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Climate change and food insecurity in Guatemala

War Studies Department alumna, Lena Schubmann, who now works with the World Food Programme in Guatemala, shares how her time at King’s shaped her career success.

Can you tell us about your academic history?

I came to KCL in 2013 for the BA in International Relations (IR) in the War Studies Department. It was the first year that IR was offered so there was a lot of excitement in the department to receive the students and start the new course. After my second year, I spent the summer in Nicaragua for an internship in the German Embassy. I received some support towards the end of my second year to shape the topic for my final year dissertation, so I could already conduct some research during the three months of my internship. I wrote my dissertation about the global and local implications of the interoceanic canal that Chinese investors were planning to construct in Nicaragua at the time. I received the Saki Ruth Dockrill award for the best dissertation at the end of my third year.

I wanted to take my focus on Latin America further, so I studied an MPhil in Latin American Studies at University of Cambridge right after the BA at King’s. This included field work with trade unions in Bolivia. I finished the MPhil in July 2017.

What are you up to now?

I currently work as Programme & Policy Consultant with the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations in Guatemala. I came to Guatemala in August 2017, right after I finished my master’s degree. I received a 10-month fellowship to support WFP in Guatemala on projects and programmes related to climate finance and climate change adaptation. The fellowship was sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service, as pat of the Carlo-Schmid programme to support young professionals to start a career in international organizations. When the fellowship finished, I was offered a position directly with WFP in Guatemala. I have just celebrated my 2-year anniversary with WFP Guatemala.

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Lena working with WFP in Guatemala.

WFP is the largest humanitarian organization in the world and supports countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger). Guatemala faces major challenges related to food security and nutrition, because of structural inequalities as well as its exposure to climate-related shocks. Our WFP team works on different programmes and projects to improve the food security and nutrition of the population, for example through the promotion of climate-smart agriculture, strengthening the national school meals programme, and food assistance. I work on projects that support subsistence farmers that have been affected by droughts to cover their food needs after harvest losses and simultaneously strengthen their resilience to future shocks.

Why did this project appeal to you?

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation and many people are unfortunately still not aware of its impact on humanity. In certain areas of Guatemala, climate variability and change have led to seven years of droughts and prolonged dry spells. Consequently, harvest losses have led to widespread food insecurity, particularly among subsistence farmers. Climate change is not only a future, it is already triggering humanitarian disasters for the most vulnerable and exposed populations.

Climate change is not an isolated issue, and the work with WFP Guatemala has showed me how different factors, such as gender, health and education, interact with changing weather conditions and impact the lives of people.– Lena Schubmann

By working with WFP, I support the most vulnerable people to cope with the negative impacts of climate change, and at the same time increase awareness of this issue at a decision-making level. Working directly with WFP´s field-based projects allows me to get a unique perspective on an issue as globally relevant as climate change and how it is debated internationally and experienced locally.

What is the impact of the work you are currently doing?

The work of WFP Guatemala directly impacts the food security and nutrition of the people we assist. While we cannot change the increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related shocks exacerbated by climate variability and change, we can reduce people’s vulnerability to these shocks by supporting them to adapt. We primarily support smallholder and subsistence farmers to diversify their livelihoods and practice climate-smart agriculture. In 2018, for example, the projects I worked on supported over 7,000 farmers to diversify their livelihoods and enhance their resilience to climate-related shocks.

How did King’s help you get to where you are today?

It was at KCL where I was first introduced to the world of international affairs and started to aim for a career in international organizations.  What I think was quite unique about the IR course at KCL was the combination of theory and practice. In addition to the theory of international relations and power structures, the War Studies department offered many opportunities to speak to and learn from people who have been directly involved in policy-making processes at different levels. I believe that this combination has helped me to get a good understanding of the field of IR and at the same time prepare me for some of the aspects of every-day life in international affairs. For example, in my third year I went on a one-week trip to the Brazilian Amazon, organized by the King’s Brazil Institute to give students an insight into civil-military relations in riverine areas. This was a great opportunity to see first-hand how basic social services are secured and managed in some of the most remote areas in the world.

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Lena with members of the Brazilian Navy.

Further, a lot of opportunities have presented themselves by staying in touch with academia after finalizing university. Last year I was able to publish two essays I wrote as part of my studies, and I am currently in the process of editing another one to be published towards the end of this year. I am a peer reviewer for a few academic journals, and I am currently guest-editing a policy paper series about Brazilian policy-making and south-south cooperation. I find it personally interesting but also professionally enriching to be aware of academic debates about certain topics, especially those related to my day to day work in the WFP.

What advice would you give to yourself in your first year?

Like many of my peers, I already had quite a clear idea of my academic interest when I arrived at King’s. However, the IR course, particularly the first year, gave me the opportunity to explore a wide range of topics, many of which I never thought I would be interested in. Additional to the variety of modules, King´s also offers a lot of extra-curricular activities, such as societies, events, workshops, etc., and I remember that coming to King’s and being exposed to all of this was quite overwhelming for me.  

My advice to myself in first year would be to be open-minded and try as many new things as possible, first year is the best opportunity for that. – Lena Schubmann

In my experience, working in an international organization requires a lot of flexibility and broad understanding of a variety of issues, so taking advantage of the modules and extra-curricular activities at King’s can be a good preparation.

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