Intro quote: “You see children who have suffered for a number of years able to distance themselves from that and be supported through some of our activities in the learning centres is also one of the best things about the job.”
UNjobfinder: Hi there, and welcome to the 13th episode of the UNjobfinder Career Podcast by INTALMA. My name is Magnus Bucht, and for those of you who are listening to this podcast for the first time, this is a show where we want to share the knowledge of what it means to have a career in international organizations, and to increase your chances of having such a career with the United Nations, European Union, development banks, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations. This episode is a conversation that I had some time ago with Carlo Gherardi at the NRC, the Norwegian Refugee Council. Carlo is an Italian that grew up in the UK, and has gone from being a lobbyist in Brussels via several different jobs in different NGOs in Vietnam, Switzerland, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, to where he is today as the Head of Operations for NRC in Amman, Jordan. Carlo will share how he has grown both professionally and personally during his assignments all over the world and you will learn more about what it is that he is looking for when he is recruiting to NRC. These are just some of the topics that we’ll cover. So, without further ado, let’s get right into the interview.
UNjobfinder: Today, I’m very happy and honoured to have Carlo Gherardi with us on the UNjobfinder Career Podcast. Carlo, welcome, and great to have you with us!
Carlo Gherardi: Thanks a lot, Magnus. It’s good to be here.
UNjobfinder: Great, thanks. Carlo, you are representing the Norwegian Refugee Council, the NRC, and you’re currently working as the Head of Operations in Amman, Jordan. But before you came into this position, you have many years of experience with different humanitarian organizations. So please tell us a bit about yourself.
Carlo Gherardi: Sure. Thanks, Magnus. As you mentioned, currently I’m with NRC in Jordan. My humanitarian career started a number of years ago working with NGOs in Vietnam before moving to Geneva to work for Shelter Centre, which is an NGO working in the shelter sector of quality coordination, and then moving out to the field, so working in Pakistan, in Ethiopia, Iraq, and then now Jordan. So it’s been a few years of moving around in different positions and it’s been more than three years that I’ve been in Jordan.
UNjobfinder: So when you started, you said that you were in Hanoi and Vietnam. Which organization was that for?
Carlo Gherardi: Well, it was a few different organizations. Maybe just to give a background, I didn’t actually move to Vietnam to work in the development sector. It’s one of those things that happened a bit more by chance. Initially, I was in Brussels. And my background is actually European politics. And so, I was working in Brussels, I had a reasonable job and kind of career lined up in a way, but felt like something was missing and that I hadn’t had that chance to maybe travel, and I felt that there were things that I wanted to see and experience before making a commitment to a certain job. So I kind of packed things up and moved to Vietnam, and initially I was teaching and earning some money that way. And then, I started to realize that there were some fantastic NGOs working in Vietnam and also that, obviously, the context is very different, and coming across many things, including poverty, that I hadn’t seen before, and challenges of organizations trying to find funding to treat diseases that, in Europe, haven’t existed for the last hundred years. So I started trying to apply for internships and knocking on doors and managed to get a small position with a trachoma NGO, which is an illness of the eye, and then through that started to work a little bit with the World Health Organization doing a few consultancies and some reports for them. And that kind of kick-started the experience and working in this sector. And it’s gone from there really.
UNjobfinder: Alright. So it was more of your drive to see the world that took you to Vietnam and then realizing that there were lots of opportunities.
Carlo Gherardi: Absolutely. I think it kind of opened my eyes in many ways and showed me a different culture, a different way of life, different challenges faced by different people that I hadn’t experienced before, and something inside me wanted to support and wanted to work in that kind of field. And that’s kind of where it started.
UNjobfinder: So bringing you then to Hanoi from Brussels. What were you doing in Brussels?
Carlo Gherardi: In Brussels, I was actually working in a public affairs company, also known as a kind of lobbying company. So working with parliamentarians, with the European Commission and the whole institutional setup in Brussels on different legislations. So it was quite technical. It was very interesting, I mean being able to be quite young, recently graduated, and sit inside the European Parliament listening to different debates, understanding how the European Union worked from the inside was definitely quite an experience but, at the same time, I felt like it was a kind of bubble and, before committing myself to this bubble, I had this feeling that there were other things in the world that I wanted to see and experience first. But yeah, otherwise it would have been probably a career in Brussels as a Eurocrat or something like that.
