17 May 2012

A Test of Faith

It was not what was supposed to happen.

With almost two years un(der)paid internships under my belt, I had been passed over for promotion for the other intern,

the one with less than half (!) the internship experience I had
the one without prior migration-related experience
the one with economics (!) background
the one with zero 'field cred'
the one whose first application for a permanent job it was (ever!)
the one who speaks fewer foreign languages than I do
the one who HADN'T been advertising that she wanted a job
the one to whom this job was of less existential significance.

It was the closest I had come to finding employment in a long time and it didn't help that the rejection came five days before Christmas. Or that I had first row tickets to job handover briefings because the person who got the job had her desk right in front of me and our boss's was in the adjacent room behind her.


Making a career in development is like making a career in journalism: Most jobs you will apply for go to professionals from other disciplines. In development, that means agriculture, lawyers, engineers, medics, accountants and even city bankers and other MBAs.

There are countless posts on aid worker blogs giving career advice to those still hoping for a way to break into the industry (not so many for those trying to break into policy research though) and the long thread of comments reveal just how frustrated, desperate and cynical people become in the course of their job hunt. Occasionally, you find one or the other angry remark on how much unpaid work experience is enough or what happens to those who can't afford the luxury anymore and have to give up their dream.

The non-profit sector belongs one of those sectors where in the average amount of time others complete a BA degree (three years), you have progressed from volunteer to intern, to paid intern, to part-time staff, to maternity cover until eventually (if not bankrupt by this point) "qualifying" enough to beat the other 199 applicants competing with you for your first FT job.

"At the latest count there were more than a million unemployed 16-24 year-olds in the UK, making competition for jobs intense. Internships are seen are as a foot in the door and way of getting experience - particularly in politics, the media and fashion."
- BBC, 19 April 2012, "Liberal Democrats' unpaid internships criticised"

Serial internships have become the norm for many who hope to get lucky one day, prompting cynical views like the following:

"In July, I was at an interview for a three-month unpaid internship at a campaigning organisation in central London which specialises in using public and shareholder pressure to push corporations to become more ethical.

"What exactly would I be doing?" I asked my interviewers. They explained that the intern would work mainly on a campaign for corporations to pay all employees a living wage (£8.30 an hour in London). Didn't they find it a bit ironic, I asked, that they were looking for an unpaid intern?

"Oh," said my interviewer, looking surprised. "That's a really embarrassing question."

In June, I had returned from a two-year stint working for VSO in Cameroon. I'd been running projects, managing budgets, organising workshops and training, and earning a local-level salary. I loved working in international development; I'd had a great post-placement evaluation of my work. I also had a good degree from Cambridge and plenty of voluntary experience. But I had reckoned without the hurdle of the unpaid internship. If you don't have the right connections pretty much the only way to start a career in a UK-based international development role is to spend months and sometimes years as an unpaid intern. To get one of these internships (some I was interviewed for had more than 100 applicants) you can need years of experience, and preferably a master's degree."
- Guardian, October 30th, 2011, "Work for free – or not at all: the bitter choice for young graduates"


Unless you have London-based family to crash with to avoid the exorbitant rent (£400-600 a month excluding council tax you were exempted from as a student), this is of course an unsustainable path for many BA graduates. For that precise support factor in my job search, I came back to Austria.

While extensive internships are not encouraged in Austria and even tend to be frowned upon, a social science degree by itself does not get you as far as it would in the UK with the same amount of experience, especially if you are 'just' a Bachelor. The latter is because until recently, most Austrian university degrees would directly lead to a Magister/Magistra – an Austrian title that is comparable to a Master (more on the state of the Bachelor in Austria hopefully soon in another post). This is due to a local emphasis on certificates and formal education and the negligible value given to the transferability of skills.

In order to work with refugees in Austria for example, you would either need to be a certified social pedagogue (2-3 years), a social worker (3 years) or a lawyer. The few consulting jobs in international development that are NOT technical require M&E (monitoring & evaluation) experience or experience with project work that preferably includes knowledge of grant acquisition and familiarity with complex EU funding mechanisms (the kind where one printed submission dossier fills one or several thick folders).

There is no VSO-like organisation in Austria. There used to be such a programme offered by Horizont 3000 that I nearly ended up in Mindanao with but the paid overseas volunteering was abolished a few years ago. German-speaking development students and graduates try their luck via the GIZ which offers numerous paid internships in Germany and abroad with all expenses paid. Essential requirement is however that you are either currently enrolled or have graduated within the last six months.


Yes, it is true, Vienna hosts one of the UN headquarters and also the headquarters of IAEA, UNODC, UNIDO, OSCE and OPEC respectively.

People always mention the UN but unless you are a driver/cooker/cleaner/security officer/nurse/teacher/accountant/nuclear scientist/organised crime expert (ie former police officer or home office civil servant)/petroleum physicist/translator, you will browse the job listings for a long time. You could try getting in as clerk or a typist (high school diploma is fine but you need "five years of progressive experience" in punching a keyboard, sorting mail and picking up the phone. Unless you fit into one of the above categories or are a diplomat or spouse of a P-grade officer, your chances of getting hired are virtually nil.

