So, You Want to do Relief Work for the UN…

January 28, 2009

Refugee Camp in Eastern Chad

Bredjing, a refugee camp in eastern Chad.  Photograph by Christoph Bangert, The New Yorker

When I ask human security students what they would like to do with their lives after graduating, many of them envision working for the UN, providing humanitarian relief to needy people in far-off places, like Chad or Sudan.

I get this vision.  The idea of working hard, with clear moral purpose, responding to dire need, for an institution whose role is so important to global peace and development is compelling.  Yet, it is also a naive vision.  For a dose of reality, I recommend Jonathan Harr’s January 5, 2009 New Yorker article, “Doing Relief Work in Dangerous Places,” which provides a sobering assessment of the personal hardships and frustrations experienced by UN humanitarian workers located in some of the world’s hot-spots.

Those contemplating working at the UN should also read  Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy by Michael Soussan.  My copy of this book has not yet arrived, but the book is often cited as a “must-read” for those interested in an insightful and humorous insider’s account of the UN’s disastrous Iraqi Oil for Food program and of UN bureaucratic culture generally.  Will let you know what I think after I read it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am am not trying to dissuade students from pursuing their dreams of UN work, but I do believe that it is important for students to pursue these dreams with eyes wide open.

UPDATE: If after reading the above pieces you still want to work for the UN, Chis Blattman has this practical advice for how to pursue a UN development job.



3 Responses to “So, You Want to do Relief Work for the UN…”

  1. luis Says:

    It is true and I agree with lucy. there exist a naive perception of what humanitarian work is. Also agree there exist a satisfactory feeling to provide some help and work that sometimes is not “that much” for me/us, but for someone else might be the “whole world”. Just remind that not everyone has the same background.
    Is good to help -not deny- but is smart and precaucious to be aware of all consecuences and results. That is what I call “slap of reallity”.


  2. Adrián Says:

    I think that the one who plans to or is dreaming about doing humanitarian work must have the broadest perception about what comes with this kind of works. It’s not all about your desire to help people in need but it also demands from you a strong conviction, for you to be prepared for what it might payback to you, you ought to be strong enough to maintain your helping spirit throughout it and the best way to do so is to know widely about the realities of humanitarian works.


  3. Michael Soussan Says:

    Hey there, Michael Soussan here. Did you have a chance to read Backstabbing for Beginners? I also do not want to dissuade young people from going to work at the UN. To be sure this organization can benefit from new blood. Just want to share a few experiences that they didn’t teach me in school and encourage future international workers to always remember why they went into the field in the first place! It certainly helped me survive a catastrophic debacle during my own experience there. Look forward to any feedback you may have. Cheers, Michael

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