"You learn a lot by doing", Helen Stevenson

Helen Stevenson spent one year in Central Asia as part of the talent programme "Swiss Youth at the United Nations". She talks us through some of her most memorable moments.

Turkmenistan card
Milena Cuzzucoli


Former staff member

About the talent programme

Each year, the Swiss Government funds around 30 one-year positions within the talent programme, "United Nations Youth Volunteer (UNYV)". This programme allows young professionals to gain valuable field experience while contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. Swiss nationals, under 29 years old and holding a master’s degree, are eligible for this unique international opportunity.
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What was your assignment?

I worked as a Programme Associate at the Regional Office for Central Asia (ROCA) for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Helen Stevenson, UNYV

What happened after your assignment?

I moved to London to take up a new role in an international development consultancy firm (private sector) called IMC Worldwide that works mainly for the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and other donors in a range of countries. I focused on project management and monitoring, evaluation and learning for large development and humanitarian programmes, mainly in South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Where are you working today?

I recently joined a different consultancy firm in London, Integrity, which works in fragile and conflict-affected states, mainly focusing on monitoring, evaluation and learning. I am currently providing project management and technical support to three programmes, two in the Democratic Republic of Congo for DFID and USAID and one in Kenya for DFID.

Can you remember a particularly exciting time/situation you experienced during your assignment as a UN Youth Volunteer?

I had the chance to travel from Tashkent in Uzbekistan to the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, to support colleagues delivering a training to prosecutors and judges from across all five Central Asian countries. It was fascinating to have a chance to travel to Turkmenistan and better understand the law enforcement dynamics that emerged during the training sessions.

Do you remember a difficult situation or moment that you experienced?

It was challenging to understand how the UN system works at the beginning of my assignment and also to be taken seriously by UN colleagues who had been working in their field and/or in Tashkent for a long time. They sometimes viewed UN volunteers as short term, inexperienced resources. This had some truth to it, as I was asked to take on roles that I was initially unqualified for but you learn a lot by doing and this improved as the year progressed.

I was asked to take on roles that I was initially unqualified for but you learn a lot by doing.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

What was your biggest learning from this assignment?

I learned a lot about the UN system as a whole and also about Central Asia, a region I was very unfamiliar with prior to this mission.

Would you recommend the programme to other Swiss graduates?

I would recommend the programme, as it is an exciting professional opportunity and can open doors for further involvement in the UN system or the wider development arena.

The programme can open doors.

Would you do anything differently?

I would make more of an effort to learn Russian before and during the mission.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to apply?

I would suggest being flexible in terms of destination and UN agency. I originally applied for a role with UN Women in Haiti but ended up with UNODC in Uzbekistan, which was a great experience.

Be flexible in terms of destination and UN agency.

What advice would you give to someone who has been selected?

Approach the mission with an open mind and armed with patience to manage the UN bureaucracy and administration.

Approach the mission with an open mind.

Any anecdote you would like to share with us?

I never expected to have the opportunity to live and work in Uzbekistan and even had to google map it (!) but it was a great experience, both personally and professionally. The support we received from cinfo was excellent and I would recommend the programme to any recent graduate with an interest in pursuing a career in international development.

Helen Stevenson in Turkmenistan