24 November 2010

Dukot (Kidnapped) - A Movie on Enforced Disappearances in the Philippines

In time for Human Rights Day (10 December), I would like to recommend a Philippine independent film that has gained national and international critical acclaim, including at the Montreal Film Festival, is currently touring the United States, had its European premiere in The Hague (where it was received well) and will screen in London on 04 December 2010. You can find details on how to get a ticket of only £10 with dinner and after-party included on the official invite from the UK chapter of the Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines HERE.

The movie is based on true experiences of (many) real activists who were disappeared. Two widely publicised cases are those of farming activist Raymond Manalo as well as Karen Empeño and Sheryl Cadapan along with their companion, farmer Manuel Merino. The two female students from the University of the Philippines College of Social Science and College of Human Kinetics respectively, were interviewing farmers on social conditions and also campaigning against government corruption. Their abduction was even featured in the UK Independent HERE. You can also read about them on the blog of the Philippine Council for Independent Journalism HERE, as pretty much anywhere on the net if you just google.

Below you find the official trailer which. I would have perhaps cut some of the "dating in the dark" scenes and give the people flashed at the end more seconds to establish who they are (which might not be so clear for people not familiar with the context). But since tragic love stories are a popular theme in the Philippines, I am sure it will make the topic more accessible to a commercial audience, once the movie hits Philippine cinemas in early 2011 (after an initial ban). It'll definitely help me mobilise some politically apathetic Filipinos I know for a screening in Vienna this weekend!

"ATD Entertainment’s “Dukot" is Lamangan’s and Ilagan’s enthusiastic but grim foray into the phenomenon of “desaparacidos” (literally, the disappeared) and extra-judicial killings.

This is no small wonder because both Ilagan and Lamangan were, and still are, political activists who "genuinely fight for freedom and democracy."

Because of their personal experiences in the underground movement, they were able to chronicle real and horrifying events on screen.

Their observations, first-hand accounts and participation in the underground movement naturally means a sympathetic (but objective) presentation of the whole situation.

And, amid mass killings such as those in Ampatuan town and the country's slide down various human rights watchlists, the film "Dukot" is very timely.

Left-leaning mass leaders, journalists, community workers or activists turn up dead or are rendered missing.

Families and friends of these victims quickly point to the military, with their "enemies of the state" lists, or the government, with its dislike for the vaguely defined "insurgency", as the culprits.

The practice of taking hapless victims, then torturing and killing them, began en masse during the Martial Law period under former president Ferdinand Marcos. The term used then for the practice was "salvaging."

- Review from Philippine News Conglomerate ABS-CBN. N/B:
The article is much longer but is full of unnecessary spoilers (it basically summarises the whole movie), so I save you the temptation and won't post a link here.

20 November 2010

Cartoons on the Graduate Job Search

One cartoon says more than a thousand words...!

19 November 2010

Returning to Vienna from Camp David (Career Camp)

The other day, I returned to Vienna after altogether four weeks of "career camp" in the UK. Dave, a friend of mine whom I met in the hostel and who now has a flat of his own, offered me his guest room and from day one became my CV guru! I thought my bullet-point CV was pretty much bullet-proof, except for the profile section at the very top perhaps but since I already have 157 versions of my CV and am always open-minded about improvement, I was very grateful for the advice on how to completely convert of my CV from chronological format to skills-based format (a format particularly popular in the UK/US), how to pitch myself in the heading (ie "two years of X experience, speaks three European and three Asian languages") and a few changes on phrasing and how to present any possible weaknesses as strenghts ("If you have a wooden leg, show it!"). It's all about psychology, really. I later found out that all these tricks that Dave had been shown by top managers himself were actually consistent with NLP, so no surprise there.

Every day, I would go to Starbucks to use the internet (it's free if you get a loyalty card) and stay until they close. I tried local job agencies for local secretary/receptionist/admin jobs, job listings for people interested in charities and development, I contacted people for career advice and networking (development professionals, HR people of humanitarian organisations, high school teachers who taught development professionals, SOAS alumni I have never met, SOAS alumni I used to work with). When I visited SOAS, I bumped into other qualified graduates from my course who have also been looking for jobs in vain and are surviving on hourly temping here and there and were bemoaning their equally frustrating experiences in the current job market. I stopped checking NGO websites directly because they would only advertise for unpaid interns and volunteers anymore. Dave often asked me why I wasn't applying to jobs I am qualified for. It is a good question. I guess I slipped into looking for everything else because that is where the money is and it would allow me a buffer to pursue the kind of job I really want to do. Besides, I assume that at times of economic crisis, recruiters look for people who would be able to do the job of three people and hence raise the eligibility criteria and number of years of experience. Besides, a crucial skill in any job in development is budget management (because many NGOs are donor-funded and the work largely project-based in nature). It is the kind of thing no NGO wants to teach you but every NGO expects you to have. Sometimes, I fulfil all criteria except "proven experience of having managed a budget of £25000 or more". A more senior friend of mine is applying for a job that requires her to have managed a budget of £1m before and ideally, also be fluent in the local language!

The more qualified the job, the more elaborate the job application procedure. And while I have been determined in the past to fill out ten-page application forms, it is quite a frustrating thing to do in series, particularly when in most cases you are already informed in advance that "due to the high number of applicants, we are unable to give any individual feedback". I applied to a local university library, one I have been using practically every day. I did not hear back from them, despite what I believe was a strong personal statement. Libraries in Oxford are generally equipped by part-time staff and I have seen ads with requirements ranging from GCSE (Brookes University) to a desirable degree in library and/or information management (Bodleian Libraries). I had volunteered at a departmental library before, know the collection and reader services of the library I applied to very well because of my related degree and professional experience and still was not even short-listed or contacted.