Since you will bring up the JPO/AE route next, Austria currently hires every two years and candidates face serious competition from Vienna's very own Diplomatic Academy. The main foreign languages in demand are Russian, French and the languages spoken in the Balkans. Sorry to all of you who learned Farsi/Urdu/Arabic/Chinese or any other language spoken South of the Mediterranean and East of the Urals.

People often do not realise how complex and competitive hiring policies for HQ jobs are (compared to those in country offices). It is almost a science (and art!) in itself to get hired. In my personal experience, country offices – mostly comprised of national staff and thus less diverse – tend to hire people who are likely to be content with the idea of staying in that particular country for a while. Over-advertising your international ambitions and desire to rotate to other countries within a reasonable amount of years tends to work against you. This is in line with Austrian business culture which rejects the concept of careerism and promotes values like stability, reliability and tradition.

As you read at the beginning of this post, I tried to get into a job with such an organisation via the internship route. This last brush with near-employment marked somewhat of a turning point for me. After six humiliating months of wasting my brain cataloguing and reorganising parts of the in-house library and left to fend with the deeper (and more time-consuming) layout mysteries of our office software for 400€ a month, I MORE THAN DESERVED to get hired. The best part is that when I kept pushing for more responsibilities, they said they did not want to "abuse" (!) their interns by giving them substantial tasks!

I later happened to see an ad for another job within that organisation that would have been an even greater match to my interests.

I did not apply.


"It’s natural that at some point on the journey we embark on in our lives, where we set ourselves a goal, where we follow our dream, that we get to a part where we feel like giving up on it. Where we are willing to accept failure. Where we no longer see it possible for us to achieve our big dreams, and so settle for mediocrity in life."
- click here for source

For a while, I continued sending out applications.

No matter how perseverant or determined (and grads of 'idealistic' degrees tend to be blessed/cursed with a particular tolerance for long-term reward gratification) I had been, I needed to evaluate their progress honestly and consider alternatives on how to make a living for myself.

One day I just accepted that I had to get back on my feet, get my wits together, move on and step by step, start to climb the hill NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week if I don't hear back from this or that job application...


I contemplated the typical technical jobs always in demand in international development.

I chose the field which seemed the most attainable and low risk for me with the meagre means at my disposal. Something that will land me a secure job elsewhere even if things don't work out in development (this is tricky because a Master in social sciences in the UK can be the deal-breaker in securing my dream job and I would never know once I changed career paths).

I signed up for a taster. This taster is an opportunity to experience the harsh sides of aid work in a relatively familiar environment. A real-life simulation, if you will. I figured if I like this kind of work (which I shall protect from premature criticism for now), I would pursue it academically, even if that would have been unimaginable to me up until two weeks ago. If I don't enjoy it and haven't been offered another job by that time, I will still go back to university, enrol for a language degree (portability of study materials are the deciding factor here) in a last attempt to cash in my benefits before I lose eligibility for them and with that money, get myself back to Asia to hustle for a job.

The mere idea of starting from scratch and investing your time and energy in what could possibly be another five-year journey (1 year to wait for next admission cycle, 2 years to study and 2 years of mandatory minimum work experience) in an entirely different discipline is daunting to say the least.

Even more daunting however would be the prospect of settling for anything less than my dream.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"
- Lao Tse

03 May 2012

Visualise: 10 Amazing Infographics

They say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

This is certainly true for infographics which present facts, figures, proportions, distributions and linkages in a visually appealing way and have been popping up all over the internet and newspapers. A well-designed infographic can summarise an entire article and has the advantages of...
  • ... catching the attention of the speed-browsing eye,
  • ... delivering information in a way that makes it easier to understand for the busy or less educated person and that is
  • ... easier for the brain to retain.
I have wanted to post about infographics ever since the Afghanistan war strategy made big headlines in UK dailies in April 2010 (see #5), so without further ado I give you ten of the most intriguing infographics. As usual, click to enlarge:

#1 Why infographics?

#2 The biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution

I am pretty sure it was meant to be shared (given that it presents stunning figures about social media) but since the image has All Rights Reserved, I can legally only link to it.

#3 The complex world of human relationships and non-monogamy

This was actually shared by one of the students among the Gender in Anthropology class at SOAS.

#4 Left vs. Right in the United States

#5 US strategy for the war in Afghanistan

When presented with the graph in a slideshow, General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO force commander supposedly remarked, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war".

The amusement and even serious concern about facts vs. illusion (see above article) was echoed with a public debate about whether or not slideshows in general really are always as effective and useful in conveying information. Having attended a public lecture by Khalid Koser who visited his former employer SOAS on a short trip from Geneva and demonstratively showed how perfected oratory and presentation skills can make 60 minutes fly by even without a projector, I do agree that measure is key.

#6 Eleven days that shaped 2011

As voted on this site.

#7 The 21st century challenges surrounding water

By Suez Environnement which according to its Wikipedia article, is a French utility company which declares an interest in sustainable development.

#8 Human trafficking statistics

From We Are Chapter One (larger image available on their blog) and posted on Stop the Traffik's blog.

#9 The global arms trade

Sadly a less 'sexy' development topic for most development studies students (and probably a more central issue in war studies or security studies), the impact of the global arms trade on conflicts and power-relations is often over-looked.

#10 The rise of the slacktivist

Fascinating times for the social activist!

Please note that I did not verify any of the information shown in any of the images above and can therefore not guarantee their accuracy.

Browse more infographics on the following sites: