In Nairobi, aid community struggles in wake of ET302 crash

Delegates at the United Nations Environment Programme world environmental forum observe a minute's silence in memory of the victims of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 plane crash, at the U.N. complex in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS / Baz Ratner

NAIROBI — In the United Nations’ Nairobi complex in Kenya, which houses several agencies, the mood has been subdued since the shocking news that 157 people were killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash on Sunday morning.

Country delegations huddled as travel itineraries were checked across the complex to identify colleagues or friends who could have been on the plane.

“Our colleagues lost their lives on their way to UNEA4 where they hoped that their work would contribute to creating a better, more sustainable world. We best honor their memories by delivering on that hope.”

— Amanda Kistler, communications director, Center for International Environmental Law

Many of those on board the flight from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, home to the African Union headquarters, to Nairobi, were on their way to the U.N. Environment Assembly, UNEA4, which is taking place this week — leaving the humanitarian sector particularly hard hit.

At least 45 aid professionals and those working for international organizations are believed to have been on the flight, including nine from the African Union, seven from the World Food Programme, and six from the U.N. Office at Nairobi, or UNON.

As aid groups struggle with the loss, many of those working in emergency and disaster relief situations feel the cruel irony of an incident no amount of risk training or security could prevent.

Passengers and crew hailed from 35 countries, a reflection of the diversity traveling one of the most popular routes on the continent, especially with those frequenting the many U.N. and development agencies, charities, and aid posts in the surrounding region.

The day following the crash, a memorial town hall was held for staff at the Nairobi complex who could be seen consoling each other in the hallways. A reception set to take place on the opening night of UNEA4 was canceled.

As acting director-general of UNON, Maimunah Mohd Sharif said during the opening plenary of the conference on Monday morning: “In the wake of this tragedy, it has been difficult to navigate how to proceed without showing disrespect to the many lives lost.” But she assured attendees that global environment leaders “will not forget this tragedy, nor those who perished in it.”

Amanda Kistler, communications director at the Center for International Environmental Law, is attending the meeting as a civil society observer. She told Devex: “For those of us who made it safely to Nairobi, the tragedy has solidified the importance of what we are doing here: Our colleagues lost their lives on their way to UNEA4 where they hoped that their work would contribute to creating a better, more sustainable world. We best honor their memories by delivering on that hope.”

Another attendee, Jane Patton, interim coordinator of the United States arm of the Break Free From Plastic movement, added: “We're all working to put on a brave face and still get the work done while we're here, but the effect has clearly been profound for a lot of us.”

ET302 passenger Joanna Toole, who worked at the Food and Agriculture Organization, was a close friend of some of Patton’s delegation colleagues. It has been a moment of rallying support for them while continuing the work of monitoring negotiations on the outcome document from the meeting as they process this tragedy.

“I cannot begin to imagine what people are feeling inside or how that has affected their work,” Patton said, adding: “Carrying the weight of ‘that could have been me’ gives a new perspective on the issues at hand.”

Kistler also said “the crash and the loss of dear colleagues and friends has had a significant impact in the mood and emotion level” at the environmental meeting. She noted she and her colleagues find it “hard not to feel an extra layer of frustration” as certain countries block or delay progress on actions governments could take to better the environment because “people died trying to get here to make progress on these issues.”

Beyond the U.N. environment meeting, the flight carried several aid and humanitarian workers including CARE employee Immaculate Odero, who worked as a regional security officer in the Horn of Africa.

“As a humanitarian organization that works in conflict areas and disaster zones, we spend a lot of time preparing our staff for different risks,” Emma Naylor-Ngugi, CARE’s regional director for East, Central, and Southern Africa, told Devex. Odero’s role “was an important part of our training program … She worked tirelessly every day to assure her colleagues were safe,” she said.

Groups including the Norwegian Refugee Council and Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children Denmark, the World Bank, and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency reported losing staff members as well.

The U.N. secretary-general’s spokesperson confirmed to Devex that 22 of its staffers were on the plane. WFP and UNON appear to have suffered the largest losses. In addition, three staff members from the UN Refugee Agency; two from the International Telecommunications Union; and one employee each from the FAO, the International Organization on Migration Sudan, and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Somalia were on the flight.

The agencies are issuing separate statements with the names of the victims as their families are notified.

About the author

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    Mythili Sampathkumar

    Mythili Sampathkumar is a New York-based journalist covering development, the U.N., foreign policy, and U.S. politics. Her work has appeared in outlets like The Independent, LA Times, NBC News, Foreign Policy, Vox, and PRI.