I also tried local publishing houses as they are some of the largest local employers but it is not surprising that they are not hiring at the moment either. I applied for a job as online customer service assistant for subscriptions, basically helping people who have problems accessing their online academic journals. A no-brainer but still did not get invited for interview.

My first call for an interview with the killer CV was of course, a German-related job. When I got the call, I had laryngitis and it hurt to even croak for a bus ticket, let alone have a self-selling phone conversation with a woman who presented a lot of convoluted information about the role at the pace of a high-speed train when I am in a cafe brimming with people on a rainy day. It was a permanent job as Marketing Executive and probably not a good match anyway. I also received interest to work for a German hearing aid company (never heard back from them) and most recently, a major airline conglomerate which needed German speakers as well. Although I was very interested in the company and its benefits like discount on flights after six months and a bonus for speaking two foreign languages fluently, I was less happy with the fact that it was located in London zone 4, required six (!) days a week of duty and only paid £18000 a year. Considering that it's Christmas soon and I would have only one full day a week to commute to Central London and meet people and that it again is customer service, I decided to give it a pass and return to Austria.

Before my return then, I followed the suggestion of my friend Kat and applied for an internship in Austrian public service (paid at 50% of a civil servant's salary, that is 1000 per month) and did not get that either even though I lived abroad, speak several languages and studied something related just because they prefer someone with an advanced degree (unofficially, ideally a law degree) - or at least that was the official explanation. For political reasons they probably want to promote students who mostly studied at an Austrian national university. And even then, I believe a Master should be entitled to the full salary of a junior civil servant. All this, in my opinion, it is a typical example of the prevailing job market mentality in Austria to put the authority of certificates and diplomas over an individual assessment of the qualities of each applicant and how their diverse experience can contribute to an innovative and dynamic organisational identity. At the same time, the same department discreetly hires secretaries via job agencies which technically, they are not supposed to do. I also know of people who are still working on their Master dissertation and are doing an internship in another department and I know of civil servants who gained an additional degree while working, asked for a raise, did not get it, asked for a promotion, did not get it and had no other choice but to terminate their employment and seek a more fulfilling role elsewhere. And the boss was even surprised!

Currently, I am trying to find work as (evening) secretary in chambers and when I had just sent such an application to a friend for review, I found THIS article (in German) describing how some chambers advertise for an experienced secretary with professional attitude who is presentable, fluent in German and English and possesses excellent software skills. The person would be in charge for the entire office management for 30-40 hours a week. Salary: 6€/hour! The Austrian Chamber of Labour (an organisation that represents the interests of employees and consumers but is not a trade union) says that they have had a lot of reports of wage dumping like these and will follow up any cases with "great pleasure". They also say that a lot of students and graduates find themselves in short-term and medium-term insecurity in regards to life-planning as their second degree and eventual entry into a skilled profession gets delayed, not least through the requirement of internships and work placements but also because the administration has announced that it will lower the family benefit age to 24 on January 1st. I couldn't have written the article better myself, it speaks from my heart: I have the impression that I am losing any career advantage I have gained to the crisis. That all the efforts I have put into my career are currently not making a difference. Earlier this summer, I checked ads with migration-related organisations that I would definitely qualify for. Sadly, they advertised a lot of unpaid internships for research projects where technically, they could have also hired paid consultants or one or two permanent junior officers. One of those internships was not only advertised on the organisation's website but also in a student job database, with a salary of 6€/hr. I was surprised it was paid and thought, OK, since this is a job related to migration that I find interesting, rewarding and that will get me further eventually, I would do it for 6€. I went to the lengths of writing an application and even contacting a referee abroad only to find out that in fact, it was a "mistake" in the ad and that actually the full-time internship is unpaid! Now, I like to think that this is a prank of the (student) website administrators on those who employ unpaid staff. There was also a second job where they were looking for an assistant to set up a human rights film festival. The woman who had the pleasure of dealing with the applications sounded clearly frustrated because I probably wasn't the first to tell her that I would only do it if they pay me for my labour. That was in the summer.

Now that Dave was as kind as to print a list of the 30 most commonly asked interview questions complete with suggestions how to go about answering them (and even offered to do a mock interview with me!), and after reading the newspaper article mentioned above, I realised that there is one question that is not on any list: "This job is an unpaid position. Is that OK with you?" While I understand that funding is limited in some cases like small charities, I would like to know how to convince someone to pay you when there is room in the budget except they would rather not spend it on "non-essential expenditures". I went through different scenarios in my head: "That depends. Are accommodation and living expenses included?" or "Sure, where in the office can I roll out my sleeping bag?" or if it were chambers, "Wow. I always thought lawyers earn more than 200 € an hour. I did not know some work for 6 € per hour too." Or bartering, "In exchange, do I get a voucher for free legal representation should I need any in the future?"

The search for a job continues.

17 November 2010

Interview with outgoing UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak

Manfred Nowak, Austrian human rights lawyer and university professor as well as co-founder and Scientific Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, gave a public lecture on November 9 at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna to discuss his experiences during the six-year mandate as UN Special Rapporteur of Torture. He is handing over to Juan Méndez, an Argentinian and torture survivor himself who has taught at American University, Georgetown and Oxford. You can find an account of Nowak's work in the Journal of Human Rights Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 101-119 (downloadable as PDF HERE).

I wish I was able to attend the public lecture. Despite the fact that it was hosted by a veteran national television journalist, there does not seem to be any recording to share with you here either (events at the Diplomatic Academy are sometimes in English). Instead, I found an interview with Austrian broadsheet "Der Standard" on 22 October 2010, translated from German by me below.

