Fiona Davidson, regional programme operations manager for Cord, an international peacebuilding organisation in Asia, gives the low-down on her job and top tips for breaking into the development and humanitarian aid sector.
1. What does your job involve?
My current role with Cord is to provide operational and programmatic oversight to the country offices, and to support the country directors to effectively manage their programmes. These involve a range of activities that help build peace by addressing the social, economic and political factors that fuel violent conflict. Some of the issues our programmes deal with are livelihoods, education, human rights and gender equality. I am based in the regional office in Phnom Penh but get to travel with my role to other countries in Asia.
2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?
When I was young a well-known and tragic event happened at my primary school in Scotland – the Dunblane massacre. The days that followed the event involved lots of press attention, as well as money and gifts being sent to my home town. Many celebrities and others came to offer support to the city I had grown up in. It was just a week before Comic Relief or Red Nose Day as it’s known in the UK. It was also two years after the Rwandan genocide and Fergal Keane was on my TV screen begging the British public to give more funds to what had become a forgotten crisis.
I remember turning to my Dad and saying something along the lines of “I want to be like that man when I’m older” and of later having a discussion with my Dad about whether Rwanda was getting the same influx of goods as Dunblane. At that age I could not quite understand why people would send money and gifts to Dunblane but not to Rwanda. I also experienced people around me being selected as beneficiaries of gifts and money of various amounts. I’ve since learned a lot more about news values, fundraising and how incredibly difficult it can be to choose beneficiaries of aid.
3. What route did you take to your current job?
At 16, I started volunteering for a rape crisis centre in Stirling, Scotland. I then spent a gap year working in a school in Thailand as an English teacher. At university I studied international development and European politics. Before my post-graduate I did an internship with Mercy Corps in Edinburgh and learnt more about the practicalities of accessing and implementing aid funding. This was great experience to take with me to my Masters programme at IDPM in Manchester. The course included a short field trip to northern Ghana which was just fantastic.
After university I was offered an internship with ActionAid in Zimbabwe.
Back in the UK, I joined the disaster management department at the British Red Cross’ head office. My role involved supporting responses to natural disasters. It was an amazing period of my life working with really experienced and skilled professionals. I learned so much. After two years in the job I decided to go travelling and ended up in Cambodia, where I’d arranged some voluntary work with Oxfam GB in Phnom Penh. In my first few months I tried to meet as many people as possible, undertook a few consultancy contracts and was then offered my current position with Cord.
4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?
I have always felt quite daunted when looking at person specifications for jobs, especially in ‘field’ based positions with aid agencies. It always seemed like it would be impossible to ‘break in’ and get the experience needed.
5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
Every day is very memorable at the moment. Working closely with a team across Asia has been a fantastic experience for me. I love the focus of my everyday work being on developing countries’ local skills and resources rather than simply doing things quickly. The dividends are so much higher this way and it gives me real pride in my work as it really is sustainability in action!
6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?
At any given time there are certain countries that have many more advertised job opportunities than elsewhere. Checking the websites now I can see that these locations are Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of South Sudan. These are quite simply the most difficult countries to recruit aid workers to work long term. This should serve as a warning signal to those applying for these positions. However, if you are willing to go to one of these countries for a contract, it can make it easier to get that first period of field work on your CV and also give you valuable experience in one of the hardest places to work.
Visit Fiona’s blog if you are interested in learning more about the work she does and for more tips on breaking into aid work.