Appealing to humanity

HANDS ON: UNICEF regional chief of communications for eastern and southern Africa James Elder in the field in Somalia. Photos: UNICEF
HANDS ON: UNICEF regional chief of communications for eastern and southern Africa James Elder in the field in Somalia. Photos: UNICEF

He’s been shot at in Angola and slept in a bathtub in Libya to avoid gunfire whizzing past his motel.

Mr Elder entertaining children in South Sudan in his role with UNICEF. He says he's continually inspired by the resilience of poverty-stricken communities.

Mr Elder entertaining children in South Sudan in his role with UNICEF. He says he's continually inspired by the resilience of poverty-stricken communities.

His son was attacked by a dog in Zimbabwe and his daughter contracted malaria.

James Elder has had some close calls in his time in a role that has taken him to Africa and Europe.

The son of Goulburn couple Don and Maxine Elder is UNICEF’s regional chief of communication for eastern and southern Africa. He’s home on a brief visit before returning to Nairobi with his wife and young family.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund. The organisation transforms the lives of children in poverty caused by conflict, drought and other circumstances.

Mr Elder’s role involves telling the personal stories of children across 21 African countries, training heads of communication in each country, advocating programs to government and acting as a spokesman out in the field.

It’s a big leap from 15 years ago. Back then he was a freelance journalist working in Sydney and married with a six-month-old daughter.

“I was aware even in my early 30s that there had to be more to it,” he said.

“When you have a child you have a sense of the importance of kids and you do anything you can for children, not just your own. (The role) felt so right,” he said.

Mr Elder admits he didn’t know what UNICEF stood for but once he and wife Nicola had done their research, the challenge was hard to resist.

They arrived in Angola in December, 2002 at the end of a 27-year civil war that had ravaged the country.

“(My job) was to get the story of kids out to the broader media which then influenced donors because Angola, as a Portuguese colony, was completely off the radar,” Mr Elder said.

“It was to tell a story that put kids front and centre in terms of the end of a 27-year war and to ask whether there was any peace dividend.”

The position has also took him to Zimbabwe (2005 – 2008), Sri Lanka (2008 – 2009), Kathmandu (2009) and Florence (2010 – 2013), where he worked at UNICEF’s International Research Centre. Mr Elder has been based in Nairobi for the past four years.

Amid the horror and sadness of extreme poverty, he also sees hope. It was apparent in the intelligent 15-year-old girl from South Sudan who saw her village destroyed, her mother raped and uncle killed. She fled on foot for four days carrying the bare essentials but managed to restart her life in Uganda, volunteering her time at an early childhood centre.

“I could be in Somalia where a woman has walked for seven days and lost a child,” Mr Elder said.

“She’s slightly broken but her entire focus is on getting care for her other kid. When people are that resolute to keep pushing and pushing, then the very least we can do is create that opportunity for them.”

He describes this close access to people as “the greatest privilege.”

Their stories are influential in securing donations for UNICEF. But direct advocacy to governments, convincing them of the need to invest in long-term programs such as health and nutrition, or to de-mobilise child soldiers, also plays a vital role.

Though at times exhausted by the task’s enormity, he says UNICEF’s record in getting “boots on the ground” quickly can make an enormous difference.

“At the end of the day...when I see that individual family and how stoic and relentless they are to keep going and provide the basics for their kids... it does give me optimism,” Mr Elder said.