"UN human rights protection in huge crisis - UN Special Rapporteur on Torture's harsh judgement on the UN Human Rights Council: 'Obama daily violating UN Convention on Torture'

UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak discusses with reporter Julia Raabe, why there is no torture in Denmark anymore and how the EU fails Greece. At the end of his mandate, the expert also takes on the UN Human Rights Council.

STANDARD: Has there been a global reduction in torture ever since your assumption of office as Rapporteur in 2004?

Nowak: I am afraid not. But it also has not increased. For my visits, I chose countries from all continents and all legal systems, and not only those where I assumed the situation there was bad. My insight is: Torture happens in a signifant majority of countries, only to a different extent. In Greece, which I have just inspected, there were few cases. Singular cases.

STANDARD: So instead, you have expressed shock at the refugee situation there.

Nowak: The detention conditions are catastrophic. 90% of all arrests of irregular migrants in the EU this year happened in Greece. Therefore, I demand from the EU to suspend the Dublin II Convention (whereby immigrants can be deported in the EU country into which they first travelled) and not to send anyone back to Greece but instead to conduct the asylum process itself.

STANDARD: Is Athens overwhelmed or is there bad faith behind it?

Nowak: The Greek are entirely overwhelmed. The new administration is really willing to change something. But it needs financial and other assistance from the EU. They require open reception centres, access to the asylum process etc. Sending Frontex by itself is not enough. Generally, the Dublin II Convention has to be reviewed on the long run. It is a completely unfair system which overwhelms some countries and treats these unfairly.

STANDARD: Are there also particularly exemplary countries?

Nowak: Denmark, including Greenland, is the only among the 18 countries I visited, in which I did not find any torture or related accusations. It confirms that every government can eliminate torture, if it really wants to. This also includes to penetrate the corps mentality and to not cover for anyone anymore if a detainee is tortured. It is still like that in Austria: If there is an accusation of torture, the first thing the Ministry of Interior does is to say: Nothing of it is true. Instead of declaring that they do not know and will investigate. In Denmark, the detention conditions were also better than in any other countries.

STANDARD: Is there a connection between detention conditions and torture?

Nowak: Of course. A main problem is that the public does not know what happens behind closed doors - and maybe does not even want to know. The predominant opinion is: Whoever finds themselves behind bars is there for a reason. But in reality, this is often entirely untrue. In a modern penal system, the detainee is deprived of his personal freedom but his/her detention conditions should resemble those outside in order to easier resocialise them. This is the reason why Denmark has such a low reoffense rate. In contrast, you have countries with archaic thinking, such as all ex-Soviet countries, China but also the US: Whoever is sentenced should suffer.

STANDARD: About the US: You were very optimistic at the start of the Obama administration that a lot will change and that Guantanomo will be closed, as announced. This did not happen. Are you disappointed?

Nowak: He probably really wanted to close Guantanomo within a year. Congress, state governors but also European governments made it as hard as possible for him. But a practice of torture as during the Bush administration, really does not exist anymore. That he did succeeded in.

STANDARD: Does this mean that you are not aware of any actual cases of US citizens?

Nowak: No. But the Obama administration is accused - rightly so, I believe - handing over detainees from US detention in Iraq to the Iraqi authorities well aware that they will be tortured there. What I most criticise Obama for, is that there is no review of human rights violations from the Bush administration. There is and has been no reconciliation with the past, even if the body of evidence is extensive. Legally speaking, Obama is thereby daily violating the UN Convention Against Torture and other international conventions.

STANDARD: As Special Rapporteur, you have to await invitation by the respective country - which is not always given, as in Zimbabwe where you were refused entry at the airport, or in Iran. Doesn't this mean that you risk not solving the most recent cases of torture?

Nowak: Of course, I would have liked to visit many countries with pressing suspicions of systematic torture, like Egypt or Syria or in fact, many Near Eastern and North African countries. But Equitorial Guinea belongs to the same category as Zimbabwe or Egypt. I was in Nepal during an ugly time, in Sri Lanka at the height of the conflict between the military and the Tamil rebels - and I have detected terrible torture methods.

STANDARD: Why do some countries agree to meet you? Don't they risk criticism?

Nowak: Uruguay is an example of the ideal case: The new administration wanted an independent evaluation. It knew that the situation was not good but they wanted to change it. The prison conditions were horrible. My recommentations to immediately close certain prison sections was ordered three days later by presidential decree. Countries like Equitorial Guinea and Nepal likely still hope that I do not find out the whole truth. Or the pressure of regional communities on them is too large.

STANDARD: Did it happen a lot that countries tried to hide something?

Nowak: Kazakhstan was a master. I was constantly under surveillance. In the prisons, everything had just been painted. The Potemkin villages were bizarre, at times: In a women's penitentiary, the women were not allowed for four days to sleep in their freshly made beds because they did not know when we would come and wanted everything to look nice. The detainees were intimidated, we constantly were confronted with lies and the same prepared answers. It was a great effort to convey to the detainnes that our conversations really were confidential.

The Chinese were extremely efficient in surveillance, including our mobile phones. Victims who were supposed to come to Beijing to meet us were taken out of the train in Shanghai. The wife of a detainee was taken from her work place, the children from school and moved out of Beijing. I threatened three times to abort the mission if this did not stop. Eventually, it did work but I had to raise huge efforts in this cat and mouse game.

STANDARD: You started your work at the time of the Human Rights Commission. Since 2006, there is the Human Rights Council Austria is now also applying to. Has anything changed?

Nowak: I see the UN human rights protection in huge crisis. Actually, the Human Rights Council was supposed to act upon the expertise of independent experts. But the better we (the Rapporteurs) do our work, the more we are criticised by countries - due to political agendas. That is completely absurd. Those countries that violate human rights the most have the council majority. The UN must reform its human rights organs profoundly if it does not want to embarass itself permanently.

