UN Office Matters

Volunteering at UNICEF
  • "So, how good are you with Excel?"

    My second networking meeting at UNICEF during my volunteer days was with the Data and Analytics Section. The person interviewing me was from Colombia, with a sympathetic heart for fellow Latin Americans - a rare sighting at that time at headquarters. 

    The chat went very well: we mostly talked about Rio de Janeiro and soccer, which greatly helped establish the tone for a promising work relationship. But the meeting wasn't for career advice only, as I had previously anticipated. He was actually looking for a consultant (serendipity calling!).

    He explained the terms of reference for the consultancy, which would be soon advertised through a competitive process. It was a four-month gig to develop a comprehensive mapping of data in education from multiple sources for all countries in the world, and write an accompanying policy report. "Are you good with Excel?," he asked me. "Absolutely," I said with a slight tinge of remorse... 

    I was eventually offered the job and went on to spend four excrutiating months managing complex data sets side-by-side with an enourmous Excel bible I had got from my local library. Granted, I wasn't necessiraly 'good' with Excel at first. But I never thought it was hard to learn it, especially if you have the discipline, the determination and an Engineer father-in-law willing to help. And, boy, did I want that job?...

    Turns out the report was quite well received, particularly by the Global Chief of Education. I was subsequently invited for a longer consultancy to expand on this work and develop a more complex mapping, support costing exercises and write a comprehensive policy position paper for UNICEF in relation to secondary education. I was over-the-moon happy, until a staff from a UNICEF Country Office told me, "you know nobody reads these things in the field, right?" 

    Way to kill my vibe, lady...

  • "You lack third world experience"

    After a semester interning at UNICEF HQ, I returned as a volunteer for a couple of months after graduation.

    I was a bit hesitant at first. Being a non-paid volunteer with two Ivy League degrees wasn’t my dream graduation present. But this was an opportunity to do what I hadn’t really done during my internship days: network. 

    Networking is at the heart of the UN system. But I wasn’t good at it. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t cut out to ‘play that game.’ I’m not an introvert by nature, but the thought of shmoozing people I didn’t know or trying to impress big wigs at meetings with ‘smart’ questions that I already knew the answers for was discomforting and tiring, to say the least. Later I learned that networking doesn't have to be about the people you know - that can only carry you so far. It's about having the right people know the great work that you do (more on that later).

    During those months as a volunteer, I wrote to about 30 people at UNICEF with the classic “I would like your advice” approach. Of all those cold emails, I managed to secure two meetings. 

    The first was with a young Child Protection Specialist, who no longer works for the organization. I was determined to make a good impression. After a relatively short conversation, she told me she was ready to diagnose ‘my main problem,’ as she saw it (drum roll, please): “You lack third world experience.” 

    She went on to enlighten me with her own ‘third world’ experience. Having lived all her life in Minnesota, she explained that she interned for a year in South Africa after graduating from Law School in the US.

    After a long pause, where I expected her to continue with more ‘third world’ stories, I realized that she was done. That one year in South Africa was her triumphant moment living amongst the poor. A tall feat that somehow opened her the gates for a job with UNICEF. I humbly asked her if my 20 years of living in a working-class, single-family household in the countryside of Brazil, with no exit strategy, also counted as third world experience. She flat out said no. 

    For as tempting as it may be, I won't get into a north-south debate here. I had many years to dwell on this episode. When I think about it now, I want to believe it was simply a bad choice of words... But the truth is that having a long 'list' of different 'field' experiences under your belt is a great advantage when it comes to working in development (and, yes, the 'field' almost always refers to developing countries...).

    It was also my impression that a long list was perhaps more important than the actual substance of the work, but maybe I’m being cheeky. Again, that ‘list’ is a guaranteed gateway to impress employers. Sad for me, 'my own list' was almost inexistent. I had a young family and couldn’t afford venturing from place to place to build up my resume.

    Lucky for me, my other meeting was a bit more promising…