Week of the International Student
Interview series

Interview with Robert Okello

"As someone who has always been critical of the work of humanitarian organizations and their contributions to my home, I now have the opportunity to cross to the other side to influence interventions that address the local needs of people using my own experiences."

During the Week of the International Student (16-21 Nov), we will introduce you to five different international students who studied at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Today, we'd like to introduce Robert Okello who is doing a MA in Human Rights, Gender and Conflict studies, and is SJP student representative at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague.

Technical difficulties

When we meet Robert in an online video-meeting, it takes about 20 minutes to set up a working connection. Robert refers to the situation as "so striking for the current time and measures" and manages to set up a new connection that is stable. Finally, we get to know more about Robert!

In Robert's introduction he tells us that he is from Northern Uganda, Gulu: a post-conflict-recovery region with a history of civil conflicts marked by instabilities, destruction, and displacements for decades, only cooling down since 2010– when the rebels were pushed out of the country's borders. Robert immediately talks about his area of expertise: law and social justice mobilization. Even though this field has long been his area of interest, his first degree was a Bachelor of statistics. Robert explains to us in more detail why he didn't pursue a law degree, to begin with.

"I have always been very interested in doing law and becoming a lawyer. However, doing law is a very expensive venture for vulnerable families in Uganda because, Education is highly privatized and very expensive, and the law degree takes about five years. If you can't afford it, you simply can't go."

That doesn't mean, however, that his knowledge of statistics has become obsolete. Robert tells us that statistics play a vital role in his everyday decision-making and he applies the concepts in his work. In the legal field, he says “data is key when measuring access to justice during project implementations”. After concluding his degree, he joined a legal innovation-driven NGO called Barefoot Lawyers Uganda as a volunteer and developed into a full Partnership and Development officer, a position he holds up to now. With a keen interest to develop his legal career, he joined a law school and pursued a diploma in law, before moving to the Netherlands to pursue his MA at ISS.

"I was privileged to be offered an OKP scholarship this year, to come and pursue a Master's in Human Rights, Gender, and Conflict Studies at ISS. This is an opportunity I don’t take for granted, as I've been working in this field for the past 4 years and it has shaped my life. There was a lot of competition for the scholarship, and this year was my second try, but I managed to get it and could start my journey to the Netherlands."

Leaving Uganda in lockdown

Which by far wasn't easy. Uganda was in total lockdown and the airport was closed. Somehow Robert managed to acquire all the necessary approvals and was able to travel to The Hague. Here he aims to become a link between international (humanitarian) organizations and local interventions. With the experiences from his childhood, Robert believes he can help organizations deliver a people-centered project that addresses the needs of local people.

"I am in the middle of crossing from the vulnerable society into humanitarianism. All of my childhood can be associated with vulnerability. For decades, Northern Uganda was entirely a refugee camp. We're surrounded by over 8 refugee camps and every day you would see 'night commuters' that sleep in the city centers and go to the villages by sunrise. In this period, I have seen a lot of efforts from international organizations and the United Nations agencies, but to this day, there hasn’t been substantial change. I find the mode of delivery questionable and have always been critical about this. I hope to influence policy changes, both at local and international level that builds a foundation on human rights-based approach to development"

That is what Robert hopes to get from his time at the International Institute of Social Studies- which he loves. He is fascinated by the diverse environment and the opportunity to broaden his cultural lens. Some cultural aspects, however, may still be too much for him - Dutch breakfast routines - but he is excited to learn as much as possible.

"The Netherlands is great - apart from the weather that is going bad right now... and the food for the first week. Oh my god! The bread every single day! The country is beautiful and The Hague does not feel so foreign. Yes, it is Europe, but you can easily see international people and feel the flavor of diversity. It gives you that idea of a welcoming place."