Intro quote: “It would help if you like change, if you don’t mind that your plans get disrupted, if you enjoy challenges in a very fast-paced environment where your priorities will change.”
Impactpool: Hi there and welcome to the seventh episode of the UNJobfinder/Impactpool Career Podcast by INTALMA. My name is Magnus Bucht and, for those of you listening to this podcast for the first time, this is a show where we want to increase your chances for having a career with the United Nations, European Union, development banks, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations. We’re talking to people having a remarkable career in this field, trying to get their stories about how they once entered, the choices that they’ve made during their career, challenges that they’ve faced and, of course, not least, to hear what kind of advice they can share with us. Today we’re going to talk to Laura Londén from UNRWA. As you can hear in the interview, Laura is a person that has enormous amounts of insights about challenges that you will face when you’re having an international career but, of course, also about the rewards. She actually grew up in this field, having a father who was also a diplomat. And she has, for the last 25 years, not only served a number of different UN organizations, but also has been placed in many different countries such as New York and Geneva in headquarters locations, but also in really hardship duty stations in East Timor and so forth. So it’s a really interesting interview and I hope you will enjoy it. So, without further ado, here’s Laura Londén.
Impactpool: Hello everyone! I’m very happy and honored to have Laura Londén here as a guest at the Impactpool Career Podcast. Laura, welcome, and great to have you with us!
Laura Londén: Yes, thank you very much. It’s my pleasure entirely.
Impactpool: Thanks, Laura. So Laura, you’ve been with the United Nations for many years. You’ve been working for different organizations. You’ve been really in various locations in the world. You’ve been now for a number of years with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA. And, for a long time, you were also working with UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And now you’re the director of human resources for UNRWA. So Laura, that was a very short description of your career. So please tell us a bit more of your long history with the UN.
Laura Londén: Yes, thank you very much. It sounds kind of daunting when you put it like that. But indeed, yes, I’ve just hit my 25th anniversary in the UN system. In addition to that, obviously that makes me a UN veteran and it also makes me a UN gypsy. But, in addition to that, I’m also what they call a UN brat, which basically makes me a second generation UN. So I guess that’s what got me started. I have a very mobile career. I think the shock of the 25 years sounds perhaps worse than I feel it but, nonetheless, it’s a very long time obviously. I started my career in UNRWA in the early 90s. And I then left in the early 90 because, obviously, the Oslo Accord was coming up and peace was going to break out and UNRWA was going to close. So many of us left and, at that point in time, I moved on to UNHCR. Since then, after UNHCR, I’ve done nine field duty stations, four different UN entities, and three headquarters. So I’ve done it from New York to Vienna to Geneva, from Asia to Africa and the Balkans, and now here in the Middle East. So, yes, that’s a bit of my background.
Impactpool: Give us a few examples of actual duty stations that you’ve been in. I know that you’ve been in Sierra Leone for example for quite some time.
Laura Londén: Yes. I started obviously in the occupied Palestine territories in the 90s. After that, I moved for a little while to Vienna to do external relations and projects. I then joined UNHCR in Zagreb and Sarajevo. I worked there for about three years in human resources. Then that was my first HR job. I then moved over to Geneva in UNHCR headquarters where I also did human resources. I moved back to Sarajevo after a little while. I stayed there for about 18 months, then moved to the UN Secretariat in New York, again within HR, but as a special assistant to a director. After a year in UN headquarters, I moved off to East Timor. That was a startup mission which is almost fascinating. I then came back to headquarters for maybe about three years. And again, I did recruitment, HR planning and other HR functions. And then I went to Sierra Leone for a while. And then, obviously, again back to New York headquarters. And then in 2007, after about 17 years away, I came back to UNRWA as the director of administration, which I then did for about five years. And now I’m back in HR. So full circle.
Impactpool: Really astonishing. It would be interesting to hear. I think the fact that you have been going really back and forth between the really hardship duty stations and also headquarters, do you think that is normal from what you’ve seen from other UN careers?
Laura Londén: I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s normal but, equally, I think there is a group of us that move around between agencies and duty stations and that’s the more mobile part of the UN system staff. There are other people who do that, whose functions don’t lend themselves necessarily to the same type of mobility but there is a significant group of people who enjoy doing this type of work. And these days, of course, I think that the mobility is really of the essence for a UN career.
Impactpool: Yes, absolutely. I want to go back to your history because we talked a bit about that before we started the interview. You said that you are a UN brat. That was actually an expression that I haven’t heard before. So your father was also working for the UN.
