I was hired in 2012 to open the New York advocacy office for PAX, a Dutch peace organisation that works in 15 conflict areas around the world. I translate our local civil society partners’ activities into policy recommendations at the UN.
What is a “typical day” like?
Since I’m the only PAX employee in New York, there is a lot to do. I track all of the relevant UN bodies and decision-making processes, establish relationships with the people and institutions who are involved in these processes, and develop and share policy recommendations to influence them. What this means in practice is that I attend many meetings, so even though I am the only one in the office, I am constantly interacting with people.
All of this is done in coordination with colleagues and partners in the Netherlands, Brussels, Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan, which requires a lot of phone calls and emails. Throughout the year, I also travel to PAX headquarters in Utrecht and visit the countries where we work.
And of course, I have to do all of the administrative tasks necessary to keep the office running.
You regularly hold multiple positions at the same time, for instance as a Social Media and Communication Consultant for Legacies of War and a Gender Consultant at the University of Balamand in 2012. How do you make sure to always give each position your utmost?
One was a steady position for a short period of time, while the other one was more ad hoc. For anyone who is consulting, it is important to set clear deadlines with your employers and stick to them.
I’ve noticed that having multiple positions at the same time is quite common in the foreign policy field. Why do you think that is?
When someone has a specific skill set, their expertise may only be needed occasionally, but by many different organisations. Therefore, instead of having one long-term, full-time commitment, that person might work with several employers on a short-term basis.
One of your jobs has been as representative for the Cluster Munition Coalition. What did that entail?
In Laos and then in Lebanon, I established relations and coordinated closely with the host government, the military, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, embassies, and national and international NGOs to ensure active civil society participation in the First and Second Meetings of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
It was civil society that led the call for a ban on cluster munitions, and my job was to make sure civil society continued to have a strong role during these diplomatic meetings where implementation of the treaty is discussed.
You’ve worked as a communications and advocacy officer for the UN Development Programme (UNDP). What was that like and how did you get the job?
Working on landmines and explosive remnants of war in Cambodia has been one of the highlights of my career. Not only did I learn first hand about an issue that remains my priority to this day, I also met a wonderful community of people who remain close colleagues and friends.
I first applied to be a UN Volunteer, which includes a stipend and healthcare, and then was selected for the UNDP position. I had never been to Cambodia or worked on the landmine issue, but in my previous position I had worked in the region and my background is in communications and advocacy.
In short, I communicated the link between landmine clearance and poverty alleviation, and advocated for increased support for clearance in Cambodia. I was based at the national mine action authority in the capital, but frequently travelled to the countryside to visit demining sites and speak with people who continue to suffer from these weapons, even though they were used decades ago.
Since Cambodia is one of the most mined and bombed countries in the world, I also participated in the international diplomatic processes related to landmines and cluster munitions.
Any tips for women who would like to apply for jobs with UN agencies?
The UN is a huge organisation with many different career opportunities. Before you begin applying, think about the type of work you want to do and where you want to do it, then check out the UN agencies that fit your interests. In the course of your research you may discover that working for a non-governmental organisation, other international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, or even your own government would better suit your interests.
Once you have a better sense of where you would like to work in the UN system, see if they those agencies have programmes targeted at young professionals, such as the Junior Professional Officer Programme, the Young Professionals Programme, or the New and Emerging Talent Initiative. The United Nations Volunteers Programme is a great opportunity if you already have some experience. If you are just starting out, internships are always an option.
What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career path?
There are a few steps you can take to get started. First of all, speak to anyone and everyone who is doing something that you find interesting. After graduate school, I spent months applying to positions with no luck. I finally got my first job in the international relations field through someone I met at a wedding.
It was an entry-level, administrative position, where I initially spent lots of time on budgeting and contracts. It wasn’t how I planned to spend my career, but I’m so glad I took the time to learn about these administrative procedures because understanding them is essential for anyone who wants to take on managerial positions.
Also, by performing well on these administrative tasks, I demonstrated to my supervisor that I took my job seriously, and he began giving me more responsibilities. With his support, I ended up working in 10 countries around the world in just over a year, launching my career in this field.