UNjobfinder: Right. It’s always interesting to hear. Once you started working in more the sort of NGO sector, working in the humanitarian development sector, was there anything that you didn’t expect that surprised you? I mean you came from Brussels, working more in the political scene with lobbying. What was the main difference?
Carlo Gherardi: Let’s maybe start with the similarities. The policy level for example, looking at Geneva, the experience is similar to Brussels in many ways. There’s a lot of politics happening there. You have to understand the different dynamics of the organizations, the different roles that the organizations play. It has its own language, so it’s quite difficult to enter if you don’t speak the right language. But, probably, the things that I didn’t expect were the realities of implementing projects in complex settings post natural disaster, post conflict, and I think it’s very hard until you’ve done it to really understand what that means from an organizational perspective, from an implementation perspective, and also from a personal perspective in terms of finding things out about yourself, what kind of person you are in those contexts because they are quite often very, very challenging personal contexts, so seeing how you respond to that is something that I learned about myself by going through that process in which I didn’t know about myself before.
UNjobfinder: That sounds really interesting. Could you elaborate more a bit on that? What were the settings that you were exposed to and how did that influence you?
Carlo Gherardi: Sure. Maybe a good example is really my first proper mission which was in Southern Pakistan. So we were working with IOM at the time and we were responding to the flooding in 2010 and implementing a large-scale shelter response project for those people who had been affected by the flooding. I was living in a southern city in Pakistan, which was extremely isolated, very little available in terms of local resources, not really any restaurants, often you’re in a guesthouse in lockdown for long periods of time. At the same time, the pressure is on to try and implement a project, to work in an area. I mean the southern parts of Pakistan were about the size of the UK, so you were driving for 4 or 5 hours to visit field sites. So it tests you in a way psychologically and physically, as well as being extremely far away from friends, family and not really having the possibility for people to visit you or to take many breaks, which is really an experience where I came out of it at the end feeling like I’d grown a lot personally and pushed myself in many, many ways and come through it. And that’s not something that I had done before.
UNjobfinder: Did you find any specific strategies that work for you in how to deal with situations like that?
Carlo Gherardi: Yeah, I mean everyone is different and everybody deals with stress and tiredness in different ways. I mean I managed to create a small kind of garden on the roof of the guesthouse and, with a couple of others, we managed to buy a couple of goats, and we got a ping pong table, and you’d take walks when you can, and in this day and age at least you have Skype, so you can be in touch with loved ones and friends and you’re not completely isolated, you have the internet. But I think it’s extremely important, people need to find their own ways of relaxing and taking a break whenever you can even if it means switching your laptop off at five and not looking at emails until midnight, and giving yourself a day off at the weekend to make sure that you do something different just to keep yourself in a state of wellbeing let’s say.
UNjobfinder: Absolutely, extremely important. So today, in your role as Head of Operations, what is it that you do? Can you describe sort of a typical work week or work month, or even a typical day for you?
Carlo Gherardi: Sure. So, in Jordan, NRC has one of the largest programmes globally. We have education, youth, shelter, information counselling, legal assistance. And all of those projects inside the camps in Jordan and also in the host community. And as the Head of Operations, I’m responsible for the project managers who are implementing those projects and making sure that implementation is on track. So part of my job is visiting the field sites, working with the project managers, understanding what’s happening on the ground. Part of it is from Amman, the national headquarters, working with the country management group, reviewing the more boring side let’s call it of the project cycle which is making sure that the spending, the procurement, and all of the operational sides of the project are also on track. And so, my day is split between visiting the field sites, working with the projects managers and the teams out in the camp, and meeting beneficiaries and most people who we support. And then, also, the operational sides and the project management sides at the Amman level. Jordan’s quite unique in many ways. I mean we have a number of different field sites here. I was talking about the distances in Pakistan before, Jordan’s quite a small country, which means that we can be out in the two main refugee camps where we work, in Zaatari and in Azraq, in an hour and a half. And also up to the northern parts of the country, Irbid and the other areas where we work, and then also back in Amman for meetings in the afternoon. We take coordination very seriously and it’s one of our value added as an organization. So we coach a number of working groups at the national level. So there’s also lots of meetings with UN agencies, partner organizations, government line ministries. So there’s the whole coordination side of it as well.