STANDARD: What has to change?

Nowak: For my mandate, I demand a convention for the rights of detainees, which are pretty bad. Particularly important is also to ratify the Additional Protocol to the Convention of Torture and in doing so, to enable better prison access. Generally, I demand the creation of a global court of justice for human rights which even supersedes the competencies of the European Court of Human Rights. This could change a lot of things."

(Find the original HERE)

Biography of Manfred Nowak
Biography of Juan Méndez

12 November 2010

Universally Challenged: “Quiz answers that prove Britain really is dumbing down”

As a continental European proud of her free quality secondary education, it has always been a mystery to me why in a country as supposedly economically developed as the UK, the general knowledge of the average population can be as shockingly non-existent as can be its command of its native language, let alone its knowledge of any second language. Parallels with Bush Jr.'s visit to the obscure “country” of Africa come to mind, as well as getting asked by an English lady in the academic section of a book shop how to spell “catastrophe”, only to see it misspelled with y at the end on the cover page of The Times (yes!) the very next day. You also wouldn't believe how many people in England believe I'm from Australia or who ask me what language is spoken in Austria. Or the times I went to my London GP (London having a very different socio-economic composition than most cities in the rest of the UK) and was treated with an attitude of “What would YOU know?” when, being used to the more collaborative patient-doctor partnership in continental Europe, I demanded more detailed and comprehensive information than “I can see too that this is sore. Go back to Boots and buy this over-the-counter pain killer. I don't even get why you came to see a doctor. Is there anything else I can do for you?” (in essence). I won't even start with home improvement standards or health and safety notices. Or the BA student who did not know that Northern Ireland was one of the four states of the country she is a citizen of ("I have wondered why it is always on the map in the weather forecast").

All of this is hilariously demonstrated in a dedicated book called “Universally Challenged” by Wendy Roby*, featured in an article by the Daily Mail on 11 November 2010 titled “Quiz answers that prove Britain really is dumbing down”.

The article says, “Despite ever-improving school exam results, proof of how Britons are dumbing down can be seen every day in the embarrassingly wrong answers given on television and radio quiz shows. TV show QI has even conducted its own quiz on the streets of Britain and found that we are, broadly speaking, a nation that doesn't make full use of its brain power. Now, a new book has collected some of the funniest and most witless quiz show answers...”

I was shaking with laughter when I read the excerpted examples and am still amused by them!

Host: Of which hot drink is “eat” an anagram?
Contestant: Hot chocolate?

Host: Was the Tyrannosaurus Rex a carnivore or a herbivore?
Contestant: No, it was a dinosaur.

Host: What is the name given to the condition where the sufferer can fall asleep at any time?
Contestant: Nostalgia.

Host: Name the German national airline.
Contestant: The Luftwaffe.

Host: Do you know where Cambridge University is?
Contestant [laughing]: No, geography is not my strong point.
Host: There's a clue in its title.
Contestant: Er... Leicester?

Host: In sport, the name of which famous racehorse was the word “murder” spelled backwards.
Contestant: Starter gun.

Host: What is Hitler's first name?
Contestant: Heil.

Host: What is the capital of Italy?
Contestant: France.
Host: France is another country. Try again.
Contestant: Oh, um, Benidorm.
Host: Wrong, sorry, let's try another question. In which country is the Parthenon?
Contestant: Sorry, I don't know.
Host: Just guess a country, then.
Contestant: Paris.

Host: With whom did Britain go to war over the Falklands?
Contestant: Err...
Host: It's a South American country.
Contestant: Iran.

Host: In which European country is Mount Etna?
Contestant: Japan.
Host: I did say which European country, so in case you didn't hear that, I can let you try again.
Contestant: Er... Mexico?

Read some more on the original Daily Mail article or get the book - I definitely know it will be on my Christmas wish list this year! ;)

*Universally Challenged refers to the long-running TV quiz show University Challenge where universities compete against each other. It is quite popular with UK students. You can stream the episodes on BBC iPlayer HERE (at least within the UK). This week: Oxford Brookes vs. University of the Arts London. See also its Wikipedia article HERE.

09 November 2010

"Quantum Gradnamics": What would Schrödinger say?

Yes, this is how I see it sometimes...! :D
Click on the image to appreciate the other half of the comic that got cut off in Blogger.

More hilarious comics on: http://www.phdcomics.com

02 November 2010

A few inspirational thoughts on Halloween/All Soul's/Día de los Muertos

Once again, it’s All Soul’s Day and therefore a perfect opportunity to celebrate life and perhaps even a preview skim of the much dreaded annual review towards the end of the year. Who knows, after reading this, you might have an epiphany about something you always wanted to do. In that case, congratulations! You still have eight weeks to turn this year around for you!

In essence, today is a reminder to live our lives to the fullest. There are many different ways to do that. For some, fulfilment comes with starting a new family or going somewhere they have never been before or mastering a new skill. Reach your full potential. Live your dreams. Do something that that increases happiness in the world, ideally something peaceful that will inspire others.

I like to think there are two kinds of success. The first is what is conventionally interpreted as career success. The second kind of success is about personal satisfaction, about living the life you want, surrounding yourself with people you love and giving your love to others. Although I am only vaguely familiar with his work, Deepak Chopra’s famous Spiritual Laws of Success might be a good guide for you to start out (and yes, they are on YouTube).

