Sounding off on the truth about working for the United Nations

The United Nations. Photo by: oriol04 / CC BY-NC-SA

We all have assumptions about working for a certain organization. In the case of the United Nations, many feel that positions are beyond their reach because U.N. agencies and programs prefer to hire within and to recruit those hailing from the global North.

There’s some truth to that, but “there are many more positions that are truly open to any candidate, whether internal or external to the system,” said Kate Warren, Devex director of global recruiting services, in a recent column. She also noted “a strong demand for more candidates from program countries.”

Warren’s article prompted questions from our readers bewildered by the hiring process within the United Nations:

• Does a lack of connection within the United Nations reduce one’s chances to get hired?
• Is it true that U.N. agencies are biased against hiring Americans?
• Is age a consideration when recruiting U.N. staffers?

Some, including several people who have experience working at U.N. agencies, have confirmed the myths and criticized the U.N. recruitment process.

The United Nations is an outdated organization, with nearly all employees being political appointees who “do nothing but fill an office,” said Charles Dean Gilbertson, a former U.N. volunteer who has worked previously for the World Food Program Logistics Office in Chad, Mozambique and South Sudan.

Mark Pommerville concurred with Gilbertson’s view. People do stay for life at the United Nations “because it IS a job where you don't need to perform and the pay and benefits are great,” he wrote.

“For the under-performer, worst case scenario, you get promoted to move you out of someone's department and you become somebody else's nightmare,” he added.

It is understandable why almost every job targets people within the system, as “there is no such thing as a promotion within [it], which means to escalate your career you need to apply to open posts and get them,” according to Miguel Camacho, citing his experience working at U.N. specialized agencies in Geneva. Aside from incumbents, open positions at the United Nations are virtually reserved for consultants who are deemed deserving to be hired as regular employees by virtue of their past good performance.

But it’s not all criticism.

Although it’s true there’s quite a bit of “dead wood” in many U.N. agencies, many staffers carry out critical, good and interesting work, shared Robert (Robin) Wheeler, an American who served as a regional program adviser for the World Food Program and whose wife used to be a WFP employee and U.N. volunteer.

“Working in the U.N. gives you a very different perspective than working outside it that has helped to shape my overall views on development, research and humanitarian interventions,” Wheeler said. “If you like cultural diversity and want a truly international experience, at least a stint with the U.N. may be just the thing you're looking for.”

A success story in landing a U.N. job in Nigeria, Tolu Arowolo praised the U.N. system for having “the best hiring policy as it regards transparency for hiring the best skill and competency.” He debunked the notion that jobs are only for a selected few because he has seen many U.N. vacancies filled by candidates outside the system.

Roberto Battista said he has seen the best and the worst of the United Nations over his three decades of working for some its agencies. For him, it’s hard to make a generalization of the U.N. hiring process.

“My personal experience is that I was always chosen for my skills,” Battista wrote. “The most difficult step is perhaps obtaining the first job, then it becomes easier to establish connections and become known for what you are good at, so people can come to you because it is you they need.”

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About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.