Amid political upheaval, violent conflicts and a humanitarian crisis affecting over 2.7 million people, Kyung-wha Kang ’81 MA, ’84 PhD recently traveled to the Central African Republic and Cameroon to assess the situation in person. As the United Nations (UN) Deputy Humanitarian Chief, Kang is concerned about waning support for emergencies like this.

“We need a larger and wider sense of global community,” says Kang. “People need to reach beyond their immediate confinements and really understand what’s going on at the other side of the world because it eventually affects everyone.”

Kang was appointed as the UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator in March 2013. She oversees management of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and is the principal advisor to the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos.  

OCHA is responsible for supporting and coordinating the humanitarian efforts of UN agencies, health organizations, NGOs, and in some cases governments, to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

“When Ebola broke out, we were able to quickly pull together public health experts from around the world and deploy them to Liberia to assess the situation,” explains Kang “and then help set up a core coordination body of health officials, government lead agencies, information management and reporting specialists and fundraising, so the response could take off.”

Although the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and health emergencies are increasing, it is the conflict-related situations in places such as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan Congo and Afghanistan that make up the majority of the agency’s caseload.

Photo credits: OCHA/C. Illemassene

As a result, one of the biggest challenges facing the humanitarian relief sector is the safety of its field staff. “Humanitarian workers themselves are now increasingly targeted and have been killed while trying to do good work for the people who are suffering,” says Kang. All OCHA operations must abide by a security management system, which works to maximize information collection, analysis and reporting to ensure situational awareness at all times.

Kang began working in the human rights field in 2007 as the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights with the United Nations. Prior to this role, she was the Director-General of International Organization at the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She credits her advanced studies in communications at UMass Amherst with providing her the high-level skills needed for intercultural communications on the global stage.

Despite the increased need for humanitarian intervention and aid, Kang remains hopeful for positive change around the world. “After the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a huge period of elation for people who work on human rights to seeing the outbursts of citizens in these oppressed societies rising up to claim their rights.  And now four years later, we are back to agonizing for the people who are suffering from that,” notes Kang. “History doesn’t evolve in a linear fashion and there are always ups and downs but I can’t think of a better cause to dedicate one’s life to.”