Laura Londén: Yes, he was. He started with the Foreign Service like many do and then he moved over to the UN and, by the time he’d retired, I was just about to graduate. And that’s why I sort of got into the UN system. But I obviously had the spark early on because I grew up abroad and I’d seen a lot of what the UN does. So that gave me the initial interest I guess in an international career. But, fundamentally, I guess later on in life when you start thinking about these things perhaps more seriously, my driver has been the fact that I, for my personal satisfaction and my professional satisfaction, I needed something that was meaningful. And that needed to be meaningful for me and I wanted to do something that I felt had value and made a difference, however cheesy that might sound. And I think it’s throughout my career and, if you look at how I moved around, my moves have primarily been mandate driven in the sense that I wanted to be part of whatever was going on. You’re part of history, however, in a small or personal way that might be. But that’s really been the driver for me.
Impactpool: Excellent. Where did you actually grow up then?
Laura Londén: Well, I grew up primarily in Guatemala and Uruguay. That was the initial part of it. And then my father served for a very long time in Ethiopia.
Impactpool: So after that childhood where you actually were really having an international childhood, what was then your entry point into the development sector or to the UN? You started with UNRWA you said. But was that actually your first job?
Laura Londén: It wasn’t my first job. My first job after university was actually resettling Vietnamese refugees in Finland. Finland has a fairly small refugee population and even smaller at the time. And this was the first time it had been decided that we would try to resettle the refugees outside the capital region, the Helsinki region. So I did that for a while. And that was obviously fascinating. And I had been applying for UN jobs and, eventually, I was approached by UNRWA for a job in West Bank, which is Jerusalem. And my initial reaction was that no, I kind of want to go to Africa or I want to go to Latin America, South America, but obviously this was a great opportunity for me, so I took it. And that particular job was in administration at that point in time. I guess it’s more called organizational support these days which includes HR, finance, procurement, security, and such areas. So that was my first job in the UN. And that was pretty much by coincidence actually that I ended up in UNRWA. It was less by design.
Impactpool: Right. But that I guess also gave you a good understanding of how the organizations worked. You were not out in the field I guess but actually working with the management of the organization.
Laura Londén: Yes, that’s right. It was the West Bank field office, which is a large structure for us, but the headquarters was at that point in time in Vienna. So I got a good insight into how the organization functions and what makes it tick. Obviously, that was the time when the first Intifada was on so there was considerable field work also that related to the emergency that was starting at the time.
Impactpool: So what did you study when you went to university?
Laura Londén: Political sciences. That’s my master’s. I did public administration and political sciences, international law. Those were my primary areas.
Impactpool: So Laura, as we all can understand, I’m sure you have tons of stories that we could talk about for hours, but to give an example of the kind of experience that you have had, could you share a story for us in your career that you’re specifically proud of or that has been rewarding for you?
Laura Londén: You know, I was thinking about this question earlier on. And it’s kind of difficult to pick the one thing that you are most proud of. And the reason I’m saying that is that, at the time when you have these events and situations, they all are significant, rewarding, and they make a huge impact on you as a professional, as a person. So it’s kind of unfair to single out one particular one. But I guess if I had to pick one perhaps in less specific terms, there have been the times when we’ve had a startup operation of some kind, when the organization has done something that it hasn’t done before or it’s done it differently. Perhaps to mention there the startup operation in East Timor was significant. This was going to be a new country and it had become a country, so that was fascinating. Because again, the mandate of the operation was very distinct from what it had been in the past. So East Timor was fabulous because it gave us the opportunity to contribute to the building of a new country. I mean obviously there were some issues with that but, from a professional perspective, that was truly fascinating because you worked both with the UN internally and also with the government of East Timor as it was going to be. Then there were elements like doing an assessment mission to Afghanistan right after the fall of the Taliban, which was a fascinating time in my life, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve very much enjoyed the work in Sierra Leone, because again, there you transition from peace keeping to peace building and all that it entails for operations. So there’s been so many rewards that I really can’t single out one particular one.
Impactpool: That’s fully understandable with what experiences that you’ve had. Amazing. So, going from that, I can imagine also that you’ve gone through really challenging times in your career and maybe those are even the same as the ones that you now consider to be rewarding. But what has been the greatest one of the challenges for you that you had to deal with or maybe for the organization you were working for?
