Nick Macdonald: Getting your first job in relief and development

Nick’s book: Getting your first job in relief and development

Why it is so hard to get your first job overseas?
It’s difficult to understand at first: there is a huge amount of need, aid organizations are always stretched (and usually recruiting), you are bright, educated, enthusiastic, have low salary expectations, and are ready to go – so why don’t they want to hire you? In fact, why do most of them not even want you as a volunteer?
There are a couple of things going on here. First, let’s analyze the structure of staffing and recruiting in the International Development organizations.

Lack of hiring cycles and recruiting resources

The corporate world has a round of careers fairs and job postings that coincide with the academic seasons. Companies attend these fairs and often hire from them. Most non-profits don’t do this – their budgeting systems mean that positions are posted and filled in a much more ad-hoc fashion that align with project start and end points and with events in the world like earthquakes and wars. Some of the large NGOs do attend some of these job fairs, but this represents a very small percentage of their hires, and it’s my impression that they attend more for visibility than to actually hire any substantial number of people.
They are also less likely than corporations to place ads, or manage large numbers of postings on different job boards, tending to post things either on their own web sites, or on industry specific boards (like!) and publications. They are more likely than corporations to hire from within their own personal networks, and from a relatively small pool of the ‘usual suspects’ who make their living going from one developing country to another. This makes it more difficult to break into the business, because there are fewer truly open recruitment channels.

Staffing structure

In most industries, you come out of college or school, and apply for entry-level positions in a company – you get your foot in the door as someone’s assistant, making the coffee or doing the photocopying, and work your way up. In international relief and development, about 90% of the staff in the field are citizens of those countries. The 5-10% or so who are expatriates (‘expats’ – citizens of a different country) are senior managers or technical experts (like engineers or medical staff) who cannot be found on the local job market. This varies by country – so sophisticated, relatively developed regions with good schools and universities (like Latin America and India) will often have few, if any expats – the local pool is filled with educated, skilled staff who are very capable of managing the agency operations. Countries like Sudan, either because their educational infrastructure is inadequate, or, more likely, because of people fleeing war and chaos, are less likely to be able to supply the skilled staff, and so often have relatively more expatriates. Other factors that affect the numbers of expatriates in any given program include:

  • The particular agency policy towards them (some aspire to eliminate expatriate staff as much and as soon as possible, while some reserve certain positions as always being expatriate).
  • The type of program – some programs tend to have higher ratios of expats than others (for example an economic development program might employ more foreign technical advisors than an earthquake debris clearing program).
  • Local governments – some countries limit visas for foreigners or limit the roles in which they can be employed.
  • The environment – wars, natural disasters and similar crises usually lead to hiring of more expatriate staff, at least in the short-term. Countries rarely have a large number of people capable of managing large emergency response programs, or dealing with conflict and displacement. Expats who make their living traveling from one disaster to another have much more experience running refugee camps, for example, than people who are seeing them for the first time.

So, the point is, there are no entry-level positions for you – if you turn up in Indonesia, you are going to find that all of the positions in a typical NGO below (and often including) Program Manager are held by Indonesians. Good for them, and most likely good for the program, but bad for you. The agency is only looking for expats to fill positions that it cannot source locally – there is always plenty of unskilled labor, and usually plenty of bright kids out of school or college with a little bit of experience – plus, they speak the language and know the context better than you likely do. You’ve got to add value over and above being willing skilled and unskilled labor that’s available locally.
This is hard for those of us trying to get our foot in the door, I’ve wrestled with this myself, but philosophically I chalk it up in the ‘good things’ column. It is local people who are best equipped and motivated to create lasting change in their countries.

An extreme amount of value is placed on prior experience

International NGO hiring managers are extremely conservative when it comes to giving chances to people who don’t have demonstrated field experience. This is frustrating for applicants who may have the skills, aptitude and attitude to do extremely well, but lack experience. All professions suffer from this somewhat, but NGOs are an extreme case.

Hiring for overseas positions from the point of view of the hiring manager

So put yourself, for a moment, in the position of the hiring manager for a Project Manager position in South Sudan. You are the head of a program in Sudan, and your organization, a large NGO, has just won a grant from a major donor, let’s say USAID, who has approved your project to start next month. The clock is ticking. You don’t think you can source the position locally, so you call up your recruiting department in the US or the UK, and you tell them what you are looking for – your list might look something like this:

  • Someone who understands USAID regulations – US government procurement alone is a topic that people spend years studying, and making mistakes is costly – if the regulations are not followed, government auditors will disallow those expenses (that means that the agency may not get paid for all or part of the project and will be left covering those costs out of its own cash reserves). These can end up running to millions of dollars, and some agencies have gone bankrupt through these kinds of mistakes.
  • Someone who understands the technical focus of the project – this person will have to hire engineers, agriculturalists, whatever it is, and know enough to manage partner organizations or subcontractors. They can’t be learning on the job.
  •  Someone who knows what it’s like to live in South Sudan – depending on the agency, it can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and take three months or more to find someone, ship them and their life from wherever they are to their new post, and keep them there for a year, in addition to their salary costs. If it turns out in the first few weeks that they are not as excited about Sub-Saharan Africa as they thought, that can be a very costly mistake. Especially because some donors will not pay twice for things like relocation – if the agency messes up, and needs to replace a position, they are often left holding the cost for that. On top of all this, the agency is behind schedule by three months with no one to run the project.
All of this leads hiring managers to be very conservative in their decisions. The first thing that they will ask is: Has this person lived in an environment like this before? Do they really know what they are letting themselves in for? Does their CV show clearly that they are willing to live for long periods at a time in this sort of place? If yours does not, you will likely not get an interview. Everyone has a horror story of the person who showed up and had a nervous breakdown because there was no hot water (or no email, or too much shooting – whatever) and left within a week.

Next up, as they are leafing through the resumes of people who have 3-4 years of Sub-Saharan Africa experience – has this person run a project of this type, size and scope before? Not just worked on it, but shown that they can start it up (if that is important) run it, and close it down. There is some room for negotiation here – after all, smart people can learn new things. Even if it is a technical project, very often the manager only needs to understand enough to manage the engineers or medical staff, or whatever it happens to be.
Lastly, do they have the knowledge of the donor regulations. On large programs, where the donor might insist that they approve the senior staff, this can be a deal breaker. It is hard to overstate how complex, counter-intuitive, and arcane UN / EU / US regulations can be (you can take courses on this stuff, by the way – check out the USAID / UN etc websites for postings).
So – the bottom line? The hiring manager is only hiring for senior positions. They want someone who has lived there (or somewhere very like it) done that job (or something like it) and worked extensively with that donor. That means your CV won’t get looked at if you don’t already have substantial experience in the relief and development field. It will go straight into the recycle bin, every single time, because you are competing with a pool of people who are more qualified than you are. That’s one side of the story.
The other side of the story is a little more optimistic. You see, the hiring manager is wrong about his assumptions, and he knows he is wrong. He knows that he is throwing away great candidates who could do the job, have the right attitude, the right energy and the enthusiasm they need. His problem is that he can’t tell the difference between you, and any number of other applications who will crash and burn leaving him to clean up the mess. He doesn’t have time to interview more than a shortlist of 3-4 people, and he has a long-list of 10 people with the experience he needs (from an applicant pool of many more), so he plays it safe, and hires someone who knows the ropes. Your task is to reassure him that he is not taking a chance on hiring you, allay his fears about your lack of experience, and get him to move out of his comfort zone. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.
What’s your thought? Leave a comment below!