Take a moment, make yourself comfortable with a cup of tea (or coffee, whichever is your preferred poison) and think, really think about the following questions. I have taken these from a book misleadingly called “Getting Past OK: The Self-Help Book for People Who Don't Need Help”. The book’s title really is a misnomer because it does not tell you how to deal with people other than you who won’t accept your advice. I for example thought at first it was about how to deal with people at work who need help but always decline it. Rather, the book is about identifying in what direction you want to improve your life beyond the “just ok” level. It really reads itself quite fast and is more of a hands-on checklist than a spiritual impulse. The author is the guy who got credited with developing MS Word, Richard Brodie. I would love to quote the elaborations on each question but since quoting in blogs is kind of a legal grey area in terms of Fair Use, I will respect intelectual copyright and suggest you get your local library to stock this book - or give me a ring.

# What do you want? The trick is to focus on the experiences rather than the thing itself.

# What have been the greatest successes of your life so far?

# What is it about other people that you admire?

# What are some things you enjoy that don’t fit into the mainstream of life?

# What are your most important values? What ideals do you hold highest, honestly?

# What did you really enjoy doing as a kid at play?

# Describe your ideal job.

# Describe your ideal relationship.

# Write about what life is like from the point of view of your favourite pet.

And from myself: What legacy would you love to leave your children? What would you be proud of to be remembered for? Some say that writing your own funeral speech, as morbid as it sounds, can help you figure that out. I bet you feel much more alive afterwards! To quote Patrick Jane in The Mentalist: "My way? Cathartic and life-affirming!"

You live only once. Think about that.

13 October 2010

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in Oxford - Teaser

On 13 October, I had the opportunity to attend António Guterres giving this year's Harrell-Bond Lecture, as hosted annually by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford.

Read the full article here:

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in Oxford

On 13 October, I had the opportunity to attend António Guterres giving this year's Harrell-Bond Lecture, as hosted annually by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford.

You don't get to experience a lot of people whose headshots adorn the walls in several offices around the world, so I was even more excited to listen to him live than I already was given my particular interest in refugee issues and also his role in East Timor.

It was quite impressive to watch an excellent and engaging orator with formidable command of body language give a very well-delivered speech and then get down to courteously answer several questions regarding a variety of policy issues and countries from the packed floor (I'm sure at least 500 people, including faculty, Oxfam representatives, students etc). You might say, duh, any states(wo)man and diplomat (and he was both) gets coached in presentation skills but if you watch politicians on TV, you will see that not everyone is quite in their element when presenting in public. Apart from that, I had been reading a lot on body language and other useful soft skills lately but you're here to read about the lecture and not my favourite autodidacticism.

Restoring Rights: Forced Displacement, Protection and Humanitarian Action
In the thus-labelled lecture, he distinguished between the "arc of crisis" (a term used in TIME in the 1980s and recently borrowed by Sarkozy) where two thirds of the world's refugees were located (roughly from the Horn of Africa across the Middle East to Western Asia) and "all other crises" like the DRC, Sri Lanka and the Central African Republic (where shockingly yet sadly, the price for an AK-47 is $50). He also addressed the issue of the difficult distinction between military and humanitarian operations and its implications in the field and also discussed the divide between the human rights agenda which he says is losing ground to the national sovereignty agenda. What follows is a state of the world's refugee summary, giving comparative trends on voluntary returns, unaccompanied minors, resettlement, refoulement and the need for a different EU-wide asylum policy for improved burden-sharing (within the EU, the refugee acceptance rate ranges from 4% to 90%) on the continent that only houses 7% of the world's refugees. He also talks about the 27m IDPs and the case of urban refugees which apart from climate displacement are currently the two buzz words in refugee policy development.

In his concluding remarks, he draws attention to the three refugee research centres Oxford is blessed with and expressed his hope that such research centres will also be created in other areas in the world in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In fact, it is a hope I have held myself ever since I first wondered why of all places in the world, such a specialised organisation as the RSC is located in Oxford. While it does have the advantage of putting refugee issues at the heart of academia and attracting resources for the research of forced migration issues through the reputation of the OU brand, it also is quite geographically removed from the great concentrations of the "subjects" of its research (American University for example, famous for its teaching of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law does engage in refugee research in Cairo and offers a course there). There have been efforts in the past to promote scholarship "from the South" but apart from a handful of scholars at the most, the discourse is still very much dominated by "Northern" scholars and most if not all the publications exclusively dedicated to forced migration (compared to occasional articles in law and anthropology journals etc) are published in Oxford.

The man himself
For those of you not familiar with the person, just a few words on him, as you can find the rest easily on the UNHCR website or elsewhere on the net: He spent about 20 years in public service, used to be Portugal's prime minister during the East Timor crisis, was elected UN High Commissioner in 2005 and has this year been re-elected for a second term.

You can find a full PDF transcript of the lecture as well as its podcast HERE and the UNHCR press release on the event HERE.

26 September 2010

21st Century Job Hunt

I consider myself a very resourceful person. I am passionate about what I do. I work hard.

I took everything my university careers service had to offer: I attended alumni talks, career fairs and humanitarian career forums, had my CVs and cover letters polished to perfection, read past job descriptions and landed my first degree-related internship in London through them. I signed up for recruitment agencies and newspaper job databases/alerts (I do not use them anymore as it appears to me that EVERYONE does the same thing), regularly check websites of organisations I'm interested in and which I have bookmarked. Moreover, I relied on my extensive internet research.

I like trying unconventional things. When I did not find a job and had the means to, I went to live in Malaysia for several months and had, to date, the best summer in my life there! The internship itself was unpaid but living costs were minimal and AirAsia had just started its low fare London-Kuala Lumpur route. Since I had the most amazing experience there, I have no regrets.

And yet, a couple of unsuccessful applications after my earlier post on the "graduate job jungle" and in total, two months of rejections later, I thought it was time to evaluate my job search performance and give it a reality check.