Laura Londén: You’re absolutely right. I think the same applies to the previous question in the sense that in 25 years there’s been no shortage of challenges and rewards. And they all relate to where I was at the time and what I did. And be they these professional or personal challenges, I think they all range from, indeed, professional more technical related challenges to perhaps more personal, safety and security and, more often than not, a combination of those. In hindsight, I think any of those challenges, although they may have been kind of grueling at the time, I think they are necessary and they’re necessary for you to understand in the system why things work the way they do and why they don’t work. So I think it’s all necessity. If again, perhaps more philosophically, when you operate in these conflicts or high risk zones, there are natural and obvious challenges and those are perhaps more clear to people. But so is operating in a headquarters environment where pressures are wholly different and, more often than not, perhaps not as dangerous physically than the field but, nonetheless, they are certainly very pressing. And I think it really depends on what you prefer and where you thrive, be it the headquarters or a field setup. But again, as a challenge that also is a very rewarding challenge, I would have to pick the current job where I am at. You know, UNRWA operates in a very volatile region which is even more volatile than it has been in the past. We’re in a situation where, out of our five fields, multiple fields are either downright in extended crisis like Syria, which is entering its fifth year now. And with the other fields, like Gaza going through regular conflicts from time to time and in the other fields that are directly or indirectly impacted by the conflict that surrounds us. And when you compound this situation of an organization that needs to continue to provide services to the Palestine refugees in situations which are downright dangerous or complicated and we need to do so within severe, and I sincerely mean that very strongly, severe financial constraints, political considerations and others, that really has to be for me at the moment the largest challenge I’ve ever had. You know, we do have 32,000 staff. We are running financially in hard times and we still have to continue operating in areas where many other organizations no longer operate. So that certainly is the biggest one. And it’s kind of natural that it is.
Impactpool: I can see that. Does that mean that you also now collaborate even more with other UN organizations or NGOs because of that?
Laura Londén: Yes, I think it’s safe to say that. We do. Certainly in the areas of crisis. We’re an organization that can provide some service, we would collaborate. Of course, we have a very specific mandate. Ours is the Palestine refugees and that is what our focus is obviously on. But there are other field based organizations that we work with specifically in terms of food and other service elements.
Impactpool: I can really understand that challenge for you right now with the current situation in that region. So going back to your career and once you started, you grew up within this world if you want to call it that but, still, was there anything that once you actually started your own career, was there anything that you didn’t really expect, something that surprised you?
Laura Londén: Yes, obviously a number of elements, although I had a fairly good understanding of what this type of a career work might entail, but I don’t remember actually as a younger person having had the presence of mind to sit down and sort of map out what my expectations might have been although perhaps it would have been something good to do. I think fundamentally the wide variety of options and choices and opportunities that are out there in the UN system for those who wish to seek them and make use of them, of course doing that comes with its own constraints and you have to understand the impact on your family and yourself. But, fundamentally, I don’t think I could have ever predicted that I would be able to do all the things that I do and in the places that I get to do them and where I have taken my career than rather the reverse. Most of the twists and turns really are by default and less by design.
Impactpool: Yes. That’s true. If someone would like to start, have a dream of actually going into this sector, what would you say are the most important lessons that you would like to share with our listeners?
Laura Londén: I think in particular this line of work where I’m at and the humanitarian development areas in particular, I think it has to be understood that it really is not a 9 to 5 job. I’ve had people who join us and who are absolutely stunned by what is going on and they all say I’m not sure I signed up for this. So I think that is really the key for people who want to join us to understand to the maximum extent. I understand it’s not always very clear or easy but to understand that these are, in large part, even a lifestyle type of a job. It’s possibly an all-consuming job and lifestyle. And that’s pretty much regardless of where you are based. And it’s also for you to enjoy it, I think there needs to be a level of commitment to whatever it is that you are working for, to stay somehow detached and do a 9 to 5, I think may not be right for this particular type of work. And obviously this may not work for everyone or it may work for people for a particular part of their life and then they move on to do something different. This type of lifestyle and work places demands on your personal ties and your family ties and, of course, there are other more stable or more less challenging jobs from that perspective in the UN system that don’t require you to be as mobile or as ready to take on these challenges as others. So it really depends on what it is that makes you tick as a human being and that’s what I would say is try to the most extent you can, know yourself what it is you like and what it is you don’t like and also try to figure out what is the environment that you are most comfortable in. And I think that’s a huge step forward once you’ve figured it out.
Impactpool: Absolutely and I guess also in some way you need to experience some environments before you even know if that’s for you of course.
Laura Londén: True. That is absolutely right.
