We met four years ago in Quito, and then saw each other again in the Caribbean when we both worked in Haiti. Here, my friend Thomas shares what he’s learnt on getting started working in international development and NGOs, and his experience in Latin America.
Thomas grew up in Brussels, Belgium, and has been living in Latin America and the Caribbean for the last six years.
He studied engineering management during his undergraduate degree, and has master’s degrees in international relations (from a Belgian University) and in political economy (from the London School of Economics). As a student, he volunteered with children in Belgium and Egypt, and was briefly a journalist in Honduras.
Working with the World Food Programme, Thomas has managed socio-economic inclusion programs targeting internally-displaced persons in Colombia as a consultant, and in Ecuador as a UN Volunteer with refugees at the Colombia-Ecuador border.
In Haiti, he worked with French NGO Action Contre la Faim to set up a social safety net targeting vulnerable population groups. He also works remotely as volunteer, managing a Belgian foundation dedicated to supporting a school in Nepal.
When did you first become interested in international development?
When I was 19, a youth group within the parish where I lived organised a trip to Egypt. They were offering free Arabic classes and looking for volunteers. Even though we weren’t particularly religious, my friends and I signed up to travel to Alexandria and volunteer with Egyptian children; that was the first time I experienced culture shock.
At university, I had the chance to spend a semester at a business school in Northern India. I wasn’t particularly interested in humanitarian work at the time, but the idea of studying and working abroad began to take root in my mind.
On keeping your options open
I had no idea what my career would look like, at that time. I went through some self-questioning, and opted for studies that would give me a range of options, rather than something very specific. The same reasoning prevailed when I applied to LSE: the idea was to put a big name on my CV that would later allow me to choose between different career paths.
On unpaid internships
Unpaid internships are, unfortunately, still a traditional entry point into many international organizations. For most young workers, select their first job will not be whether they want to be paid or not, but rather if they can afford not to be paid since interns are generally not paid, or receive a small stipend (as in my case). Recent graduates should accept those internships only if they have savings or family members who will support them.
That said, volunteering is a great way to understand the reality of grassroots NGOs or marginalised communities. Many high-level officials do not have this field experience and you can sense that they lack a depth of perspective on the realities of life for vulnerable populations – which stays with them throughout their careers. So, yes, I personally value those unpaid experiences, even if most recruiters at international organisations wouldn’t put them at the same level as an additional master’s degree.
On paying to volunteer
It’s a new trend that young people pay their volunteering experience, not just to cover their expenses but they are also charged by the company that organizes their trip. In that case, it is obvious that the money you pay does not go to the pockets of the people you want to help. This kind of business is tricky and unnecessary, especially since there are so many opportunities to help, whether it’s far from home or in your backyard.
Do you need to list languages on your CV? Does it help you get the job?
Knowing foreign languages is useful for job-hunting, but often over-rated.
Learning a local language is important for interacting in the everyday life and a natural thing to do when you are interested in the local culture and in meeting people. It is a sign of openness that is generally much appreciated.
Pragmatism generally favours candidates with excellent written and spoken English. English skills mean that you can talk to most donors, write proposals, reports, communiqués… which target international (i.e., English-speaking) audiences. For field visits, it’s usually possible to find a translator who will be the link between you and the local communities. Now, if your dream is to work in Afghanistan, learning Pashtun is obviously the best way to increase your odds of getting a job there.
Even in Latin America, a mainly Spanish-speaking region, most positions at international organizations require some knowledge of English. Paradoxically, some high-level officials can barely speak Spanish.
At meetings in Haiti, despite the moderator asking everyone to speak in French (for the Haitian audience), and despite the fact that everyone there could speak French, people tended to switch back to English, leaving some of the Haitians in attendance clueless about what was being said.
On learning foreign languages
Many people working in development are “born” bi- or trilingual, since they have parents of different nationalities or attended international schools during their childhood. This was not the case with me: I learnt foreign languages as an adult. I studied English at school but was only actually able to communicate in English after my exchange program in India, which was entirely in English.
Your Spanish is so good! How did you become fluent?
I learnt Spanish when I started working at the ILO, and began to develop interest in moving to Latin America. I took classes in Geneva, but didn’t feel comfortable speaking and writing until I moved to Ecuador. Endless motivation and persistence have been the keys to my success; talent came second.
Over time, I have developed a real taste for foreign languages, especially when I start comparing their particularities such as grammatical nuances. But it still a great effort for me to learn new vocabulary and to tame my terrible French accent.