Online Application Forms – Compartmentalising the Masses
Whenever I routinely copy/paste the gazillionth nine page online application form, well-knowing that it will most likely drown in a pool of paper or will just be Ctrl+F -ed, I often wonder whatever happened to good old-fashioned "Send us your CV and cover letter". Every single one of these forms takes several hours to complete. A list of 4x14 mandatory skills (professional, IT, languages, other) with five respective choices of competency levels (1- excellent 5-not at all) in the drop down menu do not surprise me anymore.

The most annoying thing is entering the whole values into the forms AGAIN when "due to an unexpected server error, your request cannot be processed right now" - two hours before the deadline and then inexplicably works again just two minutes before midnight. Or cases where the online application is so badly designed that it is virtually impossible to navigate between tabs without losing information or losing access to forms that only appear after finishing all prior tabs in a linear fashion or that force you to fill out ALL boxes in all tabs in one single session if you do not want to risk losing half the first tab (yes, I do not get the logic either).

Then again, the internet also turns out to be the medium for finding inspiration to solve the issues caused by increased inter-connectedness and increasing comparatibility of professional and educational experiences in the age of globalisation. Some of the insights I will share here:

Be proactive:
Look up the company's website, contact details of the responsible person in the department that interests you and email them your CV directly EVEN IF THERE IS NO VACANCY ANNOUNCED. You can also correspond with them about their expertise before that and let them get to know you. Then they will be more likely to think of you later. Generally, don’t regard them as an asset but as a person. Nobody wants to be seen as a means to an end. Rather, try to see the job as the means and the inspiring and interesting people you meet through it as the end.

Being proactive also extends to those currently in an internship: The Guardian has interviewed a few interns who managed to turn their internships into full-time jobs. I had mixed feelings when I watched the video, mostly because even if you give your best, the charity/humanitarian sector offers not as many opportunities to become a full-time member of staff. For example, a HR director from CARE International, revealed at an international development careers event at the LSE that she recently received 600 applications for one job at the aid agency!

Always try to get feedback about your application. That way, the number (wo)man hours spent on the application will hopefully be transformed if not into a job, into insight how to spend less of your time in vain. However, many organisations already indicate in the job ad that they are not able to answer individual queries. Whenever they didn't, they said so in an auto-reply when I emailed them for feedback "due to the large volume of applicants... please consider your application has been unsuccessful at this occasion if you have not been invited for an interview".

Networking, networking, networking:
It often helps to get introduced by a common acquaintance. Business graduates have an advantage to social scientist graduates in that they have less self-consciousness and more peer encouragement in approaching people for jobs this way than graduates from “morally (over-)conscious” fields like arts & humanities and social sciences, I find. Networking does not have to be selfish. Remember to offer more than you ask!

I like going to conferences and events anyway, so I thought of graduate business cards and instantly remembered a friend of mine (not surprisingly, MBA) who once showed me his card. I googled and found out that some universities actually offer their students business cards from their campus print shop, precisely for the use of networking for jobs (graduates+) and research (Masters, PhDs).

Suggested information often includes your major and fields of expertise, organisations you interned with, perhaps what kind of work you'd be interested in (ie they say if you studied/are graduating from Computer Technology and decided to get work as "software engineer", then write "John Smith, Software Engineer"). Contact details nowadays also extend to linkedin, xing, twitter, facebook, blog or website. The physical address has become largely obsolete in the digitalised and mobilised world (thank God, else I would have to order a new set of cards four times a year).

I tell myself that while it appears novel and possibly even a little pretentious to me to hand out business cards (and as a graduate at that!), it is very likely that they exchange cards so often in the course of their work life, that they are used to being approached for networking. It's all about appearance, presentation and communication (in come the secrets of body language).

Finally, inform everyone you know you are looking for a job! You never know what might come their way: 80% of jobs are never advertised (the so-called "hidden job market").

Finding a job is a full-time job. So much was clear. The modes of how to land one seem to me almost like secret lore. I realise now the extent to which familiarising yourself with the company you are applying to and writing customised expressive CVs/cover letters/personal statements are by far not enough. I need to actively push my comfort zone and improve my (self-)marketing skills on paper, on the phone and in person. Confidence is key.

Coming up next:
- What I did this summer: Of weddings, families and journeys
- Best of job ads: How to retain your optimism and sense of humour while hunting for a job
- Minggu Melayu: Meeting three Malaysian friends in a week
- UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres speaking in Oxford

02 September 2010

New Blog Template - Heidiwitz 2.0!

Dear girls and boys,

It's been a while again! To your and my own benefit, I overhauled the layout of my blog and finally gave it the visual appeal it demands. "Desktop Chaos" seemed to be the template that most seemed to reflect my personality and current mood. I believe the carvings look a lot like what you might find around Southeast Asia.

The most recent comments are now given their own box and displayed right on top. The list of tags is now easier to access. I also changed the "About Me" text for it was about time!

I have had a chaotic summer that you are going to read about soon. It's the only excuse I have for not having gotten back to some of you yet!

Looking forward to any opinions about the new design!

01 September 2010

Internship Industry: Opportunity or Opportunity Cost? Updates from the Graduate Job Jungle!

With a degree in Development Studies from a renown university, several years of living and working abroad, demonstrated perseverance to pursue this degree despite involuntary but inevitable enrolment in the sometimes distracting lessons of the School of Life, two internships in international organisations outside my country of origin, PLUS having continuously kept abreast with trainings, seminars and workshops and speaking about five foreign languages, I justifiably have earned my right to be frustrated for lack of job offers, lack of invitations to interviews and the unfortunate timing of an economic recession and its particularly adverse effect on the ideal stepping stone job market for my discipline, namely the UK. You cannot help but ask yourself in annoyance, "What ELSE do they WANT from me?!"

