Cultural Specialist for Transitional Justice and Conflict Resolution
Elke Selter is specialist in culture for transitional justice and conflict resolution. She is driven by a fascination for ‘exploring’ and ‘grasping’, which is what, more than a decade ago, lead her towards an international career. From the Balkans to Mali, Haiti to South Sudan, her professional path through the so-called fragile states, crisis and conflict zones, has foremost been driven by a passion to understand global as well as local events, just as much as by a fascination for the complexities of history and the world’s cultural diversity. Elke enjoys being challenged by designing initiatives that work with culture and heritage for advancing justice and recovery, and to make them happen.
For the past 15 years, Elke has worked with different agencies of the United Nations, NGOs and bi-lateral donors in innovative program design, planning and evaluation. She worked, among others, on the design and establishment of a national archive for South Sudan, the rehabilitation of conflict-affected heritage in Bosnia and Mali, and has been training CSOs in Burundi, DRC and Haiti on the role of culture and memory for dealing with the past. After more than a decade in the field, Elke is currently advising UNESCO on the establishment of a rapid response facility and on the creation of its first-ever crisis response programme, including for the development of partnerships with humanitarian, peace and security actors. She has been coordinating research with regards to engaging with armed non-state actors, and on the protection of heritage under international humanitarian law and is responsible for the development of training materials for crisis response in the culture sector. Building on her professional experience, Elke has recently started working on a PhD. Her research focus on how the actions and priorities of the international culture sector are impacting transitional justice efforts.
What are some of the websites that you visit after you get up and why?
My New Year’s resolution was to put off checking websites as long as possible after waking up. So nowadays, switching on the radio comes first. I prefer the early morning to be filled with music, and only the most essential news updates.
Tell us about a book that has had an impact on your life and why?
Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Algebra of Infinite Justice’ was a serious
reality check during my first job abroad. The compilation of essays is an eye-opening, critical account of large-scale development and investment projects in India. It helped me draw those indispensable red lines, which I vowed to never cross.
Who are your favorite authors?
Amitav Ghosh wrote my favourite book of all times: The Glass Palace. But I enjoy the work of many great story tellers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi or Hanya Yanagihara. I am also a fan of ‘Congo’ by, fellow citizen, David van Reybrouck, because there are only few history books that so effortlessly teach.
What historical figure do you identify with?
There are many people whom I admire, but ‘identifying’ with, not really. I wish I had the strength and endurance of Mandela, the bravery of Joan of Arc, or the grace and eloquence of Michelle Obama, but to be honest, when I think back to the past 15 years and everything I have experienced, I identify far more with a fictional character like Alice in Wonderland – a girl who at some point followed a crazy rabbit and ended up in a strange world in which everything that she had grown up with as being ‘normal’ suddenly was put into question. There have been crazy events and extraordinary creatures crossing my path, sometimes to a point where reality became hard to distinguish from fiction. To quote the Cheshire Cat: "You must be mad or you wouldn't have come here".
Who are your heroes in real life?
Those who dare to stand up for what they believe in, who take risks, and who remain kind despite everything they have gone through. I had the honor to work with some truly amazing people, who are not only inspiring, but who are real heroes – the type of person you wish you were, but if you are fully honest, you cannot help but wonder if you would be brave enough. People like Omar Massoudi, the director of the Kabul Museum; Abdelkhader Haidara who led the community effort to bring thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu to Bamako and managed to save 98% of the collections before the town was destroyed; Father Najeeb, a Dominican priest from Mosul who put everything he could save into the trunk of his car and drove through Daesh checkpoints claiming it were ‘just old books’. They all placed the future of their communities, the need for the next generation to have traces of where they came from, above themselves.
What is your favourite occupation?
Professionally I get most inspired and energized by giving trainings; but I also enjoy advisory and planning assignments because for me these are the ideal way to use creativity and vision without getting too much stuck in administrative and organizations hurdles. Outside of work, I love to write stories, non-fiction.
What influenced your career path?
Above all, the ‘path’ was
influenced by a series of decisions not to quit when things got tough,
mixed with always choosing what felt right instead of what others,
organizations or career-ladders seemed to expect. Although, I probably
would have never even ended up on this path without my high-school
history teacher - because she made me curious about the world and then
pushed me to go out and find answers for things I wanted to understand
better. And because she had a knack for telling stories: she used to
drag piles of books and postcards with her to class, and she made us
dream of faraway places, while telling us about the people she met or
read about. She taught me how stories, culture, heritage are excellent
for instigating a capacity to aspire, something that I have taken with
me ever since.
What do you like about what you do?
I like that I have managed to
combine a rather uncommon mix of interests into a way of making a
living, and that I can spend most of my time doing something I love.
Of course, I also enjoy that I get to travel to places where most
never go to, and to meet very interesting people. It is perfect for
feeding my natural curiosity, and to keep an open mind.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
When I started
my first job abroad, I thought it was going to be a 3-month perk,
after which I would return home. So many years later, I am proud to have lasted far longer than those 3 months, to have been able to work
in places I never even dared to dream of, and to have survived in this
field of work. I am proud to have persisted, to have kept on believing
in the importance of considering culture in conflict and transition
when very few others did, and to have arrived at a point where I start
seeing the results of that.