In part one of this Q&A, we asked three incredible humanitarians how they got where they are, the hard truths about what their lives are like and their advice for people thinking about working in the sector. For more honest and deeply personal insights, see part two.
Maria Duncan, from New Zealand, currently based in Nairobi. Has worked in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Hit the Iron Bell blog: What’s the secret to getting a foot in the door in a humanitarian or development organisation?
Back yourself. For Kiwis it is partly cultural, for women more so; but if I could give one piece of advice it is to trust that you can do it, that networking is OK, and that those job descriptions might be verbose (insert ‘wordy’) but are mostly about common sense, initiative and willingness to learn. So, go for it and when someone gives you a helping hand, don’t bat it away – no one in the private sector would – but instead prove them right and more. Oh, and languages, languages, languages (it massively helps!).
Persistence. Our sectors are over-subscribed and draw an intimidating range of talent. You hear “no” a hell of a lot when you start out. Sometimes you don’t even get an answer back from an application. But if you hang in there, a “yes” eventually breaks the chain. Persistent, patient people cross the threshold. Other tips I’ll add to that: find mentors, build networks, be intrepid.
I get asked this question a lot by younger people, and I’m never sure about answering it. For me, it took a lot of persistence (cold calling, sending out resumes, etc.) and in the end I was lucky enough that someone picked my resume out of a pile and set up an interview. However, I eventually realized that many people have some sort of family or personal connections that pave the way for those coveted first jobs or internships. I am sure that all industries are like this to a certain degree, and it definitely discourages the inclusion of professionals from diverse backgrounds.
Another reality is that you will most likely need to work for free, or for very little money – particularly in the beginning – before you can make the necessary contacts and acquire the skills to be taken seriously and properly grow your career. For this (and other) reasons, the industry is not always easy or welcoming to people of various socioeconomic backgrounds (here I am thinking about how most American students have considerable student debt when they graduate) and many people from the Global South.
Having said this, my advice to anyone looking to join the humanitarian or development field would be to first remember that the skills you have from any other professional environments are transferable and valuable. You can always reframe your past experience as you move sectors. Second, if it’s possible, volunteer in your spare time – for example, doing outreach with recently resettled refugees in your hometown – in addition to your day job, for experience with the issues that interest you.
What’s the best piece of advice you received about a career as a humanitarian or development worker?
Don’t try and change the world. This might seem paradoxical but the world doesn’t inherently need changing. Instead, people need a supportive environment to make choices and they will change their world.
Go to the field. I started out working with little NGOs in places not so many graduates were keen to head to. Later I joined the UN in conflict zones and country offices. These experiences proved formative to my career and my character. They’ve framed everything that’s followed.
Ben Lee in Afghanistan in 2014 .
Don’t take your work home with you – literally and figuratively! Where possible, leave your work at the office, so you can develop your relationships, your social network, and your other interests outside of your job.
Often, we get into this line of work because we are passionate and care about humanitarian issues, but taking care of yourself physically and emotionally is necessary to do your job well.
In hindsight, is there something you would have done differently in your humanitarian or development career to-date? Perhaps something that could have helped you arrive in the same place sooner, or could have steered you in a different direction? Maybe you would have done some different work or study beforehand?
It is tempting, but no. Because my ‘rough’ experiences have made me so much more resilient and have provided so much more clarity to follow the specific path I want. Oh, hang on, in life in general, not just my career – it would be to care less. There are things you need to care about and don’t stop because that’s what makes you good at your job but you know what those are, and as for the rest – don’t take it on board.
I would’ve worked on languages earlier, and maybe tapped on international affairs as a field of study. It’s taken me a while – longer than some friends and colleagues – to get to where I am now. But I wouldn’t change that. Starting out, I was happy to take any opportunity I could land, and looking back I’ve somehow made sense of each of these moves and digressions, as if they were an obvious, essential step on the path.
I think that many women struggle with so-called ‘imposter syndrome’; I certainly have at different points in my career. Moreover, in the humanitarian sector—which is still very male-dominated—women, whatever their skills and qualifications, can often be marginalised and assigned the office ‘housework’ rather than the more visible, ‘glamour’ assignments.
So, in retrospect, I would advise my younger self, as I would advise women in general: Do not minimise who you are and what you have achieved; do not doubt yourself and your abilities, even as your workplace (and society as a whole) might undermine and gaslight you; and do not hesitate to take up space with your thoughts and opinions. Just as much as anyone else, you deserve to have a seat at this table.
Amy working with the UN in Ethiopia
What motivated you to do this type of work in the first place?
There are several seminal moments in my life that I can point to. First, a very good family friend has had a long and distinguished career in this line of work and so I was exposed at an early age. She would come back (from what I now know is ‘R & R’!) and teach us ‘pidgin English’, bring trinkets and allude to what she did while being careful not to traumatize five-year-old me with details.
Second, going to Indonesia when I was eight-years-old and knowing that there was something inherently wrong – not in the developing context, per se, but the inequality. I felt uneasy about those shopping malls and rice paddy fields side-by-side, knowing that one wasn’t right or wrong but the disparity together was not OK.
Third, watching two documentaries during my teenage years that stirred something: the first being a doctor who spent surfing seasons working and giving back to those communities in Indonesia; and, perhaps more profoundly, a documentary on Darfur that convinced me where I wanted to go. Lastly, having an amazing sister who was able to be my sounding board and advise me on what to study and what I should strive for.
It’s a layered answer. Human rights work offered an application of the law that seemed important and meaningful to me. I was also keen to go see things for myself.
More broadly, I think we need to be better as a community in reflecting on what drives us to go to places that others flee. Sure, there are manifold reasons, but there’s value in understanding what they are and what it is we’re each seeking.
A scene from Afghanistan, where Ben worked in 2014