Of course, it never is about you, who you are or who you are not. While it actually is about who matches the requirements for the post best, the truth is probably less rational than that. I do wonder if for a recruiter, all these elaborate job application forms are just like buying a lottery ticket when you already have an income: You have already chosen a job as primary source of income but it never hurts seeing what luck washes ashore.

Being stuck between being over-qualified and under-qualified is really annoying. I looked at university library jobs that look for GCSE graduates and at those where you wouldn't stand a chance without a Masters in Library Management or related discipline (but still can only apply for either of the two identical 20hr/week posts). I had a job interview in a travel book shop, passed the surprise geography pop quiz with flying colours, have travelled extensively, have no commitments, indicated immediate availability and demonstrated a mature work ethic and some knowledge about the key principles of book trade yet they turned me down because they prefer to employ someone who will stay ideally for a lifetime in the same bookshop ("two of our staff have been working here for 15 years"). Good luck. Shame, for I really would have liked to work there. Experiences like these, particularly when they accumulate and are mixed with claims that - at least in the UK - up to 70 graduates apply per job (I wonder if that was calculated from the unemployment rate or a survey of actual jobs advertised), it does make you wonder about current trends in résumé fraud (not to be confused with employment fraud which is advertising jobs that do not exist).

I also applied to Amnesty Austria and received a call - to work as a fundraiser who goes from house to house and gets paid to have doors slammed in her face. I told them I was finished with tuition and was actually applying for a permanent programming job. I was told to apply to Amnesty directly. "Is this not Amnesty?!" Apparently outsourced. Guess what, I email my application to AI Austria and am told that currently there were no vacancies but - care to apply as a volunteer? I couldn't help but sigh in exasperation: I need to EAT, people!

It is frustrating. Considering the amount of time to fill out (online) application forms which ask you to supply three (!) references (standard UK) and the mathematical probability of success, the odds of finding a somewhat acceptable job that pays for the basic necessities in life is let's say, just as high as seeing the Queen pole-dancing on a state dinner. Lacking support or even remote understanding of your immediate environment (in the last several weeks, my family), as well as being physically outside the navel of the aid industry (in Austria, a country not exactly famous for a mentality encouraging and fostering non-conformists), is an additional restriction (even though I cannot complain about the relief of being able to re-allocate energy previously devoted to having housing and food NOT being taken care of). While I do accept compromise (ie working temporarily in a shop), there are things I remember from working in Vienna that I am tired of: Like dealing with bossy supervisors whose world revolves around domination of their 30m2 territory while clearly having no training in (or no care for) leadership skills or customers who do not distinguish between constructive feedback and taking the piss out of being king or queen: Unlike in the UK, where direct harassment of employees in customer-facing roles is deterred to the degree of abuse OF the customer which ultimately leads to parallel conversations and unfulfilled customer needs, in Austria - as in many other countries in Europe - the person who pays for a service actually has the RIGHT to question the delivery or quality of a service or product they PAY FOR and it is commonly understood that he/she deserves a reasonable compensation or an investigation on why things went wrong. In the UK, companies do not care how they can make things BETTER. The only thing they really focus on is on not making things WORSE, a mentality that ultimately leads to stagnation and risk ignorance. On the other hand, the Austrian mentality exposes many employees to the often misdirected rants of unsatisfied customers and people who seek a place to dump the psychological trash they carry around with them.

So I thought, OK, let's be proactive then and write unsolicited applications to organisations I would like to work for. Vienna is small after all and assumably has a small pool of local people with a profile similar to mine, or so I like to think. While this factor might ENHANCE my employability it might also REDUCE it because avenues into certain careers might have been traditionally through established profiles like law or economics graduates and reserved for people with connections. Compared to many UK organisations which due to the larger market understandably are more often than not NOT in a position to reply to personal emails like that (or just too disorganised), I did get a few replies. Sympathetic, polite, interested in case our paths crossed again in the future but all negative.

As if to console me, the emails often included an encouragement or hint to apply for internships. Back to my first sentence: Why should I volunteer my skills, my labour and my time to an organisation to very likely have the same amount of responsibility and scope of duties as a regular member of staff WITHOUT getting paid? Too many companies out there rely on free labour. While I do understand the financial constraints and priorities in allocating funds of development organisations and charities, I also do believe that given the skill and established fundraising culture in the UK, it is actually surprising that a symbolic salary of I would say, 25-50% (depending on skill and line of work) of a permanent staff member's salary cannot be raised to pay for interns, particularly where they constitute a significant proportion of the total employee body (in some cases, 1/3) and make it possible that the "specialists deserving of pay" can manage their workloads. On the other hand, going the way of offering employers the compromise of a sliding scale based on education level and experience creates the risk of favouring the selection of currently enrolled students rather than recent graduates, as I have learned from a friend who interns for an international software company in a context where paid internship regulations exist. While I do appreciate the learning, networking and skill development opportunities as well some of the most (and least) rewarding experiences I have received, I know of appalling cases of institutional exploitation where young talented and motivated people are either given menial tasks or their enthusiasm, skill and hard work are taken for granted. When any of these interns raise legitimate grievances or try to engage in constructive feedback, they are told to be "grateful" for their opportunity. I have also heard of cases where the right to freedom of opinion and assembly during lunch break/after work to discuss internship conditions was actively violated (deletion of an email thread from several intern accounts!), clearly for fear of unionisation, potential whistle-blowing and in any case, scandal . No mediation was offered to de-escalate the situation - and this was the work of a human resources officer (who probably knocked out 80 other applicants when she got hired) working for an advocacy organisation which puts up A3 posters of internal dispute resolution for harassment at the workplace around the building!

