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5 Steps to working at an international humanitarian organisation

5 Steps to working at an international humanitarian organisation

And while the advertised positions might require several years of experience in the field, “don’t let that stop you,” says Rasmus Dahlbom Nielsen, Program Development and Quality Advisor at Mercy Corps.

“You might end up being the exactly the right person for the job,” said Lauren. “Just because you have a degree in art, or a background in chemistry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. A different perspective is extremely valuable.”

What if you’d hate a desk job?

What if you’d hate a desk job?

This time last year, I was in the mountains of Guatemala eating lunch with a man named Ovidio who spent 10 years working for WorldVision. It’s a prestigious international NGO that spends millions doing a variety of different projects all over the developing world.

Get that gig: UNICEF Myanmar

Get that gig: UNICEF Myanmar

Wondering how to get started working in the field? Struggling with not enough experience but eager to cut your teeth at a premier international organisation? The “Get that Gig” series explores unadvertised positions at international institutions around the world, with tips from those who’ve already moved to that country on succeeding in a very foreign environment, and the tools you need to succeed with your application via Insider Connections

A few years ago, Myanmar hit the tourist radar with force, prompting lots of articles about hiking the north of this tropical country close to India and Thailand, and sitting down for cheap beers in its capital, Yangon.

But along with the recent burst in tourism comes increased attention to the country’s social issues, and more specifically, its most vulnerable.

The U.N. has been working in Myanmar since before it became cool to visit the country, and is hiring a paid intern to join their staff in the new year. Read on to learn about how you can kickstart your career at this child-focused organisation:

UNICEF office in Yangon

About the organisation:

UNICEF has been working in Myanmar continuously since April 1950. Despite difficult political and economic circumstances, UNICEF helped to successfully initiate programmes to protect children against small pox, leprosy and yaws. Over time, UNICEF expanded its programs to support the development of rural health services, basic education for children, and community water supply and sanitation systems.

On being intellectually curious:

“‘How’ and ‘Why’ are among your favourite words, and you are always looking to understand what works, and what doesn’t, to help transform international development. You have a desire to help UNICEF Myanmar and its partners to do their work better for children, and deliver the evidence they need to improve the programmes that they deliver. This includes excellent listening and communication skills and the ability to learn and share knowledge.”

– UNICEF Myanmar

UNICEF Myanmar 2

On learning to adapt:

“…rental is expensive for expats in Yangon but the quality of apartments is rather poor. As the infrastructure is not advanced, there are power cuts, interrupted access to water supply and other issues. I had to learn to manage such issues and to set up my apartment with whatever I needed. It helped that I made a few friends who were of great help.”

– Shane Neubronner, from Singapore

Maro Verli for Frontier Myanmar

On working with the past:

“Those who succeed in Myanmar must have their “eye on the bigger picture,” dealing with short-term discomforts and the peculiarities of a country awakening from fifty years of isolation.”

– Jonathan Harvey, from the U.K.

On safety:

“…there are no muggings, it is completely safe to walk alone at night and you can leave your shoes outside your house knowing they will be there in the morning. Even if you forget a bag, keys or phone somewhere public it’s likely they’ll get returned to you.”

– Gaston Baquet, from Chile.

They won’t give you hateful stares:

“When visitors look just the slightest bit lost, locals are known to come running in hope of offering a helping hand. Many locals will often approach visitors just in hope of practising their English. No scams, no tricks: just friendly Myanmarese looking to chat.”

– Kelly Iverson

It’s not that remote:

“Yangon is not the ‘wild west’: there are enough shops/restaurants and cinemas to make your stay more than comfortable. Although you shouldn’t expect wine, caviar and toast points, there are enough shops, restaurants and cinemas to make an unadventurous expat happy.”

Giles Dickenson-Jones, from Australia

But don’t look for luxury:
“Expect cold water bucket showers and holes in the ground serving as toilets!”
– Kelly Iverson
UNICEF office photo via The Irrawady, Refugee camp photo via Maro Verli, market photo via Ian Appelbe, canoe photo via Kaylin Chen. All other photos via UNICEF Myanmar. 
How to build a network of like-minded people

How to build a network of like-minded people

Back when I’d first moved to Bonn, I was pretty sure I was going to become a photographer. So I bought a DSLR, made my family pose for hundreds of photographs, and spent hours playing around on LightRoom, trying in vain to become a pro […]

3 tips to a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

3 tips to a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Working at BGMF is not for the lackadaisical, and the sharp, intelligent, and extremely diverse group of individuals who make up the Foundation reflect its commitment to recruiting the brightest. So how do you become part of that elite group, working at what one of the Foundation’s Deputy Directors describes as a “purpose driven organization, with smart colleagues and amazing benefits” ?

