Working abroad: Geneva

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Home to the United Nations and countless other NGOs, Geneva has long been a centre for international development and cooperation, set amidst snow-capped mountains and azure blue lakes that match the outdoorsy Swiss culture. But what’s it actually like, living and working in the city alternately called Genève and Genf? Here, we speak to four people who lived thereon their experiences working in the city often considered the NGO capital of the world.

On a multicultural, international environment:

“Geneva is a great city to meet new people, to grow your professional network and to learn about the U.N. system since most agencies have a representation there. In that sense, Geneva is one of the best places to work, since it offers you many opportunities that a city like Quito, where social and professional lives mostly revolve around the same people and topics, cannot offer.” – Thomas Debrouwer, former intern at the International Labour Organisation

“Geneva is more international and is easier to meet people of the same mind both culturally and professionally. Bonn is a pleasant and clean place, but one tends to suffer from professional and cultural isolation.” – Asfaha Beyene, Senior Advisor, Green Climate Fund

“I have colleagues from all over the world and who have traveled everywhere. This makes the work culture very varied and very diverse. It is also an opportunity to learn a lot about the functioning of different governments and international organizations. Having colleagues who have worked in several different places over the years, you hear the most amazing stories and get the best career advice.” Caroline Vernaillen, Communication Analyst, Stop TB Partnership, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

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On working at headquarters:

“Before coming here, I worked in Morocco, which has a very oral culture: if you want to get something done, you have to talk to people. Arriving in Geneva it took some time to get used to the European email culture again. Colleagues who sit in the next room will email you with a simple question instead of coming over to ask. It’s a different mentality.”  – Caroline

“As an African, I had a hard time to adjust to a more formal and planned life. You are not expected to show up in someone’s office and be attended without prior arrangement. It is not easy to bump into a colleague and suggest ‘how about lunch’? People tended to have planned their day, and are less willing to adjust. In Africa we go with the flow…” Asfaha

“I was shocked when I found out that offices in my building were completely empty at 5 p.m., and that most people there seemed to be more interested in their career progression than by the content of their jobs. The ILO headquarters is a perfect example of a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, where 4 000 people perform their daily tasks with loose coordination, and often without purpose. I remember talking to a girl about her work while queuing at the cafeteria; she told me she was working on the exact same topics as me, but I had never heard of her before!” – Thomas

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On a transitory environment:

“The city is a microcosm where local and the international communities live side-by-side, mostly ignoring each other.  The downside of living in Geneva is that it can quickly appear as an artificial place where expats stay for a couple of years before moving to a place where they can live a real life and develop professionally.” – Thomas

Not just for international development:

Geneva has plenty to offer, ranging from the artistic (media, communications and advertising agencies) to the financial sector, real estate and all the international organizations with their headquarters here.  – Clarisse Encontre, Project Coordinator, The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID).

“You can meet tons of interesting people every night in one of the numerous events organized for foreigners – from skiing trips to fondue dinners – and it is easy to live without speaking a single word of French, since expats are always around the corner. – Thomas

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On living in a beautiful city:

“The views of the lake, the mountains, and the fact that it’s not very polluted all make Geneva very beautiful, particularly in summer.” – Clarisse

“Geneva is a picturesque city and the climate is wonderful during the summer; chilling around the lake during sunny months is an absolute highlight of the city.” – Thomas

On what you should know before coming:

“Geneva can be a lonely city. A lot of people who arrive here find it hard to meet people. The nightlife, and life in general, is quite expensive and so people who have established groups of friends prefer to have drinks at home. Especially in winter, the city can feel quite dull. But in summer there are a lot of free, outside activities: there are festivals, you can go swimming in the lake. Everything really comes to life.” – Caroline

Geneva is an extremely expensive city and it would be preferable to have a salary at the level of local living standards to avoid being frustrated by the numerous opportunities that one cannot afford. Winters are dark and last for half the year, as though the city is in hibernation, completely boring if you cannot afford weekly trips to the nearby ski resorts.”” – Thomas

“Read as much as you can about Geneva before your arrival. Unlike other major international cities, Geneva does not necessarily open its arms to receive you, you must explore it to enjoy it to the full.” – Asfaha

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Do you currently work in Geneva or are you thinking about it? What was your experience like ?

 

Top photo by Mohamed Zohny, bottom photo by Anaïs Velay, and the rest by my dear friend Regina Saavedra, with kind permission.