Studying abroad is an excellent way to gain experience in other countries even before you start working, and there are ways to make it affordable. While studying in Paris, I gained insight into French culture by working as an English assistant in a French middle school. Field visits throughout Central and Eastern Europe were integral to the MA I earned in Poland, and it was a fraction of the cost of US programmes.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?
My first job was in high school at a French restaurant in Washington, DC. I gained plenty of experience dealing calmly with customers who could be quite demanding, often irrationally so. This is a useful skill, no matter what the job.
How did you become interested in foreign policy?
Most of the staff at my first job in high school were not from the United States, and we quickly became friends. When I learned about the reasons they ended up in the US, many of them difficult, I decided I wanted to travel to these places to learn more. As a high school student, I thought that meant working in the foreign service. Since then, I have learned that there are plenty of other ways to become involved in foreign policy.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of my career is all of the inspirational people I’ve met throughout the world.
The least rewarding aspect is watching the situation in Syria deteriorate. What keeps me going is the Syrians we work with who persevere against all odds. Giving up is simply not an option.
In your experience, what are the specific barriers and advantages women face because of their gender in foreign policy, if any?
Many disarmament experts are women, but there seems to be a misperception that men are best qualified to speak on weapons-related issues. For example, last year, organisers of an international meeting on autonomous weapons invited only men to speak during the official plenary. The organisers claimed this was because there were no qualified women, even though plenty of women were there speaking at side events. Following this, a group of women at the meeting came up with the proposal that men should refuse to speak on all-male panels, and there is now a growing list of men who have made the commitment. In my view, the advantage of these women being able to come together to take meaningful action far outweighs the barrier created by the misinformed misguided organisers.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
The skills I find most useful in all of my jobs include being able to identify a common objective, figure out who the relevant parties are and how they can help achieve it, and bring them all together to do so. This first became apparent when I was working on pandemic preparedness trainings. I went to countries where I often did not know a single person and had to quickly identify relevant government representatives, UN staff, veterinarians, medical doctors, and whoever else needed to be there, and convince them to work with me to implement pandemic preparedness initiatives. It was a good starting point as these were short-term assignments with clear objectives. My skills were honed when I worked on longer-term projects in Cambodia, Laos and Lebanon, and I continue to use them for my advocacy work in New York.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
Even with the best of intentions and hardest of work, sometimes things happen that are totally out of your control.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Working in politically complex environments is one big, constant challenge as the context can change from day to day, and even from moment to moment. It requires patience, flexibility, and resourcefulness, as well as the ability to remain focused on the task at hand.
What achievements are you most proud of?
The achievements I am most proud of are the ones that were made collectively. For example, it was incredible to be in Laos when the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force. Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita, but became a leader in the diplomatic process banning cluster munitions. Working in Laos with everyone involved in the process – the Lao government, UN agencies and NGOs responsible for clearing land and assisting victims, and, most importantly, cluster bomb survivors – was proof that all of the years of hard work to achieve the ban were worth it.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
While I don’t have one particular role model, I have worked with a group of people that set the standard for how colleagues should interact. When I joined the Cluster Munition Coalition, there were six staff members – five in the head office and me Laos. We each had a specific role to play, but we always supported each other. I knew I could count on them to do their part, and also to help me out if I ever needed it. Through this, we became more confident in our own work as well as the work we did together.
If I had to name one person, it would be the 'Woman in Pants' in Syria, who goes around standing up to ISIS wearing pants. It’s not just her actions that inspire me, rather the reasons she provides for persisting despite the obstacles she faces.
Alexandra Hiniker | Representative to the United Nations, Speaking at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly
10 years' experience
CV in brief
At a demining site in Battambang, Cambodia
"Many disarmament experts are women, but there seems to be a misperception that men are best qualified to speak on weapons-related issues."
Moderating a panel at the UN on the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Syria
"The least rewarding aspect of my career is watching the situation in Syria deteriorate. What keeps me going is the Syrians we work with who persevere and persist against all odds. Giving up is simply not an option."
At the end of a pandemic preparedness training session in Tamale, Ghana
"The skills I find most useful in all of my jobs include being able to identify a common objective, figure out who the relevant parties are and how they can help achieve it, and bring them all together to do so."
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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