How do we get involved?
Getting a job as an aid worker seems to pose numerous obstacles for many people who want to play a part in it. It is somewhat of a pretentious industry; often demanding multiple qualifications in various disciplines yet the work itself is rarely rocket science. More often than not is only requires someone with basic skills yet have practical capability and as I have frequently found, overly qualified people frequently are the least practical but the organisations stick with that. Entry into the UN for instance requires at least graduate degree level and puts a lot of emphasis on higher qualifications.
There are various entry levels however I am only going to discuss entry into the non government sector or the United Nations and perhaps start with a summary of my own entry into the field.
In 1999, I was working as a mid life crisis portrait photographer although I was long qualified as an engineer and had worked in the construction industry managing medium sized projects for more than 10 years some time earlier. There had been an earthquake in Istanbul that had been particularly devastating. I had a fondness for the place having been there some years earlier. At that time there were some significant changes in my life and I had an epiphany, the world needs more engineers than it needs photographers.
I did some research on the internet and found a number of possible organisations who I thought might be involved in the reconstruction process of Istanbul. I wasn’t looking to work on the relief process. Overall, I think I applied to about forty different organisations but none were offering any work in Turkey. It was by chance that an organisation in Sydney replied some six weeks later saying they didn’t have a position in Turkey but they were looking for an engineer to run a shelter project in Kosovo. I hadn’t thought about that before even though I had seen images of the war taking place. All I could think was that they were shooting each other over there.
There was more research to be done over the next couple of days, even going so far as to ring the office of the organisation in Kosovo to ask more questions about the job and the probable conditions of employment. Within a week, I had made the decision to go and had a basic agreement in place and a ticket in my hand. By the following week, I was landing at Pristina airport.
With the benefit of some experience, getting the next contract was relatively easy. This time it was in Afghanistan where I was appointed as a Field office Manager in Jalalabad, this time for a small US based NGO.
As I concluded that first six month contract, an opportunity came up to take on a position as a UN Volunteer in Kandahar. There had been a couple of UNVs before me but each had quit early. It appeared there were a few problems that needed sorting out and they were not experienced enough or sufficiently qualified to manage that. With the agreement of the Country Director, I was not required to go though the usual long winded process to get to be a UNV. It is the lowest entry level into the UN however it is very competitive and many developing country nationals are given a priority.
I should point out that the UNV compensation is very low. It is a basic stipend that covers the cost of living plus a small amount extra. At the time however it was about the same as I was getting with the NGO but the prospects were better.
Within a matter of six months, the Program Manager position for the program I was working on came available. I applied and was successful, this time on a UN salary. Besides being the Program Manager, I was also tasked with being an advisor to the Minister for Urban Development. A year later I applied for another position at a senior UN level that had been advertised in the Economist and again I was successful. This involved a change of ministries. Now at a D1 level, I was the Senior Advisor to the Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development as well as the Program Manager with a team of some dozen or more multi-disciplined international consultants and a large national team embedded in the Ministry offices.
When the program was destined for a two year renewal, I ended my contract, enabling someone else to take it forward. I was tired. Two and a half years of stress had come at me from all quarters, particularly related to the declining security of the country. I decided to take some time off. It was only a matter of two weeks however when the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean. I had sent an email to the regional head of UNDP indicating that I was available for a short term contract if they needed me. He put me in touch with the country office and within a matter of a week I was back on the plane to Djakarta then on to Banda Aceh.
Aceh was particularly trying. With death and destruction evident everywhere I was still tired so after three months, finally took that break I had promised myself. I found a beach in Thailand and relaxed. I did however list my resume with various agencies around the world and after about 12 months of beachcombing, I was offered another contract in Afghanistan, this time by a Texas based construction firm to work with DAI, an American for-profit organisation who had a USAID contract to construct public infrastructure on the Afghan side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
While I had left Afghanistan because of the security issues and the limited protection that the UN offered, this position came with a well armed, close protection security team. At the time there were some forty international staff and a security team of around 240 international and armed and trained guards.
At the end of a year-long contract, I took another break. Eventually, a contact I had made while deployed in Kandahar with UNDP called me up and asked if I would be interested in a position with IOM to manage a permanent shelter reconstruction program in Pakistan following the 2010 floods.
Shortly after this was complete, there was another position available with IOM to lead the technical team for another USAID led hearts and minds program building public infrastructure, this time on the Pakistan side of the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
I had no sooner completed this contract when I was again recruited by IOM to lead a team rebuilding housing and public infrastructure following a typhoon in the Pacific nation of Micronesia.
Throughout it all, I have through application, been given three contracts and apart from progressions within the system, for the majority of my UN engagement I have been head hunted by individuals I have met over the course of my work
All in all, I have worked for non-profit and for-profit organisations as well as the UN in different countries.
The question I am asked a lot by people is how can they get a job with the UN? To be honest, I don’t really know since I didn’t arrive ther through conventional processes. I have been lucky, they have come to me. My best advice is to keep applying. Aside from the UN Volunteers, there are other entry level options such as interns while some offices within the UN have junior officer positions available. Reliefweb.int is a free website maintained by UNOCHA, the Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs is the main source of all UN jobs in addition to each agency and often each country office running their advertisements on their own websites. That will involve a degree of research however most of it is readily available.
Additional to that is Devex.com, a commercial website that also includes a number of non-relief jobs.
Beyond that, my advice would be to prepare a good resume and cover letter and submit it to the human resource sections of as many organisations as possible noting your qualifications, your experience as it relates to aid work and your availability for immediate assignment. At the time of each new crisis, although agencies are required to have a complete and acceptable recruitment process, they are frequently scrambling to find suitable candidates and if they are organised, will seek the availability of people on their registers.
Be persistent. In my first engagement by ADRA, I had applied to some sixty organisations before anyone answered me.