Wasana Punyasena is on the move again. After over nine years with Mercy Corps, most recently based in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on May 1, Punyasena stepped into a new role as the Regional Representative for the Middle East at People in Need, an organization based in the Czech Republic. Her new center of operations will be Amman, Jordan. “I’m excited about the new opportunity, and nervous about leaving Mercy Corps after so long,” she says.
With fifteen years’ experience managing complex humanitarian assistance programs in some of the world’s most troubled regions, including Haiti, Iraq, Ethiopia and Sudan, Punyasena’s latest assignments for Mercy Corps were short-term deployments in countries with gaps in strategic leadership positions. In Goma, her role was to lead a consortium of five agencies providing rapid response support to people displaced by conflict and natural disasters in eastern Congo.
Punyasena brings to her new role a deeply reflective approach to the whole system of humanitarian aid. Given its colonial roots, she sasys, there are serious questions about “whether it can evolve to really work hand-in-hand with communities and local actors, be sustainable and not piecemeal.”
She also brings long experience of getting her bearings quickly in new places, connecting with multiple stakeholders, and assessing urgent needs amid conflict and disruption. As a female leader and a woman of color—Punyasena’s family is originally from Sri Lanka—building respect is crucial, she says. And that means gathering “a strong team that you trust,” and then listening and learning from your team, “since they know the context and communities better than you.”
Asked how she keeps a positive focus in the face of escalating human suffering in places where she has led significant humanitarian initiatives, for example in Haiti and Sudan, Punyasena says: “The resilience of communities and the overall beauty of the world is what drives the work that I do. You can never focus on the negative.”
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