this Christian culture.
What are some ways you see ADRA supporting the mission of the Adventist Church?
The most important way we support the church is by encouraging and helping Adventists reach out to people in need around them. Often, church members, especially young people, have difficulty identifying with the church. Young people don’t always enjoy a lot of theology, but in ADRA they see a challenge, an identity—they see a serving church.
As a church we may have a tendency to want people to come to us. We invite them for meetings we think that they should attend. ADRA works differently. We go where people are—we help anybody in need, and this outreach is an extremely important part of the church and its mission.
I am glad we have Adventist institutions that provide ADRA with highly qualified people to ensure quality in ADRA’s work. That might be one of the reasons why ADRA succeeds in some places where other organizations don’t—we have a lot of committed people who have been trained at our church institutions. They often have a strong sense of mission, and they become committed and effective workers in ADRA.
Tell me about things ADRA is doing that many may not be aware of.
BACK TO SCHOOL: Children in Kosovo arrive for a day of classes at their newly reconstructed school. ADRA assisted in the building project, which was funded by the Danish government.The church runs a large number of schools and institutions worldwide, and ADRA can assist with training of staff and improvement of facilities. But ADRA also has a mission to assist people who aren’t able to attend these institutions. Talking specifically about education, not everybody can go to Adventist schools, so ADRA complements our education outreach. We conduct literacy programs for adults who have never been able to attend school. We also engage in education for women, health education, HIV/AIDS education, and so on. ADRA can assist some of the health institutions within the church with equipment and training. But we can also reach out beyond the walls of the institutions to do community health work and train people on how to prevent the diseases that would require treatment at our clinics or hospitals.
In ADRA/Denmark we had three main focus areas in our programs: education, health, and emergency response. Toward the end of my work with ADRA/Denmark we realized that in Africa it’s important to try to assist communities with developing the capacity to solve their own problems. We worked toward doing integrated programs in the community by combining education, health, and food security—focusing on community development as the overall goal. In Rwanda, for example, we had thousands of people join functional adult learning programs, teaching people not only to read and write, but also important life skills such as gardening, nutrition, health education and languages. When you combine literacy training with the teaching of skills that immediately improve the quality of life of the students, they learn both more efficiently and effectively.
ADRA/Denmark also engaged in some large and very successful primary school education programs. In the 1990s we received support from the Danish government to construct and equip 110 schools, train 5,500 teachers, and establish 80 parent/teacher associations. The communities provided local building materials and volunteered their services for the construction. An essential part of the program was the in-service training for teachers because a high percentage of them were not qualified. In order to retain teachers in the rural areas, we also had to construct houses for them. To secure good management and maintenance of the schools, headmasters received management training and, together with community members, they were instructed on how to maintain the buildings and equipment. Finally, we established and instructed the parent/teacher associations.
NEEDED ASSISTANCE: ADRA workers help build one of 3,500 latrines in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan.Kosovo is an example of how ADRA/Denmark works in a post-conflict situation to reestablish social services. When refugees who had fled to Albania returned after the crisis in 1992, we were planning on helping with housing. But our assessments showed that many organizations were already engaged in construction of houses, so ADRA/Denmark decided to assist with reestablishing the education system in Kosovo.
ADRA assisted with training teachers among the Kosovo Albanian people, but the first step, of course, was to reestablish the schools that had been destroyed by the war. UNICEF coordinated the education programs and assigned a number of schools for ADRA to rehabilitate or rebuild. The new school year started a few weeks after our project commenced, and it was crucial to get children back to school in order to create some normalcy in their lives. In the beginning we provided facilities in tents and empty buildings. Gradually we were able to reconstruct and rebuild the schools, and within two to three years all of the students were back in proper classrooms. When most of the 110 schools were in place, we started training teachers and assisting in history curriculum development. We organized meetings where people from high levels of the [government] ministries, experienced teachers, and historians from different ethnic groups would meet and discuss how to go forward on developing the curriculum. This actually became a peace-building activity where people who previously were enemies learned to work together in establishing the curriculum and even establish true friendships in spite of ethnic and political differences.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
As the development and relief organization of the Adventist Church, ADRA needs strong support from the members. It is very important for ADRA to receive the disaster relief funds that are collected in the churches. These funds and other donations from members enable ADRA to be on the scene immediately when disasters occur. This in turn gives ADRA access to larger funding from governments and other funding agencies for emergency response. Donations from church members also enable ADRA to apply for external development funding that requires matching funds.
ADRA also has an important role to play in helping church members understand the importance of reaching out to people around them—not just by preaching but also by helping people with their needs and responding to their needs. Some of the needs are spiritual, but many are social or physical. ADRA and the church should work together on this. Skilled church members can serve as volunteers, and ADRA can train them on how they can serve people in their communities.To be able to work with people and to see how your work is something that is really changing people’s lives for the better. I am passionate about this work; people are the priority for me.
Disappointments and frustrations come along. How do you handle these challenges?
First, I know that I am never alone. God is always there. I’ve often faced challenging situations in which I just had to say, “God, you have to help me now.” He has never let me down. I think that is one of the secrets of being able to keep going because the work is very demanding and you are constantly thrown into situations in which you really don’t know what to do.
Second, keep things in balance. For example, even when things are hectic, I make it a point not to compromise on Sabbath. There must be a balance between work, and also between work and family life. To be honest, it was very difficult when my children were young—it was a constant struggle between priorities to keep things steady. On the other hand, having a demanding job also enriched our family life through the sharing of interesting experiences in pictures and stories.
Third, learn from others how to have fun and enjoy the blessings in life. In ADRA, you always meet and work with people who know how to laugh and have fun even when things are very tough. A good laugh keeps me going—and finally (but not least important), I know I’m doing the job that God wants me to do.
If readers are interested in serving ADRA, what are the steps that they should take?
ADRA can use people with a variety of educational backgrounds. Don’t think that by doing one type of education you will end up in ADRA. Very often the best people we have are people who have a college degree in the field that was of interest to them at that time but take a graduate program in development later. That gives them a specific area of technical expertise combined with skills in development, and they become very useful ADRA workers.
How do you get in to work with ADRA? Try to volunteer for a few months or a year, and then you will know what it is to work with ADRA at the field level. You will also get to know people in ADRA, and you can see what it is you are really interested in doing within the agency.
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of Adventist World magazine.