“What is the graduate programme that I can apply to for this sector?”
“Without a Masters will I be unable to progress at some point?”
“I only speak English, does this mean I have no chance?”
“I can’t afford to live in Geneva without a paid job, does that rule me out?”
Any discussion of how to get into the aid sector inevitably includes these kinds of questions. It’s a tough sector to crack in to and there are numerous stories about the rules of entry. Many of them are fiction; some however, are sadly true.
If I was designing a new aid sector, then one of my first priorities would be clear career pathways. It might not sound like a key element in a sector established to help those in desperate need. But I disagree. This is a sector that should showcase accountability, transparency and empowerment. One of the best ways to do so would be to role model it from the outset – entry to the sector. If its members are surrounded by these behaviours and values, then it’s inevitable that they will be manifested in how the work is undertaken. Human beings are known to imitate the environment they reside in.
Currently there are few career pathways for entry to the aid sector. And those that exist are not permanent – the UN recently closed its Youth Professional Programme, previously known as one of the entry points for young enthusiasts from around the globe. A similar DFID scheme, has just been reinstated (DESA) but for the past five or so years had no fresh intake.
For economists, the Overseas Development Institute runs a fellowship programme that gives graduates of economics and statistics an opportunity to get decent overseas work experience. For budding humanitarians, the EU Commission runs its volunteer programme based on a short period working in an INGO headquarters and then two stints of experience in the field. Neither of these programmes guarantee a job at the end – I don’t believe they should – however, they do provide respected work experience: one of the most treasured assets of those applying to the sector.
If I had to pull together a list of what the sector currently sees as ‘ideal must haves’, it would look something like the below. Please note, this is not what the aid sector should be looking for in new entrants (a completely different discussion), but what the international aid sector currently does look for in new entrants at international or regional level (i.e. not field level).
• A professional qualification (i.e. doctor, accountant, HR expert, engineer etc) or a relevant masters level degree
• Fluency in English and the ability to communicate in another language
• Experience of living and/or working abroad
• An understanding of the current issues in the sector
• Transferable skills such as budget management, people management, project management, computer literacy
Again, this is a list of ideals – this does not mean that if you are missing one or more of the list, you have no hope. Not at all. But if you are looking to improve your chances and have time and resources to invest in yourself, getting one of the above would be a great start.
Sadly, a lot falls down to who you know and/or luck. Many colleagues have told me they were in the right place at the right time, or that someone they knew from a previous job had helped them out. It’s wrong and I find it a very difficult pill to swallow, however, it is the reality. And before we throw away the whole idea of working in the sector, it’s important to distinguish between different possible approaches to this problem.
Firstly, you could focus entirely on networking – pimping yourself out on Linkedin, hanging around pubs near INGO headquarters, attending every talk or debate with homemade cards etc. This might work but it’s exhausting, and often difficult to demonstrate your skills and abilities over a glass of wine after a debate on lessons learned from an emergency response you weren’t part of. That’s setting aside the fact that many of us just aren’t any good at networking.
Secondly, you could spend time speaking to and reading about those who are already in the sector. There are numerous memoirs written by those who’ve worked ‘in the field’. These stories don’t give you experience but they do give you an insight into a sector with numerous facets. Similarly talking to and listening to friends, relatives, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, alumni from your school, who are or have worked in the sector, again gives you a chance to learn about what it looks like in reality. This knowledge should lead to better decisions about what positions to apply to, and to a greater success rate.
Finally, seeking advice from current or previous aid workers on your CV could make a serious difference. Did you know that when you were in charge of the number of barrels of beer in the basement of the pub, you were actually using similar skills as required for stock control or warehouse management in the field? Certain terms and ways of describing things can get your CV on the ‘to interview’ pile.
Ultimately, the top three tips (which you will have heard before) are:
1. Get field experience
2. Choose internships carefully, many INGOs and international organisations are churning through interns with little prospect of a job at the end
3. Be flexible in what you will do and where you’ll go
Here are the things we wish we’d known before we entered the aid sector. Look out for future blogs in this series on professionalism, recruitment and internships.
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