Michael Penrose on 'humanitarian field experience'

The new Unicef UK chief executive on how being kidnapped by Chechen rebels failed to diminish his motivation

Michael Penrose
Michael Penrose

One of the qualities that Mike Penrose, the newly appointed chief executive of Unicef UK, says he will bring to the job is what he calls "humanitarian field experience".

He's putting it rather blandly: in 1996, at the tender age of 24 and on his first mission in a new job at the French humanitarian charity Action Contre La Faim, he was kidnapped by Chechen rebels, along with several colleagues, and held hostage in the Chechen capital Grozny for two months during some of the conflict's most intensive urban fighting.

But he says the experience did not diminish his motivation - if anything, he says, it increased his commitment, and he went on to do another seven missions with ACF. "It gave me an understanding of what it's like to be trapped in a conflict, without access to the basic necessities," he says.

"When you're an ex-pat, you always know that if you press a button you can usually leave, but for a while I lost the ability to leave - and this was during some very intensive fighting."

Virtually his whole career, he says, has been focused on children, starting with his first venture in the charity sector as a 22-year-old volunteer. After that he worked at Oxfam, ACF and the Department for International Development. Later, after four years as humanitarian director of Save the Children International in Geneva, he returned to ACF as chief executive in 2013.

In France, everyone gets to participate in strategy, and it means everyone has bought into the outcome

Michael Penrose

Penrose was the first foreigner to lead a major French NGO and was viewed, he says, with "a mixture of suspicion and excitement". But there are plenty of French working practices he hopes to bring back to the UK, he says: "In France, everyone gets to participate in strategy and help to determine the direction of the organisation.

"And as much as that can be quite time-consuming for a leader, it means the outcome is something everybody's bought into and is already mobilised behind, so implementing the strategy is quite often much, much easier."

The biggest challenge he foresees in his new role at Unicef, he says, is the sheer scale of the need that exists globally. "As the sector works out how to shape itself to be able to meet this extraordinary need, it will be a very interesting time to join the world's leading children's human rights organisation," Penrose says.

"The role was one I really felt my whole career had been leading up to - when I saw it was available, I went for it straight away."

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