Impactpool: Linked to that, what do you believe are the most important skills needed for an international career?
Laura Londén: You know, it really depends on that particular international career but I think in the development or the humanitarian field I think you have to have certain, not have to have, perhaps it helps if you have certain characteristics that enable you to function well and be happy in the environment that you would work in. And often those are things like it would help if you like change, if you don’t mind that your plans get disrupted, if you enjoy challenges and a very fast-paced environment where your priorities will change on a regular basis and there’s very little you might be able to do about it. I think if you’re flexible and you’re adaptable, I think those are certainly personal traits that would help you enjoy it. Now then if you want to look at a more mobile career, the fact that you are willing and able to move around, be it functionally or geographically, is of course something that is critical. Oftentimes, however, and I admit that within the UN system that means perhaps risking some of the job security that you might have if you stay put. And I think for me certainly by now I’ve worked in every single aspect of operational support which I find that, regardless of the job that I’ve been in at the time, all of these components and elements have served me well. So even if it’s not a linear progression of duties, they all come handy at some point in time, be it in operational or now in more leadership roles.
Impactpool: Looking at UNRWA and the situation that you are in, I guess that can also be of course extremely rewarding for staff working for you but also extremely challenging. Why should people come and join UNRWA?
Laura Londén: You know, I think of course UNRWA is perhaps one of the lesser known UN agencies despite the fact that we are very large, we have 32,000 staff. Most of these are locally recruited colleagues and we have some 250-300, depending on the time, international staff. And again, I think it’s very important to understand where we operate and what it is we do. We have the five fields. We have Gaza, we have West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA is unique and this is kind of critical in the sense that we are a direct service delivery organization. We deliver our own programs and our own services to the Palestine refugees directly through our staff. We don’t use implementing partners, which is the normal modality of most other areas. So this is now an operation in the Middle East providing direct services and that already is an important thing to understand. Our locally recruited colleagues, they are really the frontline staff and they deliver services directly to their own community. They’re teachers, they’re the doctors and the relief workers. And this being the case, and I will answer your question, I’ll get there, is just that the mandate and its services and programs that we provide, they are on the day-to-day basis, on an hourly basis, they are front and center of what we do. It sort of permeates all the functions, including HR. My HR job is less of a traditional HR job in the sense that while entitlements and contracts are part of it, most of the things relate to what is happening in education, in health, in social services, so forth. So it is really front and center and that changes the way we look at things and what we do. You know, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we’re financially extremely constrained and that’s why funding goes where it needs to go. And that is the programs in benefit of the Palestine refugees. The rest of the organization is truly on a shoe string. And that is as it really should be. In the UN terms, I guess we’re a very nimble, a very operational and a sort of non-hierarchical organization in UN terms. I’m sure some will disagree, but overall. But what we actually offer in this context and what’s important is that, you know, the work we do is something that you have direct visibility into the impact that you have in this particular organization. It is truly meaningful understanding a mandate, understanding what we do and why we do it. It is meaningful and rewarding. And again, of course given that we have such challenges in the operation and in the region we operate in, it is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. But then, when you look at individual people perhaps more closely, the jobs we have, and I have said this many times, I think some of the jobs we have are the best ones that you can have in the UN system, specifically at the middle and senior level. These are in UN terms very unusually big jobs. In Gaza, we have 12,000 staff and you’ll be managing an operation of triple digits. So these are large jobs. They’re large in programmatic, they’re large in functional, and they’re large in managerial scope. These jobs, they have considerable independence both within the field that they operate in and vis-à-vis the field and headquarters. They are not for the faint-hearted oftentimes, both in terms of portfolio and the region is concerned but I do believe, and very deeply I believe this, that they come with great professional and personal rewards. They are big jobs where you actually get to do many things that you otherwise would not be able to do in some of the other operations.
Impactpool: Exciting. So apart from the mid and senior levels, I guess since you’re then not working with implementing partners like you said that many other UN organizations do, I guess the types of profiles or professions that you’re recruiting are then very broad. You said you have your own teachers, you have your own doctors, you have your own sort of community services, everything. Are there any sort of areas that you are recruiting more or that you are specifically looking at that would actually maybe be a good way of entering into the organization?
