TT minus-9 weeks

Just under one month to go at my internship with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and I thought I would give some idea of a few things I have learnt, and a few that I have done (in no particular order). Perhaps food for thought for anyone thinking of applying for an internship or job with a UN agency, or perhaps not…:

* I’m really happy with my decision to come to the Caribbean sub-regional headquarters of ECLAC, as opposed to the Washington DC office, as it has fulfilled my expectations in terms of being an opportunity to learn more about the region, its development status and challenges. In this sense, I would recommend to anyone who has a particular regional focus to apply to UN agency offices in that region/country. It may well be the case that by being more “specific” with your applications in this sense you stand a higher chance of being selected too (on my part I am fairly sure that they fact I had a background in the Caribbean, an interest in the region and in trade in particular – a focus of the UN ECLAC Economic Development Unit – was a key factor in my selection for the internship).

* Based on my experience it seems that interns at the UN definitely have the chance to take on some quite substantive work. This is both, I think, an example of how the organisation does intend to make the internships they offer a useful career experience for interns, and also a symptom of some of the human resource shortfalls mentioned below. In most cases I have definitely felt like I was doing work that was “necessary”. This has included data collection, analysis and organisation; writing articles for the UN ECLAC newsletter, “Focus” on Caribbean economic trends in 2012 and a recent Caribbean Roundtable Meeting; compiling information on Caribbean government’s ongoing policy responses to the global downturn; figuring out how to use (very unwieldy) trade databases like UN-WITS and UN Comtrade; compiling a literature review covering major recent academic papers on trade.

* It can take a really long time to get hired at the UN. As such, the organisation can suffer from human resources shortfalls. Many people I met said it took them over a year in some cases to hear that they had secured a position they had applied for! This is a source of frustration for those in the system too, as they often have to take on a workload much greater than that which they anticipated when colleagues leave and vacancies go unfilled for long periods of time. To compound the situation, if you join the UN on a temporary basis and prove yourself very capable of filling the position long term, the particular unit or agency cannot hire you to fill the post permanently as there is a rule against someone in a temporary position taking on the post full time. The UN has apparently pledged to reform the hiring process.

* If you see a job advertised at the UN and it says a certain number of years experience are required, this may not be a hard and fast rule. This I discovered after finding that some of those I work with were hired with much less experience than their job descriptions suggested and proved themselves quite capable of doing the job.

* Many UN workers enter the organisation through the Young Professionals Programme. This programme requires participants to apply to take an exam, which it will then use your performance in to determine whether it will offer you a post within the UN. Each year citizens of certain countries are eligible to apply (the UN trying to keep its employee body diverse, but also awarding a certain number of slots to particular countries based on their financial contributions to the UN). Once you are a member of one of the participating/eligible countries, you must be under 32 years of age, speak either english or french fluently and hold at least an undergraduate level university degree. If you pass the exam, you get placed on a roster which is circulated among all UN offices and agencies around the world. P2 level positions within the entire UN are reserved for people who are on this roster, and so if a position comes up anywhere you could be called and interviewed for that post if you have passed the exam. Exams this year can be taken in Architecture, Economic Affairs, Political Affairs, Social Affairs, Radio Producer and Information Systems and Technology. If offered a job, successful candidates can select a country or countries they would prefer to work in, but ultimately the UN decides based on where needs exist to met. You have to work in two different duty stations (different countries) and in two different functions in your first year of service. You may be offered a job related to the area in which you took the exam, or you may not. Check out a sample exam if you think you might be interested. The deadline for this year is in September. At UN ECLAC in Port of Spain we have a few Young Professionals. One is a Honduran about to set off to Thailand for her second posting, and anoother is a Japanese YPP who was placed in Port of Spain as his first duty station. We also had a programme coordinator from Germany who entered via the YPP programme, who has just been reposted to New York. From what I’ve been told, you can it can take up to a year to find out if you have even passed the exam, and then further waiting is required before any interviews will take place for postings (with this being dependent on you being picked up off the roster by someone in one of the UN offices to which it is circulated)- so don’t hold your breath while you wait! One of the YPs I spoke to said he had made his way onto the executive board of a major German retail firm by the time he heard back from the YPP after applying following his graduation…but gave it all up to go to the UN!

