Working in international cooperation: five clichés you should be aware of
Not sure how to get started on pursuing your interest in a career in international cooperation? Be aware of these preconceived ideas about working in the sector.
“I'm going into international cooperation because I want my work to have meaning.”
You are looking for a job that gives you the feeling of being useful and making a positive contribution. And so you think international cooperation will suit you. It is worthy of your efforts. But does a job only make sense when you can help your neighbour?
At the risk of disappointing you, the answer is no. Finding meaning in work is something we all have in common. An ice-cream seller can find their work rewarding because their delicious goodies bring a glow to children’s faces. A garbage collector can consider their job very useful because without it the city streets would be littered with garbage. Conversely, a programme manager for social justice in Niger might not be able to recognise meaning in their work because it consists of being behind a computer screen and writing numerous reports.
“I want to be able to have a direct impact in my work.”
You can imagine working in international cooperation because it is one of the few areas where you can actually see the fruits of your labour. You are inspired by employers such as UNICEF (“For every child, results”), the World Food Programme (“Zero Hunger”) and others.
We readily acknowledge that organisations working in international cooperation strive towards goals that are remarkable and should never be doubted. The same goes for their activities. However, it is worth differentiating between the impact at the level of the organisation, which may employ 100 or even 1000 people, and the impact at the personal level. In other words, working for UNICEF does not necessarily mean that your work and its impact can systematically be seen. You must be aware of this when applying to avoid being disappointed later.
“I’m neither an engineer nor a doctor ... and so international cooperation is not for me.”
Having told yourself that you lack the skills to build infrastructure or improve the health situation in the countries that most need it, you are moving away from the idea of international cooperation. But do you know that this field is not limited to these professions?
The truth is that employers are looking for a diverse range of profiles, from economics and finance to law, HR and social sciences. In 2019, logistics and construction accounted for only 3% of the advertised vacancies on cinfoPoste. And only 6% were for positions in health and medicine – although this figure reflects the reality that humanitarian organisations often recruit staff without advertising.
“I want to work in this field and so I’ll look for an NGO.”
Of course, NGOs are important actors. However, they are not alone in supporting people in need and promoting global economic, social and cultural development.
Apart from the federal government, which is active primarily through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the UN actors and international financial institutions play a central role with regard to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. You should also be aware that foundations and other private actors are increasingly influential.
When you are planning your career in international cooperation, and looking for a potential employer, think about the variety of organisations!
“Now that I’ve finished my studies, I’m looking for a permanent position.”
With your master’s in hand, you are ready to put into practice all the knowledge you have acquired during the long years of study. The only thing missing is a permanent position in an organisation. As they say you are talented, you will surely not have to wait long for this famous position.
Slow down! In many fields finding a fixed position without having done an internship is the exception. Arguably, it is even worse in international cooperation. Finding your path resembles a labyrinth in which you have to be proactive, flexible and show perseverance. The good news is that the possibilities to develop your career do exist.