Ultra-specialization: the secret to being a successful consultant

Ultra-specialization: the secret to being a successful consultant

We sit across from each other, broad cups of peppermint tea cupped in our hands, oblivious to everyone else.

I am seduced by his wavy blond hair and blue eyes, easy smile and rich vocabulary. Earlier that evening, he told me about graduating from the world’s top university, and his new job in the capital city, with a large, sort of bureaucratic and slow organisation.

“Doesn’t seem like you,” I say. “Wouldn’t you rather do something else?”

“It’s a 9 to 5,” he says. “I want to do something after five p.m., something more flexible.”

“What are you thinking of doing?” I ask him, totally jazzed to find a kindred spirit in entrepreneurial passions.

Obviously, I want to launch right into a sales pitch for becoming a consultant, but the moment is not quite right.

“Well, they have the best hot pot at my favourite restaurant in Shanghai,” he says, face full of nostalgia. “I thought about opening a hot pot place, maybe make it fusion cuisine.”

I lean back, slowly sipping my tea. All previous sentiment evaporates immediately; I am unimpressed by his silly business ideas.

“What do you think of that idea?” he asks with his boyish grin, and I wonder, do they teach them this charm at the Ivy Leagues?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I say in a flat voice, setting down my cup. “Go ask your clients. They are your buyers, it’s what they think that counts.”

“I’m still curious to know your opinion,” he insists, and I think, damn, he’s good.

“I don’t want to play in the $2 sandbox,” I say. “I’d rather play in the $200 sandbox.”

He looks a little nonplussed. I decide to try a different tack.

“Think about what you’re already good at,” I tell him, trying to also say, ‘Dude! Forget the Chinese restaurant!’

That brilliant white smile reappears: “I’ve done tennis coaching at $50/hour!” he says. His face lights up, and it’s immediately obvious that he is more than very good at tennis, not least from his rate.

“But just I don’t know how I’d scale that,” eyes turn towards his now-empty cup.
“Just record lessons on the fastest backhand ever,” I tell him, “And then put it online. That’s your scaling-up strategy.”

“Yeah, but nobody learns tennis online,” he counters swiftly.

“My brother learnt the breaststroke from YouTube videos,” I respond, slowly. “And everything I know about classical dance is from watching videos of the New York City ballet.

“What about those kids in Belarus, who can’t play tennis outside most of the year? Or the ones in Egypt who love the game but can’t afford to rent a court for an hour?” I say, remembering the hours batting the fuzzy green ball against the walls of our tiny city apartment as an eight-year-old.

“That’s true,” he says, eyes distant.

The conversation moves on to travel and growing up in a country in which your parents no longer live; like me, he spent his influential 13 years in a place where education outranks entrepreneurship, with parents who pushed learning from books over lemonade stands on the street, and an expensive education that makes you think, I should have a LinkedIn-worthy job title.
Who would he be if all he did was teach tennis on the internet?

But consulting is counter-intuitive, in that, even in the NGO world where everyone is obsessed about getting that prestigious position at the U.N., it’s not about playing the prestige game, it’s about high-quality service to tightly-defined, “niched-down” clientele that you want so much to succeed, they feel it instantly. Think less “climate change and sustainability” and more “project management for five-year projects run by certification schemes in Southeast Asia. After two full months studying the consultancies published every day, 33 conversations on Skype and in person with my colleagues and old friends, to learn what most bugged them about their projects and where they really needed help, and endless hours perusing the websites of the organisations that interested me, I knew my clients so well, I could even predict which projects they would not invest in.

To my own surprise and delight, my clients – people passionate about improving livelihoods, just like me – have been a joy to get to know. Interview after interview, my heart swells with feeling; I want so much for their projects to succeed, I’d happily work for free. Instead, thanks to gentle goading from my mentors, I’ve worked on asking them to pay me the rate I believe is fair, and they say, “Fine, of course, no problem,” or “Yeah, sure, totally.”

Thanks to a relentless focus on what my clients need (rather than what I’m most passionate about this month), my consulting business has grown from a restless desire to do more into a business serving large international orgnisations poised at the forefront of anti-poverty work, and phone calls from old friends to say, “We’re looking for someone, do you think you could help us with this project?”

Start from what you know how to do in your sleep, remember that studying your clients never stops, and let the people you want to serve guide you to your first (and second and fifth) contract.

Because there are some things they don’t teach you at Harvard.