Helping is a privilege, says David Korpela, whose work career is focused on conflict resolution and support for the most fragile states in the world. He works in places where development cooperation initiatives are needed the most. Korpela graduated from the Master’s Programme in International Development Cooperation, at the University of Jyväskylä, in 2008.
David Korpela has gained plenty of international experience and language skills since his childhood. He is Finnish Canadian, born in Canada, but lived in Kenia and Malavi for his childhood and teenage years, altogether 16 years. His parents were engaged in development cooperation there.
“My parents are of Finnish origin. I speak Finnish with my mother and English with my father. I had a couple of school years in Canada as well and learnt some French there.”
Korpela states that well-rounded language skills have been a huge advantage: “This field lacks qualified professionals who speak French and Arabic.”
Korpela completed his basic studies at Queen’s University in Canada. He wanted to return to his Finnish roots for the time of his further studies and started in the Master’s Programme in 2006. “I began my studies at the University of Jyväskylä, in the Master’s Programme in International Development Cooperation, in order to have a Nordic perspective, which in my opinion integrates both practicality and innovativeness.
“After my highly structured and performance-centred basic degree programme, the relaxed and self-directed character of studies in Jyväskylä made an impression.”
Korpela felt that in Jyväskylä learning, dialogue, and exchange of ideas were placed before academic performance. “It created an open environment for reflection in our highly multicultural programme,” Korpela says. “Unlike the programmes of other universities, the studies in Jyväskylä emphasised the practical skills and knowledge needed at work in the field of developmental cooperation.
“The study programme included a compulsory internship period. During it, I worked in the area of the great lakes in Africa, which encompasses Ruanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. My job was in a non-governmental organisation, and I took interest in humanitarian aid, which is a frontline activity in conflicts and natural catastrophes.”
After his graduation, Korpela got a job at the university. As a senior planning officer, he was building relations between Finnish and African universities. The aim was to launch various development research projects together. “I understand both these worlds, Western and African. At the university, I had my hands full of interesting work.”
The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 offered Korpela an opportunity to apply his studies to practice. “A Finnish foreign aid organisation asked me to work for them, and my boss at the university said I should go for it!” The practical lessons gained in the courses dealing with project cycle management were put into use during the two years he worked for Finn Church Aid in Haiti.
“It was a privilege to become involved in such work. I also felt that if we are to do something, let’s do it properly!”
After Haiti, Korpela moved to East Africa, working in Somalia, southern Sudan, northern Kenia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Mozambique. He worked there first for Finn Church Aid and later for the European Union. The daily life in Mogadishu, for example, was very hard in comparison to Finland. Korpela slept with a bullet-proof vest and a helmet under his bed, and he could not move freely around in the area. Life in conflict areas is very burdensome.
Now he is working in Brussels as Chef de Cabinet of the EU Special Representative for the Horn and is having a break from “difficult” target areas. “One must listen to one’s own limits,” Korpela states. “By burning out you cannot help anybody. The most fragile states in the world are not capable of organising a stable administration on their own and they also lack conflict management skills. Violence is spreading like a disease; a victim adopts violent behaviour, and violence becomes gradually normal in society.
“I am going to return to work in places where the building of peace, humanitarian aid, and development cooperation initiatives are needed the most.”
At present, Korpela’s job includes a lot of commenting and reflecting on whether the right measures are deployed in conflict areas and which projects and operators are supported. He also follows much of global discussions as well as internal discussions within the EU and UN.
“Forgiving after a conflict is hard for states. Legislation is very much black-and-white by nature, but a human being is much more than law and regulations. Human understanding is often forgotten, especially after a war.”
The Master’s Programme in Development Cooperation prepares the graduates for working with other cultures and in their work they have a chance to apply what they have learned in practice in a creative and innovative way. These studies have also yielded a network of professionals working in different parts of the world.
“I am still in contact with many people who graduated from the same programme, as we have become good friends, leaning on each other for personal and professional support, which a challenging career in this field calls for.”
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