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A review of 3 months in Geneva September 1, 2011

Posted by Kate Saetang in Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Master's, Switzerland.
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My internship in Geneva came to an end a couple weeks ago.  I’m now sitting in a cafe in Athens, Greece where enough time and distance have passed that I can properly reflect on what it means to work for an international organization in Geneva.

Kate Saetang with co-workers

On her last day in Geneva, Kate hiked up the Le Môle with her IOM coworkers.

While learning about the work of the International Organization for Migration was a crucial part of my internship, it was not my biggest takeaway.  What was much more valuable was learning the culture of an international organization–who works at the UN and partner agencies? What are their motivations and aspirations? What do people talk about over lunch? What do people worry about? At the end of the day, do the people who work in international affairs envision the same kinds of career for their children? To me, these were some of the recurrent themes that ran throughout the summer:

If you decide to work for an international organization, career security is only an illusion.  For example, many people I met at IOM and UN agencies that had worked for five or more years were working off a series of 3 or 6 month contracts.  This makes decisions like signing an apartment lease for a year or buying a car difficult.  Often, the decision to renew a contract comes only at the very last minute.  When working for an international organization, you need to be ready to lose your job or move at any minute.  You can imagine that most conversations revolve around contracts (“When is your contract up? Is it getting renewed? What kind of contract are you getting next?”)

The concept of diversity took on a whole new meaning for me once I got to Geneva.  I had grown up with what I had considered a culturally and ethnically diverse background, in immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago.  But in Geneva, I was surrounded by people from all corners of the world.  For example, in my office alone, I worked with people from Bhutan, Canada, Lithuania, Spain, and Italy.  My supervisors were German, Romanian, and Bangladeshi.  My good friends were French and MozambicanWhen surrounded by this kind of diversity, it is easy to take a step back from your own cultural assumptions and examine them through critically.

At the same time, a lack of diversity
I need to precede this with a huge disclaimer: these are based on my own observations, and I’m sure half of the people reading this will be armed with examples to refute this.  Although there was a diversity of country backgrounds represented in international organizations, there was not necessarily a diversity of economic backgrounds. It seemed that a good proportion of the people I was meeting were from families with diplomatic backgrounds, or some background in international civil service.  And this is generally a proxy for wealth–most of the people I met seemed to come from well-off families and/or families where it was normal to work for the UN, an embassy, or an international NGO.  This makes sense for two reasons: first, before you can get a paid job at an international organization, you must do an unpaid internship.  And only those already well-off can afford to do an unpaid internship in Geneva.  The second reason is my next point.

Getting a job at an international organization
Getting a job at an international organization is almost 100% dependent on who you know.  I realize that for other jobs, your social network is key, but this is even more so the case for international organizations. The competition is so fierce and the prestige of working for an international organization is so high.  What ends up happening is that the only way to separate yourself from the rest of the pack is to have someone already inside to pull you in and single out your resume.  This is why it seemed to me that people working at international organizations come from families or have friends with international affairs or diplomatic backgrounds.

I’m grateful that the Ford School was able to help me find this internship with the IOM–without their help, I do not think there would have been any way I could work for IOM.  And of course, I would not have been able to afford to live in Geneva without help from both the Ford School and the International Institute.  The entire summer was a rewarding experience for me, and I would have loved to have stayed for longer.


A first month review July 7, 2011

Posted by Kate Saetang in Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Master's, Switzerland.
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Kate Saetang

Kate Saetang

I am about a third of the way through my three month internship now.  I have all the signs that I’m settled in–a badge, a Swiss work permit, a cell phone with a working Swiss number, and favorite places to go for lunch.  I’ve stopped introducing myself to people and I can now manage not to get lost on the buses (or at least look like I’m not lost).

I have a fair amount of routine.  Almost every morning, I check in with my bosses to update them on what I have going on that day and for the rest of the week.  I work in the International Cooperation and Partnerships (ICP) department here at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and a part of what we do is organize the International Dialogue for Migration, or the IDM.  (What I still haven’t gotten used to is the unending number of acronyms used adeptly by people working in international organizations.) The IDM is one of IOM’s main forums for governments and experts in academia, the private sector, and NGOs to converse around a certain topic.  It is essentially a policy tool for governments to exchange best practices and share any common obstacles they face.

I’m currently preparing for the September IDM–the topic is “Economic cycles, demographic change, and migration.” The focus is on how the 2008 global recession affected migration streams and as a consequence, altered the demographic composition of different countries.  The core of all this is the impact on labor markets and the effects on labor supply and demand.  The aim of the IDM is for government representatives to exchange their different perspectives on what policies worked and what did not with respect to the last economic crisis.

I am doing a lot of event-planning for the IDM–researching workshop topics, researching potential speakers, and writing invitation letters.  I spent much of my first two weeks here reading about demographic trends and projections, and the impact of economic crises on migration flows.

The workshop topic is always selected by IOM’s membership, its 132 member states. IOM is actually funded primarily through contributions from member states.  As a result, many of IOM’s activities and projects are government-directed.  An interesting dynamic to see being played out is how IOM balances its autonomy as a migration agency with expertise and its services on behalf of its member governments.

Another large project I have been working on is ICP’s research portfolio, which includes the effects of climate change on migration.  The relationship between climate change and migration was something I was unfamiliar with before arriving at IOM, but it is an issue that seems to be attracting a lot of attention at the moment from international organizations like the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross.  It is an issue that different organizations are partnering on.  It is not an entirely new issue–IOM has been working around “environmental migrants” since the early ’90s.  However, with climate change expected to accelerate, international organizations are concerned about the effects of climate change on natural disasters and slow-onset environmental degradation and on migrants.  The causality between climate change and migration, however, is difficult to prove and makes policymaking around the issue a challenge.

French Alps

Annecy, France. One benefit of living in Geneva is easy weekend trips to the French Alps!

This not all I have been doing, of course.  Part of working for an international organization seems to be getting pulled in different directions and doing whatever needs to be done.  I’ve attended meetings with the Asian Development Bank on climate-induced migration in Asia, and I’ve stood in at the last minute as the IOM delegate to a UNHCR standing committee meeting on expanding the UNHCR role in natural disaster humanitarian relief.  I expect that different projects I haven’t anticipated yet will crop up.

As my first month here draws to a close, I can honestly say that I am really enjoying my internship.  Of course, part of the IOM experience is living in Geneva and all the perks (trying different kinds of cheeses, never being too far from the lake, and the side trips to the Alps).  I think I am learning things unique to an international organization–for example, I’m getting small lessons in diplomacy.  Even as I write this post, I try to strike a balance between being diplomatic and being interesting.  Hopefully I was able to do both.