Getting a job in development (MSF edition)

Continuing the theme of development job advice, I hassle two American friends at Médecins Sans Frontières.

MSF doesn’t just feature doctors without borders; it’s administrators, program managers, logisticians, nurses, and epidemiologists Sans Frontières too. I badgered one health worker and one administrator (now PhD anthropologist–see her blog). Here’s their collective wisdom.

Advice from a MSF health staffer:

My experience on getting picked up quickly by an organization was to get a technical skill needed in developing countries. I specialized in tropical medicine and then took courses in refugee and IDP specific health situations.

I applied to MSF with this educational background and basically agreed to go wherever they sent me. Going wherever you are assigned is the key in the beginning. After you “stick it out” for your first assignment, you can begin to pick and choose situations that appeal to you.

But my first MSF assignment was by far the most interesting job I’ve had. Southern Sudan is a tropical medicine nerd’s dream.

Advice from a MSF administrator:

The week before my interview, I reread my notes from a class on critiques of development and humanitarian aid. My interviewer, a no-nonsense Liberian woman and former refugee named Hawah, ignored my academic and policy credentials. I never had the chance to wax on about how I would avoid the pitfalls of the disaster relief industry and the dangers of neocolonialism. Instead, she honed in on my sparse management skills.

Had I ever led a group of people in accomplishing a concrete task? I knew vice-president of the debate team wasn’t going to cut it. She wanted to help me. Maybe I had managed a restaurant… or a car wash?

Thankfully, Hawah gave me the benefit of the doubt. I had worked for a non-governmental organization in Pakistan. I passed the accounting exam. I smiled a lot.
I started working with MSF in 2002 as a country administrator for two HIV/AIDS treatment programs in Kenya. Most recently, I took a break from my doctoral program in cultural anthropology to serve as an field coordinator in China after the May 2008 earthquake. I now know how to manage a team in an emergency setting. I understand better the balance between critique and action in the field.

If you’re interested in humanitarian aid, it’s best to start by cultivating a few relevant skills. That sounds basic, but I know from experience that backpacking in Nepal and a completing a Masters in Public Administration don’t pass muster. For non-medical volunteers, there are two main areas of entry-level work: logistics and finance/HR management. To build experience, you could help coordinate an international supply chain or organize safaris for travelers. You could work with a diverse HR pool or manage a big office. Idealism, adventure travel and volunteer stints are important because they indicate that your heart is the in the right place and that you’re not going to quit because the toilets don’t flush. But to start out you also need a set of transferable skills.

Most aid workers, medical and non-medical, manage multicultural teams. The bulk of the work is about organizing staff and supplies in complex situations. It’s rewarding, but it’s not glamorous. Hawah was wise to ask about my car wash credentials. Even if your goal is to work in policy or research, I recommend starting in the field. You’ll see the challenges of implementation from a perspective that will continue to be valuable.

See the previous post on getting a job in the UN.