Some Lessons Learned

wally 66

Sadaam was still President when I took this photo. But he was in Baghdad. This was Kurdistan. 1991

In December 1990 my contract with the UN ended. Though I had done a good job I, for the first time, was confronted with the reality of a thing called ‘budgets’. With the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan the refugee assistance programs were drastically reduced in size and scope as major donor governments, particularly the US of A, declared victory and headed for the exits as fast as their F16s could take them.

I duly put in applications within the UN for vacancies in small programs in Ethiopia, Sudan and even Papua New Guinea. But I was the most junior guy in a competitive field and as I was to discover very quickly the UN was an organization that took care of its own. I knew no one in Geneva and was also probably the wrong nationality. Americans in Pakistan were numerous. This was America’s proxy war after all. But we were not considered so essential or valuable in the South Pacific or Horn of Africa. Although my bosses put in (or said they did!) good words on my behalf my UN career ended almost as quickly as it began.

Two things were clear. One, I didn’t want to return to the States. Two, I wanted another job in the sector, preferably working with refugees. This I found in Islamabad a few months after leaving the UN. It was working as a case officer for an American NGO that processed refugees for resettlement in the States. I knew many of the refugees and had lived with a couple of the guys who worked there. That helped getting me the gig. It took a bit of pride swallowing for me to step down a few rungs in status and salary but as I said I was ‘no way no how’ heading back to Minnesota.

I bought a second hand Suzuki car, used one of my connections whose father was a senior advisor to the President of Pakistan, to get residence status, and talked to the editors/publishers of a couple local magazines about writing/ photographing for them. I bought an incredible pair of rosewood encased 1960s Tannoy speakers that stood up to my chest and sounded like the voice of God saying ‘Let there be light.” I began enquiring about and doing the sums on buying some land in the hills north of Islamabad. The NGO job was a stable stream of income till bigger things broke through.

The break-through came about 10 weeks later. Out of the blue I got a call from a former colleague’s unhappy wife who was now working for the UNHCR in Geneva. “Would you be interested in going to Iraq? We are setting up operations all across the country and we need people who know the system in Kurdistan.” About ten days later I was in Geneva being briefed by colleagues about the Iraq operation. It was huge, the biggest in many a year. Sadaam was still in control but President Bush and the Coalition of the Willing (sounds like a post-punk bar band) had insisted that the UN and other humanitarian agencies be allowed access to the country to assist his war-shattered people. Whether they needed it or not.

I was given kilos of closely typed analyses and assessments by human rights groups, Iraqi dissidents and former staff who had worked in Iraq previously. I met a couple of other fresh recruits and couldn’t shake the sensation that we were headed off to war. This mysterious vilified land was to be my new office. I nearly laughed (with ironic joy) that after spending 2 and half years interviewing Iraqi Kurds about their country and hearing names of towns like Arbil, Dohuk and Sulemaniyah, Baghdad and Basra I was actually going to be working there.

My belief in a Benevolent Deity or Force grew immensely. I had no idea where this would lead but I did know this was the next step on the path. Before they put me on a plane to Amman  with some old colleagues from Pakistan and a guy named Ayman who was to be my tent buddy for the next several months, they gave me $15,000 in travellers cheques which amounted to a single month’s pay and wished me bon chance.

Let’s pause here and review the lessons learned thus far:

  • Just because you land a job with the UN you are not guaranteed ongoing employment.
  • You need connections and experience to move upwards. Competition is stiff.
  • You may have to step sideways or backwards for a while if you want to stay in the game. If I hadn’t taken the NGO job I would have found myself picking up fares at Piggly Wiggly in north Minneapolis by 4th of July.
  • Good performance and commitment to the cause are not sufficient to secure employment. Education, advanced studies and degrees are completely irrelevant.
  • Budgets and funding are always cut. Even when they are not, they are used as reasons NOT to hire you.
  • Connections count. People remember you, but not forever. That old show biz adage about being nice to people on the way up applies equally to the humanitarian/development sector.
  • Opportunities come out of blue. You got to be flexible and ready to jump, even if that means abandoning cars, plans, friends, cool speakers, nice apartments and lovers. Being clear on your priorities helps a lot!
  • The Universe is the biggest chancer of them all. It loves surprising you. [If you’re religious, insert God]
  • The game is won by the flexible and the one who is happy to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • You don’t control anything.

I mention these things for the many younger professionals who have expressed their consternation at how hard it is to break into the sector.

It has always been thus.

My simple advice for those who want to be bit more proactive about their careers is to give up notions of career paths that take you from the halls of academia to jobs where you will use your recently acquired education, knowledge and skills. Get to the field as quickly and for as long as you can stand it. Don’t expect job offers but be prepared to jump on the opportunities that come your way. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Just remember, someone/something else is controlling the steering wheel.



  1. Ernie · December 22, 2015

    A nice mix of optimism, cynicism and abandonment to the universe! I like it!


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