Born and raised in one of Limburg’s smallest villages, UM graduate Judith van Doorn has long been a woman of the world. As a microcredit specialist at the United Nations (UN), she is abroad more often than not. Having lived in the Caribbean, Switzerland and Ethiopia, she is now on her fourth adventure abroad with her husband and children, in Pretoria in South Africa.
Her parents, who owned a road construction company, used to ask her if she’d ever consider settling in their village in Vaals. “As a teenager, it was already clear to me that I wouldn’t”, she says. “But back then I could never have imagined that I’d travel all over the world. Holset is a tiny hamlet with only 160 residents. The contrast with the world cities I’ve lived in over the last 20 years couldn’t be bigger.”
Van Doorn studied Business Economics at Maastricht University, but she knew something was still missing. “I realised during the programme that I didn’t want to work in the business sector. So afterwards I headed for Wageningen to study Development Economics. I wanted to do something meaningful, to contribute to society. Of course, at that time I had no way of knowing whether I’d actually like it. So I joined a group of women on a cultural exchange and went to Kenya for a month. That’s where I really got a taste for it.”
Next, through a secondment programme of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she went to Trinidad & Tobago as a UN trainee. “My education definitely helped me get my foot in the door at the UN. Looking back, that combination of business and development economics really suited the vacancy.”
She and her husband Raymond spent two years in the Caribbean. “Then I had to find a job in a different location. We ended up at the headquarters of the UN in Geneva, where we stayed for five years. After that, we decided it was time to go back to the Netherlands. I resigned from the UN, we bought a house in Eindhoven and we tried to feel at home there again. But living abroad never lost its appeal.”
So when the opportunity arose five years later, Van Doorn jumped at the chance to return to her old employer. Her husband embraced the idea too; and so, with their two sons aged 3 and 5 years old in tow, they moved to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. “We were excited and maybe a bit apprehensive,” she says. “But we figured we wouldn’t be the only foreigners with small children there. After four years I was transferred to Pretoria, and that’s where we’ve spent the last two years.”
Van Doorn’s work focuses on local bodies like employers’ organisations and trade unions. She advises them on how they can provide the people they represent – workers and owners of small- and medium-sized businesses – with financial services, such as loans, savings accounts or insurance. “And I develop training courses for this target group on how to manage their money.” She also negotiates with local authorities on packages of services, like training and coaching for small-scale entrepreneurs. “This takes me across South Africa as well as southern and eastern Africa; I probably fly two to three times per month.”
Van Doorn and her family live in a compound 20 minutes from her work, in the outskirts of Pretoria. “The compound is a village in itself. Security is a concern in South Africa, so it’s guarded around the clock. At work I have to go through a barrier as well; you can’t just wander inside. All my colleagues travel a lot, so we’re used to communicating with each other by email. I work in a team with 15 colleagues from 15 different countries. Mainly people from Africa, but also a few from Europe.”
Five days a week, the family employs a nanny. “The boys are old enough for school now, so she mainly just has to be with them when they get home. When the kids were younger she helped out a lot more with the actual childcare. These days they speak English fluently and take the school bus to school; a very American thing, but also very practical.
“My husband – who also studied at UM – works as well; that’s always been important to him. Fortunately he’s always managed to find work in the places I was sent to, although it wasn’t always easy because of work permits and such. He works in the ‘regular’ financial sector and loves travelling even more than I do. He also loves meeting people from different countries and cultures.”
In some respects the Limburg native envies people who have settled in the Netherlands. “On the other hand, the international way of life is fascinating. Living in the Netherlands again really opened my eyes to that. Once you’ve had a taste of travelling, it’s difficult to get used to being at home again. Our children get on a plane as if it were a bus. Whenever we visit the Netherlands we just take an overnight flight and sleep on board. The world becomes a lot smaller that way, and family and friends are a lot closer.”
Judith van Doorn (1969) obtained a master’s degree in Business Economics at Maastricht University and specialised in Development Economics at Wageningen University. In the Caribbean office of the International Labour Organization (ILO), she was responsible for small enterprise and cooperative development. She has also worked as a microfinance expert at the ILO headquarters in Geneva, and in Ethiopia. She now works for the ILO in South Africa.
This article is reprinted with permission from UM Magazine.