Brenna Moore – Water Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization

If somebody is interested in working for the United Nations, it is important to have a genuine commitment to and understanding of development issues. However, this is not enough, and practical skills are essential.

Name:  Brenna Moore
Main country of residence: Italy
Current Position: Water EconomistOrganisation: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Qualifications: MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (University of Oxford); BA Development Studies/BComm Economics (University of Melbourne)
Years of experience (development/overall): 3 years in development, 5 years overall  
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/brenna-moore/17/9a7/3a2
Languages: English (native), French (fluent), Italian (intermediate), Afrikaans (conversational)  

 

What is the nature of the organisation you currently work for?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the United Nations agency charged with the mandate to improve nutrition, increase agricultural productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth.

FAO’s activities comprise four main areas: putting information within reach (convening a knowledge network); sharing policy expertise; providing a meeting place for nations; and bringing knowledge to the field (through field projects).

When did you first start working in international development?

I started working in international development in April 2011, when I joined the United Nations.

What was your first international development role?

My first international development role was as a professional consultant for FAO.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did it take to get the first role? Was the role paid or unpaid?

I applied for a professional position that was advertised by FAO’s Office of Evaluation on the FAO employment website. The position was advertised at the P1/P2 level, which is the entry level to the UN system – requiring 1-3 years of prior work experience. At that time I had 2 years of relevant experience in program/policy evaluation, gained from working for a consulting company in Australia.

This was my second application for a role in international development. I had previously applied to the AusAID graduate program, but was not successful.

The FAO recruitment process involved an initial screening of applicants, a written test, and a panel interview (by telephone). In the end, I was actually not successful in obtaining the permanent professional post I applied to. To give an indication of how competitive the recruitment can be for an entry-level UN position, over 800 people applied for the one post, and the person who got it had 5 years of relevant experience – some of it directly with FAO in a developing country.

However, because I was the selection panel’s ‘second choice’, I was instead offered a short-term consulting contract of 6 months. Consultant contracts are frequently used in the UN to meet high workloads, as they are much less costly for the recruiting agency (consultants do not get certain allowances that permanent staff members have such as paid leave, home leave, rental subsidies, and education subsidies). The consultant role was paid at a professional rate based on my previous salary, and FAO also paid for my relocation – comprising a return flight from Australia, excess baggage charges, and two weeks of living allowance on arrival in Rome.

That 6 month contract has translated into nearly 3 years working for FAO. As the Office of Evaluation was happy with my work, they kept extending my contract, and giving me progressively more responsibilities. After 2.5 years with the Office of Evaluation, I moved to the Land and Water Division, to work on more technical water-related projects. So, it is possible to obtain valuable experience in the UN even on a short-term contract. However, I would not recommend staying on these contracts longer than 3-4 years, as there is often not much opportunity for professional development (e.g. training) and no clear career path.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferrable?

I worked for a private economics consulting firm for 18 months between my undergraduate and Master’s degrees (and for a short while after the Master’s). I think that it gave me useful skills that were transferrable to the development sector: I learnt about the monitoring and evaluation of government-implemented programs/policies (which was directly relevant to my subsequent role at FAO), and also how to ‘become an expert’ in different sectors quickly (which was also valuable later on, as at FAO I undertook evaluations of many different technical areas). I also learnt how to communicate our analysis to different audiences.

 What was the nature of the first organisation you worked for?

I worked for a private consulting firm in Melbourne, Australia that specialised in economic analysis and review.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role?

I grew up in South Africa and did some local volunteering there when I was a teenager. However, I did not have any real work experience in a developing country before obtaining my job at FAO.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

In my individual case, field experience was not essential to obtaining my first development role. It was important that I had studied development issues, and that I had a good understanding of development challenges, but I did not have field experience. However, the person who got the permanent position did have extensive field experience, and I think it is very unlikely that anyone would get a permanent position in the UN without having this experience. The experience must also be meaningful and relevant to development issues; a few months teaching English in a developing country is not going to cut it.

At this point in my career, I have traveled to many developing countries and worked directly with their institutions. However, if I choose to continue with this career path, the next logical step for me is to work directly in a developing country to gain a better understanding of how things work ‘on the ground’.

 How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

I think that networking can be useful, but it is not the most important part of getting a role in development. It is more important to have the right skill set that enables you to make a real contribution to the role, and to have that skill set ‘in the right place at the right time’. Networking may help you to better understand how a particular organization works, and it does help to have someone who can flag upcoming vacancies to you (which may sometimes only be advertised internally), but overall it is more important to have the right skills.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

The main advantage of working for FAO is the opportunity to work directly on development issues with the mandate of the United Nations behind you – our work is always taken seriously by our developing country counterparts, as we are seen as a trusted and neutral partner. I have also enjoyed working with interesting people from all over the world, and travelling to countries that I may never have visited otherwise.

The primary disadvantage for me personally is the lack of a long-term career path, given that I am employed on a consulting contract. FAO is undergoing budget cuts as member countries struggle to meet their contributions in this difficult economic climate, and it is becoming more and more difficult to secure a permanent position. As a consultant I do not have benefits that would be taken for granted in other professions, such as paid leave or pension contributions, nor do I have job security beyond about 6 months at a time. The experience and salary do compensate for this up to a point, but it is not a long-term career solution.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

If somebody is interested in working for the United Nations, it is important to have a genuine commitment to and understanding of development issues. However, this is not enough, and practical skills are essential. At a minimum, all professional positions (including most consultancies) at the United Nations require a Master’s degree and competency in at least two of the official languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian). Beyond this, it is important to have other skills relating to working in a multicultural environment, communicating effectively with different audiences, etc. If you have these skills and can combine them with a demonstrated interest in development issues, you are on the right path.

Some resources for pursuing a career at the UN (besides the careers websites of the various UN agencies):

United Nations Handbook 2013 -14 (http://www.mfat.govt.nz/UNHB2013/index.php): The United Nations Handbook is a comprehensive guide to the UN system and how it works. The handbook summarises all UN organisations and provides essential information about their aims, structures, and membership.

UN Job List (http://unjoblist.org/): This website collates vacancies from across the UN system and also provides a lot of background information to help understand how the system works.

‘How to get that UN job you always wanted’ (http://www.rottmair.de/2011/08/26/how-to-find-that-un-job-you-always-wanted/): A very useful blog posting from the creator of the UN Job List.

UN Junior Professional Officers clearing centre (http://www.jposc.org/content/programme/presentation-en.html): Describes the JPO programme, a common entry point for young professionals into the UN. Also lists JPO vacancies for a selection of UN agencies (check the individual employment websites of other agencies).

UN Volunteers (http://www.unv.org/): Provides many job opportunities in the field, even for those without prior field experience. A  living allowance is paid.

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