Sounding off on foreign aid career mobility

The U.N. humanitarian air service transports staff and volunteers to remote parts of the world. For development professionals, it can be a two-edged sword. Photo by: EU/ECHO/Philippe Royan / CC BY-ND

Because of the nature of the work, development professionals tend to move from one location to another. And oftentimes they move a lot, as many aid groups encourage or require rotation to their different offices, regions and areas of focus, noted Kate Warren, director of global recruiting services at Devex, in her Career Matters column.

Devex readers shared their experience and thoughts about mobility.

“My experience is that when you are in a new location/position, you have a new Manager to whom you have to prove your worth,” Beruk Kabtamu wrote. “After working hard to do just that and when the new Manager start to realize that you are good and worthy of promotions or at least have confidence in you, it is already time to move and start the whole process of proving yourself to the new Manager and colleagues all over again.”

Frequent moves can also be stressful, Kabtamu said, because it means building new social circles, halting any long- or short-term courses you’ve started, and dealing with weather and other issues that can impact one’s health.

Charles Vincent, who said he moved 12 times during his 28 years at the World Food Program, suggested that staffers should be posted to duty stations where they can make an impact to the surrounding communities. He agreed with Warren about the challenge of keeping a family intact due to frequent moves, because the number family duty stations has shrunk and security rules prevent families from being together.

“If one has a family, one has to carefully think through and discuss the options, the goals, the dreams, the path,” said Vincent, adding that the spousal employment policy has “a lot of lip service” but “very little in substance.”

He also slammed the U.N. headquarters in New York for not encouraging mobility, recalling one staff member with a permanent contract who had to give up his acquired right if he went to the field.

For Mike Kendellen, all headquarter employees need to have at least two years of field experience before they are considered for position at HQ.

He added: “[A]t some point the continuing revolving door and moving around will take its toll. Also, not all field postings are equal. Dushanbe is not Rabat. Do institutions give more credence to hardship posts? HQ and field positions are not all equal. Depending on the move, would there be a promotion or demotion involved?”

What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.