While presenting for the “Work That Matters” panel, Charlie Sell ’10 wanted to keep
his talk upbeat, but admitted that was a challenge when discussing his job the past
three years trying to help the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Sell recently wrapped up that work, in which he served as a grants management officer
for the non-profit, intergovernmental International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Based in Geneva, Switzerland, IOM provides humanitarian assistance to migrants — including
refugees and internally displaced people — in need in more than 100 countries.
For the past two years, Sell was based in Goma, a city in the eastern part of the
DRC. Goma became the center of a refugee crisis when nearly a million refugees fled
there over the border during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Rwandan forces later stormed
Goma, and a rebel-based movement in the city killed thousands more. Numerous outbreaks
of violence in the city have occurred since then — and, to add to the strife, an active
volcano destroyed almost half the city in 2004 and continues to threaten the region.
With the IOM, Sell sought funding to support the 50 or so displacement camps “filled
with internally displaced people who have left their homes to move to another part
in the Congo to seek safety. We have about 150,000 people living in these camps.”
Most are women and children. “The men are in the army, they’re in the mines, so they
are not really present.”
“Our responsibility was to maintain basic standards in these camps: distributing plastic
tarps, building toilets, making sure there’s runoff, making sure there are wells for
drinking water, distribution of the plastic jerry cans so they can transport their
water — the very basic things needed for people to survive.”
Ensuring survival is important, but improving lives beyond that standard is where
the going gets tough in a place like Goma, Sell says. “When you look at it with a
critical eye, we’ve been doing the same thing there for 20 years. And so you have
to wonder at some point whether we’re actually having any positive impact on the development
of the country.
“The people don’t expect certain services from their government because we’re there.
And so this entire development of a nation-state never really takes place because
the government doesn’t do anything — it’s the NGOs and UN community that come and
provide basic services.”
Sell experienced similar frustrations when trying to fulfill another aspect of IOM’s
mission: promoting “stabilizing” activities in a region to help dispel the ongoing
humanitarian crises. Sell managed numerous infrastructure projects “designed to enhance
the presence of the state,” including work with the DRC’s police and army.
“The state is so dysfunctional that the army and the police, who have AK47s, they
don’t get paid, they don’t receive regular salaries. They get their monthly salaries
through any means necessary, and so when you try to enact reforms within a highly
corrupt system, it just doesn’t work very well.”
Overall, Sell maintains a positive view of his Congo experience. “Being out in Eastern
Congo, being able to see history live out right in front of you, I very much enjoyed
that. And I was very happy to be part of a dedicated, hard-working and diverse team.”
Sell, who is now 27, is considering his next move after returning to the States this
winter. But he’s not stressing, at least not until he hits 30.
“Have fun with your twenties — don’t let your college days be the best days of your
life,” he advised students at the “Work That Matters” event. In addition to learning
a foreign language, Sell told students to “put yourself in the right place, where
you can find the next step.”
For Sell, that place was Geneva, Switzerland, where he spent a semester his junior
year studying international organizations such as the Red Cross. In 2011, he returned
to Geneva on a coveted Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship that allowed him to study
for his master’s degree at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
“It was a great place to learn,” he says, “because Geneva is really the heart of international
diplomacy. Our teachers included renowned ambassadors, statesmen and stateswomen.”
Sell, who majored in political science at IWU, also won a prestigious Dunn Fellowship
that allowed him to work in Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s Washington, D.C., office for
an entire year after graduation.
Looking back, Sell cites two Illinois Wesleyan experiences, in particular, that helped
determine his current career trajectory. One was the course “Classical Political Thought:
Democracy in Athens and America.” Taught by Sociology Professor James Simeone, the
course introduces students to the great texts of classical political thought and the
key questions that prompted those texts.
“It was challenging and surprisingly relevant, given the title,” says Sell. “I continued
to run into the readings/concepts we dealt with in class while studying outside of
The second experience happened over lunch with Simeone and Deborah Halperin, director
of IWU’s Action Research Center. “In discussing community action, their advice was:
identify the relevant stakeholders and their interests.
“Turns out that is universal,” says Sell with smile, “and it’s helped me navigate
through all of my professional adventures thus far.”