While it is understandable that there needs to be some benefit to the employer of paying someone comparatively less experienced than their permanent staff with yet-to-be-proven productivity, there should be fair boundaries and minimum legal standards to ensure that interns do not end up as modern day slaves and to minimise brain waste of children from less advantaged families. There needs to be a culture shift where employers become reasonably accountable to their interns without impeding their flexibility in hiring them.

How timely then that on 06 July 2010, the European Parliament has passed Resolution 2009/2221(INI) on promoting youth access to the labour market, strengthening trainee, internship and apprenticeship status which

"calls on the Commission and the Council...to set up a European Quality Charter on Internships setting out minimum standards for internships...These minimum standards should include an outline of the job description or qualifications to be acquired, a time limit on internships, a minimum allowance based on standard-of-living costs in the place where the internship is performed that comply with national traditions" (p. 21). - Quoted from Mount Eulympus.

One can only hope that the UK, not very keen on continental multilateralismwill ratify and implement this resolution soon. For a further read, have a look at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung article translated HERE into English.

Interns Anonymous, a UK advocacy organisation that I discovered on the net has made a short documentary where you can listen to the views of interns in various sectors:

Another thorn in my eye are organisations that place volunteers abroad for short-time as well as long-term placements. While generally, these can broaden the horizon of people and can do real good and might have sincere motivation to achieve a positive change, offer a solid system of training and have a fair relationship with the receiving organisation (usually located in a developing country), it is lamentable that there are some organisations who see themselves as a business rather than a development organisation. They charge exorbitant fees (for example, £1000) and keep most of it in their own pockets rather than sharing it with their partners. Then there are those organisations which can be broadly described as a volunteer movement rather than an exchange service. I am talking about the Peace Corps, VSO, UNV. A few months back, I confronted an international organisation which has ties with my university careers service and usually places volunteers for 12-18 months as peace workers abroad. The attendance of a residential weekend orientation seminar (assumably to filter the serious applicants from the romanticising flirters) costs £40 (to their credit on a sliding scale to enable low-waged and unemployed students to attend). Considering the fairly long time of the placement, it makes sense to give people an opportunity to find out if this kind of work really is for them. However, most other professional organisations go without wasting human and financial resources on organising a training like that and instead incorporate a group discussion (for free!) in the recruitment process. To put it simply: If you do not know what peace work is to begin with, you might not want to place your life on the line for a year accompanying human rights defenders in dangerous contexts. Admittedly, your presence is supposed to reduce the risk of an attack and statistically, few such volunteers have become victims of any kind of violence. There are cases however like the Maguindanao Massacre where a whole convoy of media people accompanying an election candidate did not help getting them or themselves killed. So in my eyes, unless you want to make money, charging people £40 to find out if they want to do peace work or not is a cash cow, quite frankly (looking at the curriculum of the seminar, it covers basics like, "What is peace work?").

Similarly, while I do appreciate the dedication long term volunteers demonstrate and find the philanthropic aspect of sincere volunteerism - for the right motivations - admirable, I do wonder about the very real challenges of working for practically nothing for a year, expenses covered and small subsistence allowance calculated on local living costs. To be fair, a flight and insurance cover gets thrown into the deal. The latter probably because it is legally required in development work labour law, the former to make sure that the often high price of flying to the often remote destinations does not deter the movement from deploying new volunteers. While the organisation is mainly non-profit and only employs very little paid staff, usually locally hired in field offices, it is a reality that in this one year while your expenses are all covered, you might be missing out on £17-23k per annum in a regular job if you are in my age bracket. Particularly just out of university, the first priority of many students is to get their foot in the door while at the same time dealing with tuition fee debts or subsistence at the very least. So I was just curious as to the level of awareness among recruiters of long-term volunteer placements to these issues and the profile they were envisaging, considering that A-level students are probably too immature for the responsibilities of peace work, BA graduates financially burdened and MA graduates qualified enough to hunt for a "real job". They also tend to be have family commitments in THEIR age bracket. So, who can afford going on such placements? I did not really get an answer to my question but the sentence that left behind the most lasting impression was, "If you're not able to committ [sic!] to the time, then that's a pretty sure sign that you're not ready for it." That's because I am ready to move ON, baby.

Meanwhile, I have become adept at scanning up to 200 job ads in two hours, navigating speedily to the careers site, identifying paid or unpaid, if paid scrolling to requirements to gauge if I am generally eligible, not reading the description of the post and the organisation. At last, I match the recruiters' speed in filtering out - on the other side of the line. If you take only three seconds in looking at my CV, I won't waste a whole day filling out your job application form if there is no chance you'll look at it for another seven. Damn straight, that's my philosophy. In the course of my high-intensity online scan of advertised vacancies, I have to say that despite not wasting time lingering on their descriptions, I saw A LOT of internships advertised where paid jobs should have been. My personal opinion - bias aside - is that internships have mushroomed and paid jobs declined ever since I last hunted for a full-time job and that there is a suspiciously high number of internships per permanent job vacancy.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVED the internships that I did and there are at least two or three in very interesting cities that are intriguing enough for me to actually consider applying and fundraising for them - if I did not have the luxury anymore of working for free and on top of it paying my own travel and accommodation costs. Perhaps my dire circumstances are for the better, preventing me from financially self-destructive career behaviour. Perhaps though they will force me into a spiral of under-employment. Either way, one thing is certain: It would be nice to be able to afford a pair of shoes - for the moment I DO get my foot in the door.

Interesting Links:
Forced Migration Review: "Internships: Rite of Passage for Students of Forced Migration?"
Interns Anonymous Website:
TIME Magazine: "Working for Free: The Boom in Adult Interns"
New York Times: The Unpaid Intern: Legal or Not?