* Weekly meetings have been some of the most helpful parts of the work experience. This is when we come together as members of the Economic Development Unit to talk about what we have achieved that week, what new work priorities may have arisen, and what we intend to achieve in the short to medium term. In these meetings I’ve felt as though myself and my fellow intern have certainly been treated as real team members and our comments, suggestions and needs have been taken into consideration in a way that went beyond my expectations.

* Much of the work produced on behalf of the UN is the work of consultants who are contracted by the organisation for a specific project or period of time. Such individuals seem to be selected based on their particular research interests, ability to write clearly and concisely, and previous acquaintance with the organisation on some basis or other. So, for example, two Caribbean academics were recently contracted by ECLAC-POS in order to produce papers with recommendations on policies to boost Caribbean growth and competitiveness, following the provision of a grant to pay for their work by the French Development Agency via the UN for this purpose. Based on my understanding, it seems that many people feel that this is one of the best ways to engage with the UN, as you have the most “freedom” and are more highly remunerated for your work than salaried employees.

* There’s several categories of UN workers. “Professional and higher category” staff, “General Service” staff, “National Professional Officers” and “Field Service” staff. Each category will recruit staff at various “levels” depending on your qualifications and experience, and some will be recruited internationally (professional category) while others will be sought locally (general service). You can actually find out exactly how much you (or anyone you work with) would get paid at each level / category / duty station and with each additional year or years worth of experience via the UN websites, which I find a great exercise in transparency on the UN’s behalf. As someone within the UN system you can definitely find out about new UN job postings very easily, and some are only advertised internally initially. Therefore there seems to be a definite bias towards job openings favouring those already in the system. Every few days in my UN inbox I get notifications of new job postings all over the world.

* UN research and policy work is definitely an “office job” where you will spend most of your time in a room in front of a computer. You have to have a certain level of self-motivation and the ability to put your head down and get on with things to enjoy and succeed in these types of positions. Also to be able to adapt to changing priorities, as new requests for particular items of work to be produced at short notice may arise at any time, requiring you to drop everything and start on something new.

* There is somewhat of a tension at UN ECLAC between doing “monitoring” type work and/or “theorizing”. Monitoring basically involves collecting data on economic developments, such as growth, unemployment rates, deficts and debts, monetary policy, credit expansion, inflation and any other indicators of economic health to record and allow for comparisons, both between countries and of particular countries at different periods of time. This type of monitoring done by UN ECLAC is very thorough and filters into a lot of academic and journalistic work worldwide, particularly, it seems, since the global downturn and the effect it has had on Caribbean economies. Theorising is what ECLAC has made a name for itself doing since its foundation in 1948, coming up with original answers to the question of how to advance Latin American and Caribbean development that provided a counter-weight to those coming from places such as the US and US-based institutions like the World Bank and IMF with their “Washington Consensus”. Its first appointed Director, economist Raul Prebisch, turned ECLAC into a launch pad for “structuralism” and its related ideas of “inward development”, import-substitution industrialisation and regional integration. Today ECLAC is focusing on issues of growth and inequality and the question of how you can achieve the former while addressing the latter, emphasizing the need for structural change in the production structures of regional economies and placing continued focus on the inevitability of integration as a path to global competitiveness for the Caribbean even as the World Bank and other institutions are moving away from this route as a means of advancement for the Caribbean in particular. But the amount of this kind of “original” work that the agency can do is limited by the quantity of “monitoring” that it does, combined with the human resource constraint that arises from vacancies going unfilled for significant periods of time. I hope that going forward UN ECLAC can continue to find the time and resources to provide the theoretical counterweight that it has throughout its history.

Well that’s it for my UN thoughts for the day. Any questions you might have, just leave a comment. I leave you with photos of Trinidad and Tobago from my weekend trip to Tobago:

Posted on August 6, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for the insight …was looking for cues

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