What's it like being a UN Volunteer?
February 24, 2012 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Have you or anyone you know ever been a United Nations Volunteer? What is it like?

I am (knock on wood) about to finish an international relations graduate degree, and I'm still feeling extremely lost about my future career goals. My latest whim for the last couple weeks has been the UN Volunteer program. My initial thoughts on this, more or less, are that a) I really want some international work experience. It seems sort of ridiculous that I'm about to have this degree and yet have never lived abroad for any significant amount of time, and I think it's a gap that probably raises eyebrows with potential employers right now. I also think that living and working overseas is something I would really enjoy (but should that turn out to be a terrible mistake, at a year-ish it's a much shorter commitment than, say, Peace Corps). b) The program includes types of work (human rights, governance, elections) that match my interests and experience and aren't done by similar long-term programs like the Peace Corps (a lot of people have recommended Peace Corps to me, but I know that I don't want to spend 2+ years doing education/health/agriculture etc. - that kind of development work is not quite my area).

I am 27, single, American (I read that 80% of UNVs are from the developing world - does being from the U.S. mean I'm pretty much out?), well-traveled, speak a decent amount of French, am pretty low-maintenance about living conditions, and have no student loan debt. I am increasingly feeling the need to get outside of my comfort zone and not just spend the rest of my 20s in an office in DC or New York. My degree is focused on human rights and human security (but has also included a lot of coursework on democracy and governance issues), and my work experience has mostly been in American government and politics, but I also spent a little bit of time at a major advocacy NGO.

In addition to any other comments you may have...
- How long did you end up staying in the program?
- Was your experience satisfying?
- Was the stipend enough to live off of while you were in the field?
- How structured was your work? I've seen some other international volunteer/internship programs that just sort of throw you out there and say "go...do...something," and while I am good at working independently, that's not quite what I'm looking for. I want to be useful and not flailing around tooooo much.
- What sort of work do you currently do, and did your UNV experience help prepare you for that?
- Is there something else similar that would be a better fit?
posted by naoko to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Extract, because the question was not yours...

"- Your guy will never get a gig at the UN if he doesn't have an "in." Does he have friends or family or a colleague willing to champion him that works there? If not, he needs to skip this pipe dream. I worked there. I worked there, as do friends of my family, who are in high positions. Unless he has a serious foot in the door it ain't happening. Looking back, I can't think of ANYONE I knew there that wasn't there via some form of nepotism. Sorry."


There's a joke in the UN - How many people work at the UN?

The answer - About half.

As in, half the people who work there actually do the work.


When my Aunt was heading up the UN office in an especially worn-torn area of Eastern Europe some years ago, I bet the folks there worked hard. She faced death on a few occasions, so it's not necessarily a safe gig. But if you work in The Secretariat Building in NYC, the joke I related stands.


No matter what job you may or may not be offered, there is an entrance exam. I know that my application and exam was "pushed" for placement. Memail if you want to know more about this procedure, but I think it will really only work out if you do well on the exam AND have connections.

Sorry I can't be of more help.
posted by jbenben at 10:18 PM on February 24, 2012

Response by poster: jbenben, my understanding was that the application process for the UN Volunteers program doesn't really work like the rest of the UN - is this incorrect?
posted by naoko at 11:04 PM on February 24, 2012

Have you seen their website? Are you qualified?

A friend of mine started his career at the UN with a post at UNV. He posted his profile and quite a while later was called up. From what he said, there were generous relocation fees. He was working as staff on a UN project, so he had a fixed position and responsibilities (so he was nobody in terms of the UN system in the country he worked in, but more important in the project, where he was international staff).

My friend did two years - have you checked the rules on leaving an assignment earlier? (They've invested after all; maybe they will ask for money back).

Anyway, my friend strongly recommended the UNV. A similar thing in Britain is VSO.
posted by squishles at 2:15 AM on February 25, 2012

Best answer: I have not been a UNV. When I looked into it some years back, the people I talked to made it clear that at that time they were only interested in experienced professionals, people with five or ten years in their fields. That might have changed by now (the minimum required experience is two years, according to their website), but given the competition I would doubt it. That said, I'm not sure what you would have to lose by filling out an application. You can always say "no thanks!" at any point, so there's no need to make a decision now.
posted by Forktine at 7:02 AM on February 25, 2012

Response by poster: My friend did two years - have you checked the rules on leaving an assignment earlier?
The website says it's typically 6-12 month renewable placements with a 1-year commitment, but it does vary.

the people I talked to made it clear that at that time they were only interested in experienced professionals, people with five or ten years in their field
Yeah, that's becoming my impression too as I look at this more. Given that, I don't quite have the qualifications they're looking for.

