Sounding off on post-UN career planning

The United Nations flag. Working for the United Nations has its rewards, but transitioning out of it may prove to be a challenge when job hunting in other sectors. Photo by: sanjitbakshi / CC BY

For many in development, a position with the United Nations is a coveted role. This may be more true if you intend to spend your career with the U.N., but what if you need or decide to transition out of the institution?

Coming from a large bureaucracy, former U.N. staffers suffer from perceptions of inefficiency and lack of innovation or results. As such, many development groups are not keen to hire or even shortlist them for a job, Devex Director of Global Recruiting Services Kate Warren notes in her latest Career Matters column. She then offers some advice on how to overcome post-U.N. job hunting challenges.

The issue stirred a heated debate among Devex readers.

David Vichet Van vows to never hire those who’ve spent most of their working lives at the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations, saying these people “are completely from another planet” and “have absolutely no clue” how to manage a business.

“They have only known all their UN or Development World career what is a COST CENTER but have absolutely no idea of what is a PROFIT CENTER (must bring revenues and watch out expenses),” he wrote.

Vichet Van’s comment didn’t sit well with Kari Egge, who has worked for nearly 20 years at the U.N. and is now running her own business.

“David - you do not know what you are talking about!” Egge said. “Maybe you only state this because you want to provoke, but you should definitely try to get some more insights in what the UN does or does not do and realise that it is a system and not one organisation. We are all on the same planet although you may be envious that you have not visited part of it which is called the UN.”

She warned Vichet Van to be careful in making such general statements without possessing insights into the workings of the U.N.

Alain Nkoyock was likewise concerned about generalizations on the issue. He noted that the U.N. has been changing and that many of its people are innovating but acknowledged that it’s not always easy to push for new ideas.

Michael Blakeley, a director at a consulting company, has advice for people who functioned in so-called cost centers or where there is no bottom line or shareholder pressure to counter concerns about their competencies: Focus on their hard skills and where they have made some process more efficient.

Cecilia Matanga did recognize that her work now at a bank and previously at the U.N. are “worlds apart.” She’s now a program manager which she said is very different from being a program officer.

She appears to lament her situation: “As part of my transition, I quickly realised that I had programme management experience but it was not commercialised. … Adapting to my new environment has not been easy. I often miss being in the field, working with people and communities, travelling etc. I also often feel lost and with no professional identity.”

Soahangy Mamisoa Rangers agrees that transitioning out of the U.N. comes with certain drawbacks, such as the loss of status or prestige and salary breaks, which are often massive.

“That being said, there are true rewards from transitioning out of the UN: 1) You realise that there is a whole world out there and that the U.N. is not the beginning and the end of everything; 2) You get yourself quickly updated on the latest technical and strategic developments in your area, something you do not get always get the opportunity to do when working for the UN; and 3) You actually get yourself more marketable, including for the UN,” she wrote.

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    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.