Mark Canavera is an old classmate of mine from Furman University in South Carolina. After college, I headed to grad school; Mark headed to Africa to begin a career in aid work. We caught up recently over email.
WIB: Who do you work for?
MC: I currently work for an international child protection consulting firm called Child Frontiers. My current work is primarily with UNICEF in Niger, where we are working with the government and other actors (namely international non-government organizations, or NGOs) to conduct a mapping and analysis of the national child protection and family welfare system. This is part of a wider regional initiative supported by UNICEF and a reference group of international agencies to strengthen national child protection systems in five West African countries and to see if there are any systemic commonalities that appear across countries in the region.
WIB: Where have you worked?
MC: I have worked in Côte d’Ivoire, where I oversaw all of the child protection programming for Save the Children U.K. (reintegration of children, especially girls, formerly associated with armed forces and groups; care and support to orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS; efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence; and national child protection systems strengthening); in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps and then with CDA Learning Projects on a project to determine why Burkina has remained an oasis of peace in a region riddled by war; in northern Uganda with AVSI, an Italian humanitarian organization (working on the reintegration of children who had formerly been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and also on community volunteer counseling networks that reached a broader swath of the population); and (very briefly) in Senegal with the Movement to Control Small Arms in West Africa on their advocacy efforts. As a French-speaking American, I feel compelled to work in French-speaking West African countries since many of these countries face enormous challenges but do not seem to appear on the international radar as much as they should for sheer reasons of the language barrier.
WIB: How did you get into humanitarian work?
MC: About 10 days after graduating from Furman, I joined the Peace Corps as an English teacher in Burkina Faso. My parents had been in the Peace Corps and had always spoken very highly of their time in Brazil, but nothing could have prepared me for the eye-opening, challenging, amazing time that I would have as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After that, I had been bit by the international development bug and knew that I would pursue a career in this field.
When I returned to the United States, I worked at a group home for abused and neglected adolescents, and I also grew to love that line of work. Eventually, I came to realize that the field of international child protection could merge my interests.
Finally, the conflict piece. In 2004, I became increasingly interested in working in northern Uganda since nothing I read about that conflict made sense to me — no matter what I read on paper, I could not understand how this conflict had started, what it really meant for the people living in northern Uganda, why the situation seemed to have remained in permanent conflict for so long. When I went to work there, I realized that I really had the right temperament to work in conflict zones — I am neither an adrenaline junkie who needs to move from emergency zone to emergency zone nor someone who freaks out when things fall apart. I pretty much remain functioning as my normal self in these zones, and since then, I have worked a lot on conflict-related humanitarian work, especially child protection in emergencies.