Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

"We at the regional office are working towards a new narrative for young people in the region, one that recognizes the agency of youth, their contribution to their societies’ development and their innovative skills rather than being objects susceptible to radicalization, extremism and being the source of community ills."

Nihal Said

Voices from the Field: Nihal Said from Egypt

HI² -- Tell us about your current role as the Youth and HIV Programme Specialist at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) Arab States Regional Office. What kind of projects are you currently involved in?

I joined the UNFPA family more than 3 years ago, first at the Egypt Country Office managing the adolescent and youth portfolio to implement large scale national behavior change interventions, emphasizing youth leadership in addressing Egypt’s population challenge and combating social norms associated with gender based violence and harmful practices of FGM, and child marriage among young girls. Late in 2018, I moved to the UNFPA Arab States regional office to support the youth and HIV program. As part of my current role, I work on developing guidelines and protocols on youth programming for both development, post conflict, and humanitarian settings. One of the main projects I am actively working on is a flagship project piloting assets-based programming for adolescent girls in the region. This project is expected to decrease the high rates of harmful practices and promote life skills development to equip girls with confidence and abilities to not adhere to such detrimental social norms in their communities. The project’s rationale is investing in adolescent girls’ social, economic and health assets by creating a social safety network of older adolescent girls (15-19 years of age) who mentor younger adolescent girls (10-14 years of age) in the community. Additionally, we at the regional office are working towards a new narrative for young people in the region, one that recognizes the agency of youth, their contribution to their societies’ development and their innovative skills rather than being objects susceptible to radicalization, extremism and being the source of community ills. The discussions around the need for a new narrative started at the Youth Forum in the Arab Region where I was part of the technical team of the forum. The forum aimed at creating a space for youth to talk, reflect, and come up with solutions and policy recommendations in a multi-stakeholder platform.

HI² -- What kind of connections have you been able to draw from your media and audience research and communication for development research with aid/humanitarian effectiveness? What role does the media play in combating humanitarian and development issues?

Media and audience research has been instrumental in my work on development and humanitarian program design, implementation and advocacy. Skills related to understanding your audience (i.e. beneficiaries) and stakeholders, understanding their needs and interests and planning through quantitative and qualitative means, communicating interventions, programs and policies to cater to different audience and using communication interventions to address complex behavioral issues are all skills I acquired during my studies. For example, when working with UNOCHA, I was engaged in a communicating with an affected people initiative where we voiced the needs and recommendations of affected people in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq when preparing for the final products of the World Humanitarian Summit. During my work at UNFPA in Egypt, I crafted interventions using communications and entertainment for educational and development means. One program used music to educate young people about issues affecting women and girls such as female genital mutilation and its associated norms, women’s decreased access to family planning, and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Another program used sports and sports challenges to promote the leadership of youth in addressing Egypt’s population challenge and raise awareness about the harmful impacts of child marriage. Such communications and entrainment interventions attracted the masses of young men who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in a gender-based violence campaign and defending women and girls’ rights. Using communications in a way that applied to the audience—in this case young people—motivated them to know more about the issues, discuss these issues which are usually silenced and entrenched in local culture, and then inspired them to take action against the issue and also employ their skills and interests in music, arts and sports to address these issues.  To this end, I am very proud that I was engaged in a variety of entertainment education projects in Egypt that are based on many of the techniques I was introduced to in my studies on communications and development such as social mobilization and diffusion of innovation and other theories and techniques.

HI² -- How have you used your skills as a statistician to address humanitarian issues, specifically in your recent work with technology and AI interventions? In your opinion, what is the value of software development, big data and AI in humanitarianism? 

As a statistician working for the population fund before and during when I worked for UN OCHA, I had the opportunity to use statistical tools to inform interventions, policy and research products. For examples, when working with OCHA, I was part of a team working on a data innovation with Microsoft using big data to fill in the data gaps in the humanitarian overview in Libya, especially at the time when UN agencies and humanitarian actors had access limitations. This exercise used social media and publicly accessible data, including from Arabic accounts, to provide information about the situation on the ground and especially about issues such as IDPs, protection needs, prevalence of gender-based violence, and the security situation in certain areas.

Additionally, when working with UNFPA, I had the opportunity in a partnership with the Ministry of Youth and Sports and IBM to explore solutions to the reliance of the ministry on paper-based data and the need for updated databases to document beneficiaries, reach out to them after accessing services, and measure the effect of the program and interventions at their 5000 youth centers.

As a result, my statistical and quantitative data analysis background makes me interested to tap into the potential use of technologies in real-time data collection and analysis and especially using unconventional data sources (i.e. social media accounts, news feeds and other types of big data) to gather evidence about needs of populations