Insights on International Organisations

By Wong Yi Hao

The Discover+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on International Organisations, held on 12 May 2020, was graced by Janine Civitate, Deputy Director at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Centre on Tech, Innovation and Sustainability; Mock Yuan Bing, Legal Consultant at the World Bank Group; and Tan Bao Jia, former Investment Officer at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It was moderated by Alan Wu, Senior Regional Coordinator (Asia-Pacific) at the Open Government Partnership and Board Member at Oxfam Australia. Attendees included students at various levels of education with a common interest in pursuing a career with international organisations and a desire to know more about what it is like to work for one.

Being part of an international organisation is about working to improve socioeconomic conditions for people all around the world. There are opportunities to participate in international missions and programmes. Frequent travel is a privilege of the job, although the duration of such attachments vary depending on the job, and some roles that are more internally-focused might see less opportunities to travel. Certain legal privileges are also afforded to employees of international organisations, such as tax exemption on incomes. 

Bureaucratic processes of liaising with other departments are also part of the everyday experience in international organisations, although the operational aspects of the international organisations’ work are different from those of private firms. It involves a multidisciplinary understanding of how things work not just in one country, but across national jurisdictions and boundaries, as well as specialised knowledge in different fields when it comes to implementing projects. Likewise, the chance to learn about policies and environments in other countries, as well as the opportunity to work with governments on projects is one that the private sector cannot offer. 

International organisations have to be accountable for the funds they are using, so important projects can take a while to be fully implemented. While there are some similarities with working for a government or national bureaucracy, in that the priority is to think about how projects can positively impact countries, the scale of resources and projects would certainly be different.

Working for an international organisation also involves being sensitive to political issues, especially in commenting on sensitive issues to the host country of a particular branch office, but this is exactly what makes the job interesting and challenging. International law can sometimes become a constraint and geopolitical issues also play a significant role in the operations of international organisations, but different agencies have their own ways of working within their regulatory frameworks. 

You will meet many interesting and passionate people while working for an international organisation. While the ability for an individual to make an impact may seem limited, especially in larger agencies, adhering to the founding goals of your organisation’s work can make routine tasks meaningful. Many times, expectations have to be managed because seeing impact materialise on people’s lives can be a slow process,p and rules can be restrictive at times. You have to believe in the importance of the work that you do on a daily basis and trust that there is an impact being made on the lives of other people on the ground, even if it doesn’t feel like the case. 

This also has to be balanced against personal priorities such as how family life may be impacted by frequent travelling, as well as prospects for career advancement which may be more favourable for young people in national governments rather than international organisations.

Not many international organisations have offices in Singapore, so moving overseas is almost always a prerequisite. Be prepared for the lifestyle changes involved in frequent travelling for work, especially if career advancement is important to you – new career opportunities can involve overseas reassignation, bringing about significant changes to family and social life. On a more practical note, it is also good to be prepared for unconventional working hours given time zone differences and special projects that requires more time to work on.

The application process can be haphazard, especially for fresh graduates. There will also be plenty of competition. Some international organisations prize the perspective of those with prior working experience in the private sector or even academia, depending on their needs, and the skills learnt in a private sector job are mostly transferable to a job in an international organisation. In general, there is no one way to get started in an international organisation. Some organisations do offer internship opportunities and are taking steps to make these opportunities more accessible. Do also take note of the different employment arrangements (contract or full-time hire basis) offered by each international organisation. 

There can be some frustration in day-to-day work as there are bureaucratic processes (eg. audits, risk assessments) to follow in authorising projects and initiatives, as opposed to the fast-paced environment of a start-up for example. Things can get stressful at times when the organisation is faced with a particularly large amount of work.

For the most part, national political trends are unlikely to impede career progression, although political tensions between countries could be a consideration for senior appointments in international organisations. There are few straightforward pathways to career progression, but joining an international organisation as a fresh graduate can also be an interesting experience with opportunities to move around in different capacities within the organisation. International organisations are large and there are also a lot to be learnt from more senior employees in the organisation.

Graduate and master’s degrees can be a prerequisite for employment in some roles. Selecting degrees relevant to the job can open up networking and internship opportunities. Nonetheless, even if your course of study in school is not directly related to your work, displaying a strong interest in that area (eg. through your writings and choice of internships) can be an advantage. It can also be useful to be fluent in several languages, although the professional requirements might vary depending on the actual job scope. 

There are also plenty of career options available after working in international organisations. Many people actively seek out new opportunities in the private and public sector (working for their home government) or even other international organisations. Specialists can also find subsequent employment in academia.

Moving forward, international organisations need to capitalise on fast-moving services and new technologies and its flexibility, especially in agencies with older staff or in organisations that face competition from private firms. There is also a trend to focus on fieldwork in specific countries rather than central administrative work too. 

The post Covid-19 era brings about a lot of uncertainty over the role of international organisations. Nonetheless, the purpose of providing links for countries to communicate, formally and informally, even with increased tensions, as well as to impart good practices between countries remains unchanged. Even in a world that seems to be more divided and fragmented, there is still immense value in working for an international organisation and meeting new people!