Laura Londén: The direct service provision actually is primarily conducted by our locally recruited colleagues who are, by and large, Palestine refugees for the vast majority. For the international complement, which is perhaps what is more relevant for this particular discussion, we have the full range. We have some entry level functions which I think are great, which are operation support officers and these are people who monitor and report on the agency’s neutrality. They spend a lot of time in the field. There’s refugee camps. And reporting both within the agency and outside. So those are a large group of people who oftentimes are fresh out of university. They come for a few years, they get this really exciting, very rewarding experience, and they move on to do different things. Then we have very traditional functions. We have project officers, we have program support officers, we have finance, we have HR, we have procurement, we have executive office, fundraising. And then we have what is a critical part of our operation obviously the part of the operation has to do with the programs and the field structures where we have directors, deputy directors, program chiefs, and a small setup of admin support. So we do have them across the range. I think in terms of what we think it’s going to go now is more of an emergency related skill-set and capacity given what I mentioned earlier. So I think those are certainly important. Apart from that, the profiles obviously, the skills are important. There needs to be, and I said this earlier, an appreciation for the mandate and the fact that we do business in the manner that we do, the people that work for us and the impact that all of this has on our work. You need to be able to be mobile. Not only do you need to be willing and able to live in the Middle East, which some perhaps might hesitate, you also need to be willing and able to consider hardship and non-family duty stations.
Impactpool: Linked to that, what languages are needed?
Laura Londén: Well, primarily of course, we operate in English and in Arabic. The official language is English with Arabic being very, very important. Most of our international staff however do not have at least fluent Arabic. We get by, we learn something, but very few of them are native level of fluent Arabic. So it’s certainly a benefit. It’s an added bonus but, fundamentally, we will, like any other UN agency, we will look at competence in the first instance.
Impactpool: Great. I want to respect your time. I know that you are going to another meeting soon. Before we end, any final tips that you want to share with our listeners? Any advice that you can give? What kind of advice would you have given yourself 20 years ago, knowing what you now know, if you want to have this career?
Laura Londén: I know how difficult it is for people to gain this entry point into the UN and I think the important part there, and we see it frequently, we advertise all our positions. And, like most UN agencies, we get so many applications that it is absolutely of the essence that the CV and whatever personal history form that you submit that it does describe in a clear and understandable manner what it is that you can do and how your experience relates to the vacancy in question. You know, the only way we have to assess that match is through that CV in the first instance. And the other thing I tend to see is that people assume that particular titles are understood or translated then they’re resonating to UN. That is not the case. So I think it’s very important that you adequately describe what it is you have done because simply that’s the only way people can match it. So don’t assume anything. I think the critical thing is also to prepare for the interview. I feel very strongly that. When people come to the interview, it is important to show that they have researched the organization, that they understand the job. We, like many other UN agencies if not most, we conduct this competency based interview. So I would also suggest that people need to research those when you go into a competition. And I think finally is that our recruitment moves rapidly fast in UN organizations and I would suggest to people who apply that it’s worthwhile going through the recruitment process even if your circumstances change because we also run these rosters that are valued for a number of years subsequently. So it’s kind of important for everyone to ensure that the best possible fit can be made between the person and the job.
Impactpool: Great. So make sure that you have a CV and application that really reflect on what you’ve done and your real competencies, your experiences. And we actually shared I would say some great tips on that on our UNjobfinder blog. And also be prepared for the competency based interview once you get to that. And be open for opportunities I guess is also what you’re saying. If you sort of go through the process but maybe not exactly got the job that you first applied for but you will be on the roster, so be open for other opportunities.
Laura Londén: Yes, I think that’s right. That’s right.
Impactpool: Great! Laura, thank you so much for being with us today and really for being willing to share your insights and all your experiences that you’ve had. I’m sure that people listen to this and take notes and they will also of course be able to find our show notes on our website. So, thank you so much. I appreciate it a lot.
Laura Londén: My pleasure entirely. Thank you very much, Magnus.
Impactpool: Thank you, Laura. Bye!
Laura Londén: Bye!
Impactpool: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Laura Londen from UNRWA. Laura, thank you so much for joining the show. I’m also very happy to say that UNRWA is one of our partners and you will always be able to find all their vacancies at unjobfinder.org. And, to all you great people out there, continue to send us feedback. You can send us tips on questions that you would like to ask our guests or anything else. You can always reach us via Twitter, via facebook.com/impactpool, or via the contact form that you can find at impactpool.org/contact. We also want to remind you that if you want to be sure to receive all the new episodes, we advise you to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. Showing what you think about this show by leaving an honest review on iTunes is something that we really appreciate. And you know that at unjobfinder.org/podcast you will be able to find all the show notes of all the episodes and the full transcript. So, again, thank you so much for listening. Bye for now and see you in the next episode!