You’ve been working as a Communications officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in London for over two years now. What does it entail?
As an important player in the international community and one of only five states with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is important for the ICRC to have a presence in the UK in order to be able to deal directly with the government and make its voice heard on humanitarian issues. My role is to support the work of the organisation by communicating about humanitarian crises in countries experiencing conflict and other situations of violence and gather support among policy makers, legislators, diaspora organisations, academia, and the public for the work of the ICRC in responding to those crises. The ICRC first opened its office in London in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, and now also has an office in Belfast, where our team works to address the legacy of the Troubles.
What does a 'typical day' involve?
It's very varied. It might involve attending a briefing or event on anything from cyber warfare to migration to Ebola; answering questions from journalists; accompanying senior colleagues visiting from our headquarters in Geneva or our field operations to meetings with government departments; monitoring and analysing political developments in the UK with an eye to how they might affect our operations or the humanitarian situation in a given context; writing articles for our website or other publications; updating our social media accounts; or helping organise an event or conference on an emerging humanitarian policy issue, for instance.
Before that, you worked for the startup Evently in Customer experience. What did you learn in this job that you use now at the ICRC?
On the face on it, there's very little in common between the two organisations. But it was a very valuable experience in that it was a young company that was constantly adapting its approach and strategy and there were lots of opportunities to help shape the direction of the company. The majority of the work was helping users navigate the software and fixing problems. I also analysed data to try to figure out a strategy for encouraging users to stay engaged with the product. The skills I gained there were key to getting my current job, as the Mission were looking to hire someone who had an understanding of digital media as well as the relevant academic credentials.
Why did you decide to leave the world of tech for humanitarian organisations?
I sort of fell into tech after returning from travelling after university. Though I didn't mind it, I decided after a while to return to study for an MA with the aim of moving into international affairs, which was what I'd really wanted to do all along, and part of the reason I'd chosen to study languages. When I was looking for a job after finishing the MA I happened to see the post advertised and now that I'm working in the humanitarian sector, I really love it and wouldn't choose to do anything else.
You are at the early stages of your career. Do you have a career plan?
Not as such. But there are a few things I'd like to achieve. I'd like to spend a few years working 'in the field'. Though my work in London supports our teams on the ground in places like Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan, day-to-day it can feel at a bit of a remove. Second, I'd like to spend some time studying law. The ICRC is a unique organisation with a mandate drawn from international law, specifically the Geneva Conventions, to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. So a lot of its work is based in the law. More broadly, policy is essentially the translation of the law into action so a basic grounding can help immensely in trying to interpret and shape policy with regards to humanitarian issues.
The former was in the office of a California Assembly member, which is like the U.S. version of a local MP at the state level. It entailed dealing with correspondence from constituents, doing research, updating contact details, and so on. It was absolutely fascinating as an insight into the domestic US political system at the local level, and also helped me realise that I wasn't that keen on working in party politics. Academia Rossica is a cultural organisation which works to foster intellectual and cultural links between Russia and the West. I helped with the organisation of a Russian literature festival. At the time I was thinking of trying to go into publishing or something similar and it was a good opportunity to spend a little bit of time in that world.
Any tips for readers who would like to apply for internships and to make sure their time is well spent?
A lot of people trying to break into the aid 'industry' often get stuck in a hamster wheel of unpaid internships that can be extremely hard to get off of. Taking the cynical view, why would employers who can have their pick of a stream of highly motivated and qualified graduates for free choose not do so? After a certain point you owe it to yourself to call it quits and choose another path where paid jobs are easier to come by. That said, I think it's become a rite of passage in the field – unfortunately. In order to improve your chances of securing a paid job, think about what skills you have or can develop that will be of immediate use to an employer – are you good at writing copy? Wrangling spreadsheets? Photoshop? And so on.
You studied Russian and Spanish at the University of St Andrews and then did an MA at King’s College prestigious War Studies department. Would you recommend those degrees and how do you use them in your job day to day?
I would absolutely recommend studying languages, though in retrospect I'd have chosen to study International Relations or a related subject at undergraduate level along with a language rather than the degree I did, which mostly focused on literature. Languages are fantastically useful for people interested in working in foreign policy or humanitarianism in any capacity – particularly tougher ones for English speakers like Arabic or Russian. I use what I learned during my MA every day – if not the actual content, then the understanding of the international system, and in helping to situate events in the wider political and historical context and view them in critical perspective. For instance, as part of my MA we looked at some of the debates around the efficacy of the international aid system. The politicisation of aid and the constant risk of it being instrumentalised is also a major issue for the humanitarian sector. My dissertation focused on the so-called frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union, including contexts where the ICRC has operations, so this has also proven useful.
What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career path?
To stand out you have to be able to prove your commitment and familiarity with the issues, so this means you need to be quite organised in terms of arranging internships, volunteering, and trying to get as much international experience as possible. So the earlier you decide to take this path the better. Also try to learn a language or two.
How did you become interested in foreign policy?
It was gradual. The internet has made it much easier to keep on top of international news and made it all seem much more immediate and therefore, in my view, interesting. It also allows you to choose your sources according to what you are interested in. So I started reading The Economist and Foreign Policy magazine online.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?
My first 'real' job was with a marketing agency based in New York, which I worked for remotely writing copy for websites and doing translation while I was living in Buenos Aires for a year after university. It served as useful training for churning out large amounts of text in a very short time! I'm joking, sort of, but that is actually a very useful skill.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
It may sound trite but it's really rewarding to be able to work for an organisation that is doing tangible, practical things to help people survive in the direst of circumstances. The ICRC can't be everywhere but it is often able to get to places where other organisations are not – so in some cases, it is people's first and last hope. The least rewarding... I had a temporary job doing data entry for an insurance company. That was a fairly numbing experience.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I try to be quite quick at getting things done and out the way. The technical literacy I gained working at the startup has also proven extremely valuable.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
I should have tried to get into the field I really wanted to from the beginning, rather than drifting into something I wasn't that interested in. The lesson is don't be discouraged if it seems hard and everyone else is not more qualified that you even if it seems like it. I think young women in particular often suffer from a lack of confidence in their abilities and don't speak up unless they feel absolutely sure they know all the ins and outs of the subject in minute detail, whereas men tend to just go for it. A gross generalisation, probably, but I don't think an unfair one.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
I used to be really shy when I was a child, though less so as I got older. Then I spent a gap year as an English language assistant at a university in Mexico where I was forced to learn to stand up in front of a class and talk for an hour, a chilling prospect at the time, but very useful in retrospect.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I remember reading Kate Adie's autobiography when I was about 15 and thinking that her life just sounded immensely exciting. She was chief correspondent for BBC News and had spent her career reporting from war zones. It wasn't that I wanted to be a journalist particularly, but it was that that led me to decide I wanted to do something that involved travel and current affairs.
Jennifer Tobias | Communications Officer | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mission in London
Five years' experience
CV in brief:
Find her online
With Academia Rossica
"My role is to support the work of the organisation by communicating about humanitarian crises in countries experiencing conflict and other situations of violence and gather support among policy makers, legislators, diaspora organisations, academia, and the public for the work of the ICRC in responding to those crises."
"In order to improve your chances of securing a paid job, think about what skills you have or can develop that will be of immediate use to an employer - are you good at writing copy? Wrangling spreadsheets? Photoshop? And so on. "
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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