The name of a lawyer who works on international human rights issues was wrong in a July 4 article about the availability of careers in humanitarian organizations. She is Veronica Zeitlin, not Victoria. (Published 7/7/04)
That gnawing feeling won't go away -- the one that says, I ought to work to help the world's poor.
Sure, you're making good money at your current job. But you've always thought of yourself as the kind of person who would be making a contribution to something other than your 401(k). So how does someone with work skills -- say, an investment banker or construction manager -- find a job using those skills to improve the lives of the least fortunate, preferably in a developing country, and preferably while getting at least a modest paycheck?
It's a question Rick Stoner, Africa area director for Save the Children, hears often. "It's interesting, how many people in the business world contact me about how to make the transition," Stoner said. "Often, they find they get a little cold shoulder when they try to tap in. It's hard, when you've been successful in one career, to find your way in a new one."
Stoner, 58, who worked 22 years as an executive for Cummins Engine Co., is one of the success stories. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, Stoner worked for Cummins in developing countries.
He always dreamed of going back to development work in East Africa, and thanks to his knowledge of the continent, he landed a job with Save the Children. Although he spent a couple of years at the Connecticut headquarters to familiarize himself with the organization, he is now ensconced in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. The pay, he said, is "nothing like Cummins Engine," but "at this stage, the money is not what drives me. It's finding a way to make a difference."
The good news is that many aid groups have jobs, including overseas jobs, and the Internet simplifies the process of searching.
The bad news is that the supply of candidates outstrips demand, and the most interesting postings abroad with the biggest organizations tend to go to people who already have experience in the field. So someone trying to break in may have to volunteer before getting a paid post, except for job seekers whose skills are in great demand, such as doctors specializing in HIV-AIDS.
"Fortunately, there are a lot of people of all ages who decide they want to devote themselves to working on behalf of people in other countries for relatively low pay," said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International. "Sadly, it requires more than that realization to end up in these types of jobs. In this business, we are blessed, sometimes overwhelmed, by a huge number of really impressive applicants -- people with experience, with graduate degrees, good analysts, who have spent a lot of time in the Third World, know their way around, and don't get flummoxed when the 3 a.m. flight from Khartoum to Addis has been canceled."
For those determined to try, the Web site of InterAction (www.interaction.org) is one of the best places to start a search, because "we have all the different flavors and persuasions," said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for the group, which serves as an umbrella for more than 160 U.S. humanitarian organizations. Each group has a page, with a link to its own Web site, which typically includes career information. For a modest fee, InterAction will send a weekly e-mail with job postings.
Suppose, though, you lack Third World credentials. That's where volunteering comes in. For instance, that's how Victoria Zeitlin, who spent a couple of years at a big Wall Street law firm, has parlayed her legal training into a new career in international human rights.
"It was Catch-22," said Zeitlin, 37. "All the human rights organizations told me the first thing I needed to do was get overseas work experience, but when I looked at the jobs involving overseas work, I needed overseas work experience to get them."
So she volunteered to work as an intern in Senegal on a children's rights project backed by UNICEF -- and because her mother happened to be working in the country, she had a place to live. When the project was nearly completed, she persuaded UNICEF to hire her as a local consultant, at low pay. That consulting job led to more -- the second as an international consultant, which pays much better.
"Now that I have my overseas experience and have paid my dues with consultancies where I wasn't paid very much, I have credentials that are much more marketable here than before," Zeitlin said. "But to do that, I had to make some sacrifices and work for not very much money."
Of course, there's a hassle-free alternative for people who want to aid the poor but are reluctant to switch careers: Just send a check to the relief group of your choice.