From IWU Magazine, Spring 2016

The complexities of doing good

Charlie Sell

Sell visits a displacement camp in the eastern DRC. Efforts to bring an end to the country’s long-standing displacement crisis have so far been unsuccessful.

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 Wesleyan.”

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.”