Issue 120 | Jan-Mar 2020

A Heroine for all Humanity

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami launched Ms Selly Amalina Muzammil’s (Arts and Social Sciences ’09) lifelong mission to fight hunger globally. The NUS Alumni Awards 2019 winner talks about her passion to save and transform lives.

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WHO IS SHE?

A 2019 NUS Alumni Awards winner, Ms Selly Amalina Muzammil started working with the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) in 2005. In 2007, she embarked on a master’s degree in international studies at NUS. She now heads WFP’s governmental partnerships unit at the regional bureau for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

It was Christmas Eve 2004. I was flying back to Indonesia from Egypt with my grandmother when our plane encountered one of the worst instances of turbulence ever. Thank God we landed well, but just days later, the Boxing Day tsunami happened.” Ms Selly Amalina Muzammil, 36, is recounting the incident that changed her life. The native Indonesian felt compelled to help in the relief efforts, but knew that donating money or items was not enough in such a disaster. “I volunteered with World Food Programme,” she says. “I joined the emergency team and we worked 8am to 11pm daily. The damage was unprecedented; we were also on the go, day after day. Knowing that there were people on the other side suffering, that kept us going.” The World Food Programme (WFP) is the food assistance arm of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organisation that delivers food in emergency situations. It also works with communities to build resilience. “That experience gave me great satisfaction and it still does,” says Ms Muzammil. “The impact is almost immediate: we bring food to the disaster area, to people who are entirely dependent on food aid.”

Such was the impact of that experience with WFP that she decided to pursue a career in humanitarian aid. She joined WFP’s Jakarta office in 2005 as an administrator for tsunami emergency response, handling coordination with Indonesian governmental institutions such as the Ministry of Social Welfare. The tsunami was not a one-off problem. “There were also floods following the earthquakes; in fact, it was never dormant during that period. When the 2006 Bantul earthquake happened, I was sent in as a first responder,” she adds.

Today, more than a decade on, Ms Muzammil is still with WFP — now as Head of Government Partnerships, managing donor relations at WFP’s Regional Bureau for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. “I’m passionate about the vision and mission — which is Number Two of the UN’s list of Sustainable Development goals — to end world hunger by 2030. We are supporting the ones who are furthest behind,” she declares. While she recognises that the 2030 target is unlikely to be met “unless there is peace”, she is determined to stay focused on stewarding partnerships with donors towards that aim. WFP works purely on a donation basis; while its biggest donors are, naturally, governments around the world, it is also supported by companies and individuals.

Knowing that these programmes keep girls in school instead of ending up as child labour has kept me grounded and appreciative of the fundamentals.

When Girl Met World

It’s not a typical career, but then, Ms Muzammil had no ordinary upbringing. The daughter of a career diplomat, she spent her childhood moving from country to country and absorbing the finer points of diplomacy. “As a kid I didn’t know what it was all about, but travelling appealed to me. I would watch my father go to conferences and meetings, and when I was older, he would sometimes have us at events where we got to meet people from international communities, and learn how others live,” she describes. Her late father Mr Muzammil Basyuni was posted to Tunisia, Brunei, the Middle East, Egypt and Spain, where she attended high school and university. “My work has brought me back to many of these places; it’s serendipity,” she says with a smile.

In 2007, after working for WFP in Jakarta for two years, she decided to further her studies, choosing to do her Master’s degree in International Studies at NUS. “I picked NUS after having done my research on the best global studies programme,” she says. “I gained a lot of knowledge. It was a very unique programme that offered cross-departmental studies,” she elaborates. “I did courses in international law, policy studies and Islamic law over at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and the Fundamentals of International Relations under Professor Terry Nardin. I learned how international law, politics, and economics work; as well as the differences in the policies across cities. The design of that programme shaped me: the setting of the campus, the quality of teaching, it prepares you for the real world.”
Ms Muzammil with girls who live in the Egypt-Libya border region.
After taking her last exam in November 2008, Ms Muzammil went on a pilgrimage with her family. While the understanding had been for her to return to the Jakarta office, an opening emerged at WFP in January 2009, and she entered a new role with the organisation, working at the country office in Syria, assisting Iraqi refugees. As its Public Information and Reports Officer, Ms Muzammil’s task was to ensure that information on emergency and development projects was accurately conveyed and in a timely manner. But as she explains, everyone in the office works together toward a common cause. 

Filling Stomachs, Nourishing Spirits

One of the most significant initiatives Ms Muzammil helped to conceptualise was a “SMS food distribution” strategy that served to revolutionise food aid. “WFP provided monthly food assistance to Iraqi refugees, so we gave out boxes of food, and at the same time, in 2009, we piloted a new programme in places where markets were viable. Instead of handouts, we created an opportunity for people to choose what they wanted to eat. Everyone had a phone, and WFP used that platform to send US$22 worth of food vouchers to registered Iraqi families living in Damascus. They would use these vouchers at partner organisations who could provide fresh food, get their nutritional intake as well as protect their dignity — and it supports the economy. That was a pioneering move, now it’s global.” This programme is now employed in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, parts of Yemen and across the Middle East region. 

One happy outcome of this scheme is the way it has empowered women. “When we first started giving out cash-based transfers, it used to be the men collecting aid. With the vouchers, we saw the Syrian and Iraqi women coming. Food is really important: being able to cook the simplest rice and salad is everything. For them to be able to buy an egg and cook it for their kids, that’s priceless.” For Ms Muzammil, who is married with two children, aged 5 and 4, being a mother and a foodie (she cooks Indonesian cuisine to relax, roping in her kids) makes this situation all the more urgent. “I relate to mothers not being able to feed their children,” she says. “Being hungry is not nice.”

Another thing WFP does is school feeding through programmes like Food For Education, she explains. “We see early marriages, because there’s nothing in it for families to send their girls to school. But education is a basic right for girls. We also run female literacy programmes, because many of the women and girls are illiterate. Knowing that these programmes keep girls in school instead of ending up as child labour has kept me grounded and appreciative of the fundamentals of why we do what we do. When they look in your eyes and say thank you — that’s what we convey to our donors, when talking about the value of our work.” 

Hunger in Perspective

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Text by Theresa Tan. Main photo by Mark Lee.
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