On studying abroad
Latin America is special in the sense that although it has quality education options, employers continue to favour degrees from European and North American universities over those from Latin America, and this is why more and more youth from this continent travel to study abroad, either through a scholarship proram, or at their own expense. But you’ll still be competing on the labour market (as a foreigner) with local job-seekers; it doesn’t give you an automatic advantage.
Do you need a master’s degree to work in Latin America?
People with a master’s degree, especially from a recognized university, have an advantage over those who don’t, especially at big international organizations such as the U.N. or the World Bank. Obviously, it depends on the type of organization;
NGOs are more likely to place value other types of experience, such as volunteering, working, or studying abroad.
On getting that first job in development
When I graduated, I used the typical development job websites, and it helped me to learn about the field and different development organizations, though I wasn’t very successful in finding a job directly from those websites.
I had more success when I sent my CV randomly to organizations that I found interesting, always taking the time to research the names and the personal emails of people in high positions in the organizations. Some people didn’t bother to answer but some replied very politely, and that is how I got my first real job in international affairs: a paid internship at the International Labour Organization in Geneva. But the defining experience was certainly being a UNV at the World Food Program in Ecuador. This is where, for the first time, in 2010, I truly started working in development.
On needing five years of experience
Of course, having five years of professional experience helps for the job search in every sector. But I think development organizations and, particularly, humanitarian organizations are more likely to give young people a chance. The best young recruits manage to climb quickly, especially in countries that attract a high number of expats with a quick rotation, such as Haiti, or in those that are less attractive to expats, such as Sub-Saharan countries, where you often find twenty-something-year-old NGO country directors. Even a bit of low-level management experience can be a huge booster.
On the relative importance of a degree, vs. experience
It is obviously possible to have great career without a degree if the person is good at what they do. You can substitute the years of study with years spent working in the field, preferably in a place where relatively fewer expats go and where the possibilities of rising quickly up the ranks are numerous. Getting a well-paid job is sometimes just the result of being in the right place at the right time.
What should I be studying if I want to work in international development or with NGOs?
Specialize yourself in a development-related field during your studies, such as gender studies, agricultural economics or migration. These subjects will give you an initial advantage in your job search, compared to someone who completed a more general curriculum, like international relations.
How do you look for the next opportunity?
Once you have your foot in the door of development, your main source of information when looking for a new job should be the contacts that you have made in your previous assignments.
The development job market is characterized by extreme mobility: people come and go, switching quickly from one organization and country to another. In this context, your former colleagues, managers or friends can open doors for you to positions in new duty stations, and contacting them will certainly be a good way to find out about openings, and at the same time, to keep in touch.
On how to market yourself
‘International development expert’ is a very broad term that does not really appeal to employers. And what does it mean to be an ‘expert’ anyway?
Choosing a title is like putting yourself in a box: it helps clarify the situation but is often reductive. The title I choose for myself varies depending on the job offer and what I want to be in my next assignment. It can range from ‘specialist’ to ‘manager’ based on the offer, or I emphasize the terms ‘economic’, ‘social’ or ‘food security’ subject to the kind of organization to which I’m applying.
To choose a title, I take my CV and arrange it in such a way that it remains true to who I am, but, more importantly, looks like what I want to be in my next assignment. It’s more important to highlight what’s relevant than to mention every single little accomplishment. Key words are critical to attracting the reader’s attention.
On becoming a consultant
International consultants are generally more experienced than, let’s say, NGO project managers, since the job requires more technical knowledge and practice. Nevertheless, some consultancy firms may also hire young graduates as analysts to write reports or to collect data, and they will be mentored by senior consultants from whom there is a lot to learn. Consultancy firms recognize that young people are eager to learn, and can bring valuable technical skills such as GIS-mapping or quantitative analysis.
On work culture in Latin America
Latin America has a relaxed and interesting work environment, with a passionate political life and some specific themes such as the situation of the native peoples in the Amazon. It’s relatively easy here to connect with the locals. There is no barrier between locals and foreigners, and this is visible in public spaces where you meet many groups composed of people from different backgrounds and nationalities.
What would you tell someone just starting out in the development/NGO sector?
Enjoy the first years after university to be adventurous and try new things, to observe and learn by watching what the others do. Those experiences are invaluable and they will never regret it. They will have enough time later to think of their career and to build families.
The development sector is not the easiest; they’ll meet all kinds of weirdos and people trying to discourage them from following their path. The key to success is to manage people and problems with patience and calm and to never stop learning, not only from the development pundits, but also from the schoolgirl from a rural village. She has something to teach them as well.
Thank you, Thomas!
Have more questions on how to build your own social impact career in Latin America? Leave them in the comments below, and Thomas and I will respond to them.