Sam Gbaydee Doe’s amazing journey to the United Nations

Sam Doe, in front of the UN building. - Photo by Jon Styer
Sam Gbaydee Doe, in front of UN headquarters in New York City  (Photo by Jon Styer)

This would be a good one for a storybook on heroic peacebuilders.

The path of Sam Gbaydee Doe to peace work started with being an undergrad in Liberia heading toward a banking career; through to being a semi-starved refugee; then to studying at Eastern Mennonite University (for his MA in conflict transformation) and Bradford University in the U.K. (for a PhD); co-founding the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding; finally working for the UN in Liberia, Fiji, Thailand and Sri Lanka; ending up in NYC, helping craft policies that may affect millions in the 177 countries where the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) works.

All in 20 years.

Somewhere along the way, Doe married, became a father, and eventually sent his firstborn to EMU for her bachelor’s degree (she’s now in medical school). And, perhaps most remarkable of all, friends and colleagues say he’s stayed the same “Sam”: almost as skinny as he was when he first landed in the USA, wishing Americans knew that squirrels on campus spell FOOD when you’re starving; good-humored but dead serious about why he’s doing his work (to prevent and relieve suffering); down-to-earth, the opposite of arrogant; really smart, though he doesn’t make others feel stupid; and centered in his Christian faith, which seemingly keeps him from getting cynical and discouraged.

A child killed by adult madness

Did we mention that Sam Doe is courageously compassionate? When You Are the Peacebuilder, a 2001 spiral-bound book co- edited by Doe and published by EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, contains this snippet of one of his experiences during the long years of civil war in Liberia:

By July 1990 we had gone without food for nearly three months and were hiding under beds and between concrete corners most of the day. One day there was a temporary cease-fire and I decided to take a walk, just to flex my muscles.

While walking around this slum community, I came across a young boy, lying under the eaves of a public school. I remember his face like it was yesterday. He was just skin and bones.

I stood over him for quite a while. His mouth was open. Flies were feeding on his saliva. In a surreal moment, I raced to a nearby community to find something edible. I found some popcorn being sold for fifty cents.

I bought some and dashed back to this child. I stooped over him, slipped a few pieces of the popcorn into his mouth, and waited anxiously to see him chew the popcorn and regain his strength. “Chew your popcorn, you innocent child.” I said to myself, “God has answered your prayer.”  

About ten minutes passed by but his little mouth remained frozen. It must have been half an hour later when, with a last rush of energy, he opened his eyes wide and looked at me.

Our eyes locked. He shook his head, and closed his eyes. After several minutes, his movements slowed and eventually stopped. The child had given up the ghost. I began to cry profusely. I asked myself, “How many children like you are dying right now throughout this country? How many have been swallowed in the madness of adults?”

I made a pledge to that boy, that I would work for peace so that children could live…. I have never turned my back on the promise I made to that nameless and faceless child. 

Unwelcome report on Sri Lanka

In the longest UN assignment that Doe has yet held – 2007 to 2010 – he was the “development and reconciliation advisor” for the UN office that was coordinating all the work being done in Sri Lanka, as its war was grinding to a bloody finale in May 2009.

Reassigned to New York, Doe was one of nine UN advisors and experts behind a 2011 report that detailed “credible allegations” on the part of the Sri Lankan government during the final stages of that country’s war, including: “(i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii) denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict…; and (v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government.”

The report spoke of the need for the victorious Sri Lankan government to recognize the root causes of the long-standing struggle waged by the Tamils, an ethnic minority group in Sri Lanka, and it called for a “genuine commitment to a political solution that recognizes Sri Lanka’s ethnic diversity and the full and inclusive citizenship of all of its people.”

As can be imagined, the Sri Lankan government did not welcome this report, even though it also detailed human rights abuses by the Tamil fighters.

The UN itself did not come out glowing in this report, since it failed to protect Sri Lankan citizens, who died by the tens of thousands during the final year of warfare. As just one example, the UN was unable to halt the government’s shelling of UN food distribution centers and of Red Cross ships picking up survivors from beaches.

Reading between the lines, you’ll see that Doe and many other UN workers were not safe in Sri Lanka during this period. To this day, especially following publication of the UN report on Sri Lanka, Doe thinks it “inadvisable” for him to visit Sri Lanka.

On the road, trying to stay grounded

Doe’s job title today is long and complex, as most UN titles are: Policy Advisor and Team Leader, Policy and Planning Division, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Programme. He is also the co-leader of the UNDP’s resilience-building agenda.

In late October 2013, Doe was in Jordan, assessing the situation of Syrian refugees and its impact on the future prospects of all peoples in the region, especially those in neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Before that, he was in Panama where he focused on violence prevention in Latin America, and in Indonesia and Timor Leste (post-conflict situations) gaining an understanding of the resilience they must develop to deal with climate change, natural disasters, and conflicts. In Senegal and the Sahel region, stricken by drought, he joined other experts to explore ways to support resilience at the individual, household and larger societal level. Doe also is in regular contact with the European Union in Brussels to garner support for the UNDP’s crisis prevention and recovery work.

Doe does not stick to tidy conference rooms. He seeks out the feelings and thoughts of average people, especially those who are refugees and displaced. “It’s important not to become disconnected – one needs to go and find out for oneself,” he says. “Policies must have a human face. Occasionally I try to bring victims to speak at the UN [headquarters]. There’s no point in writing big policies in New York if they don’t affect lives on the ground.”

Inspired by generosity to Syrian refugees

Twenty-four hours after returning from assessing the Syrian refugee crisis this fall, Doe focused on the awe and gratitude he felt for the sacrificial efforts by countries surrounding Syria to help its people.

“Turkey alone is running over 20 refugee camps on its territory,” Doe told Peacebuilder magazine. “Turkey is spending $40 million every 24 hours – forty million dollars each day – to feed the refugees from Syria. They have spent $2 billion in the last 18 months, without receiving any help from anywhere. I’ve never seen this level of generosity anywhere else in the world; it touched me.”

Jordan, too, has spent close to $1.5 billion of its own funds, asking its citizens to tighten their belts to help the refugees. “Jordan cut back on the bread and water passed out to its own soldiers in order to use it to give to the refugees, and the soldiers understood and didn’t complain,” said Doe. “They see that their kinsmen are in trouble, and they want to help.”

Lebanon has poured $1.2 billion into refugee support.

Doe knows that these countries can’t keep this up. “It’s only moral and humane that other countries in the world complement the support that Syria’s neighbors are providing.” The UN’s refugee group has less than 50% of the funds it needs to address the Syrian crisis, Doe adds.

But, in the long run, “we can’t just keep shipping packets of food to these people. We have to find permanent solutions.” Such solutions are far beyond Doe’s hands, and yet his reports will merge with those of others and turn into on-the-ground help somehow. At least that is what keeps Doe working hard and finding reasons to be optimistic, day in and day out.

Like most UN employees, Doe mainly works out of the public eye. In the fine print, one can see that he was consulted for a major 2012 report titled Governance for Peace: Securing the Social Contract, issued by the UNDP Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

Once a year, Doe teaches “Conflict-Sensitive Development and Peacebuilding” as a volunteer professor at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. For him, being in the calm of Harrisonburg, Virginia, surrounded by motivated students eager to play their roles as peacebuilders, is the ultimate break.