Back to the drawing board...
posted by naoko at 10:48 AM on February 25, 2012

Best answer: Hesitated in replying because my background is far different from what you are asking about.Followed this, though, because I didn't think that you would get an answer to this so I'll throw in just a couple things.

This may already be obvious to you, but isn't there someone that you contact to ask them if your specific background would make you eligible and/or competitive for the program? I was able to find someone (although it was 20 years ago) and they let me talk about my background and told me what they were looking for FWIW as a recent college grad at the time, I was not a very likely candidate to be hired as a UN volunteer, but it sounds like you have more experience than I did at the time.

I would also contact them to see if they have contact info for people who were volunteers and who want to talk to potential volunteers. Peace Corps offers to do this once you start your application and I can't see why similar volunteer programs would not.

Is there something else similar that would be a better fit?

Not necessarily saying this is a better fit (again,don't know your background) but I noticed that you discounted Peace Corps because" doing education/health/agriculture etc. - that kind of development work is not quite my area." Just to let you know, the Peace Corps does train you. Although they (usually) expect you to have a college degree, a lot of the programs assume a knowledge base of zero and start your hands-on training at that point. So if you had any interest in agriculture, etc, they train you. At the time that I went, as long as you had a related college degree= you could teach and go into education.
Also, if you were to be an educator in Peace Corps, they often require people to do secondary projects. Some people have done things like successfully create scholarships for young girls to go to school. I knew another person who found the means to help a women in her village start a small business. I think that if you thought carefully about the country you would be going to (since you have French speaking abilities, probably somewhere in Africa) then perhaps you could come up with a secondary project that would complement your other skills.

FWIW I too wanted to be a UN volunteer, but I just did not have the background that they wanted at the time. They wanted someone to have lived and traveled in developing countries and be fluent in a second language (not just undergrad college classes) plus have at least a few yrs if not more work experience in your area of training in college..plus be a certain age..again, as a recent college grad at the time,I definitely did not meet that list and they were honest in telling me this before I went through the application process. Although I had a low likelihood/no chance of acceptance into a UN volunteer program, I had a high chance of acceptance into a Peace Corps volunteer program so I went that route because it still gave me what I wanted. You still are working and doing projects in a developing country, etc. Some of the things that you mention on your list(e.g.push your borders, not work in an office)- trust me, it would definitely be that way if you go into the Peace Corps.

I can answer your other questions on the list, but it would be from the perspective of a former Peace Corps volunteer, which may not be what you are looking for. So I won't address them but if for whatever reason that perspective would help you, feel free to memail me.

posted by Wolfster at 10:52 AM on February 25, 2012

(a lot of people have recommended Peace Corps to me, but I know that I don't want to spend 2+ years doing education/health/agriculture etc. - that kind of development work is not quite my area).

Anecdotally, I've heard that if you do Peace Corps with a bachelor's degree, it's the traditional "dig some irrigation ditches, grow some potatoes, teach a little English on the side" gig, but if you have a master's, you are more likely to be in a capital city working for a federal/national government in an office of some kind doing policy work or whatever. Sounds like that kind of thing would be more up your alley (if you haven't looked into it and found I'm totally wrong, which I could be.).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:32 PM on February 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, all! I do appreciate the thoughts Wolfster and Snarl Furillo shared about the Peace Corps. My concern about it isn't either that I don't know about anything about Peace Corps-style economic development projects (I don't, but I've had enough PCV friends that I more or less understand the training process) or that I think I ought to be doing more "advanced" work (as a bit of a career-changer, I've accepted that I'm going to have to be a grunt for a bit longer). However I have a semi-specific area of academic expertise in human rights and democratic governance, and I would like to translate that into field work that is directly relevant to those areas in some way. So, PC seems sort of orthogonal to the kind of work I think I want to do, and I'm unsure whether after two years I'd really be much closer to that goal.

Thanks again, guys.
posted by naoko at 2:26 PM on March 2, 2012

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