UNjobfinder: Can I just ask you, a typical field site for you in Jordan, what does that mean?
Carlo Gherardi: Well, we work in the two major refugee camps here, Zaatari, which is now around 80,000 people, Azraq, which is currently around 40,000 people. So most people have an image in mind of what a refugee camp looks like. I think Zaatari especially is quite a well-known refugee camp, it’s been in the news a number of times over the last few years. So that’s very much one of our core field sites. You go out there and you’re meeting people in the camps, you’re seeing the staff working in the camps every day. And then, outside of the camps, it’s urban settings. So Irbid for example is the, I think, the second or third largest town in Jordan, around a million people, so your teams are working outreach, working with the communities. We have classroom construction, so we’re working in schools as well, so it’s visiting the new classrooms and the children there. So it differs quite a lot and it’s a number of different projects that we have here and the field sites are all quite different.
UNjobfinder: Great, thank you. So, in total, it’s about 120,000 refugees that you are supporting.
Carlo Gherardi: As NRC today in Jordan, yes, it’s around 150,000 actually between the camps and the host community projects. As NRC, I think globally it’s around 5.3 million last year, so it’s quite a large number.
UNjobfinder: And how many staff do you have?
Carlo Gherardi: We have 420 national staff in Jordan and I think 25 international staff. We also have the regional office based in Amman and the Syria office. So there are another two offices as well based in Jordan. It’s one of the largest, as I mentioned, NRC operations and we’re extremely lucky in Jordan because the capacity of the national staff and Jordanians in general is extremely high. So we’re recruiting people with undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees, I mean it’s an extremely developed country with an extremely high level of national capacity.
UNjobfinder: Let’s come into that in a while. I think that will be really interesting to hear. But when you now describe your role, you talked about quite a large number of different responsibilities that you seem to have. But if you bring that down then to what excites you about your job, tell us an example of a typical challenge that you face.
Carlo Gherardi: The camps is an easy example. Every winter in Jordan is extremely difficult. You often have snowfall, you have temperatures at zero, and supporting people, one of our functions in the camps is to coordinate the distribution on behalf of all humanitarian agencies for what we call non-food items. So organizing distributions for 20,000 families and making sure that those are coordinated in a way where the most vulnerable are prioritized, where those people who can’t come and collect their items are supported by an alternative carer, making sure that people don’t have to queue for too long, and just logistically managing that kind of operation is extremely challenging because people are tired and cold and often frustrated. But also then when you do manage it, it’s a massively rewarding feeling. Similarly, we have learning centres in the camps where you see children who have suffered for a number of years horrific conflicts able to distance themselves from that and be supported through some of our activities in the learning centres, is also one of the best things about the job, is when you see people who are able to benefit from what we do, and you really see that it makes a difference in their day-to-day life.
UNjobfinder: Yeah, fantastic. So looking then at NRC, where you’re working now, why did you choose to work for NRC?
Carlo Gherardi: I knew NRC well before I worked for them because NRC has a global reputation. Before the Head of Operations position, I was in shelter and NFI, and that’s one of NRC’s core competencies. And in the shelter and NFI world, NRC has a global reputation for technical quality, for being an outspoken advocate for the principles of good programming. So it was a well-known organization to me, and I knew a few people who were working in NRC as well, and luckily the opportunity came to be involved as part of an emergency assessment in Iraq. And so, I put my name forward and luckily I was given the opportunity.
UNjobfinder: And what does NFI stand for?
Carlo Gherardi: It’s part of this language that I was talking about before, the jargon. It’s non-food item. So that can be anything from, for example, we managed the reception areas in the camps, that means sleeping mats, blankets, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, mattresses, cookers, gas, everything which is not food and which you need as an item to basically get your life started in the camps.
UNjobfinder: Okay, fantastic.
Carlo Gherardi: Yeah, sorry about that.
UNjobfinder: No, that’s good, excellent. Carlo, you have been working in many different countries. You’ve been working for different organizations. You’ve seen a lot basically. So, from your perspective, what do you believe is the most important skills that are needed for an international career in the humanitarian or development sector?
Carlo Gherardi: It’s a tough question. I think that you have to be somebody who can communicate in different ways because every country we work in, every different context we work in requires different skills in terms of being able to get your message across, in terms of being able to negotiate whether it’s with local partners, with beneficiaries, with governments. So communication and flexibility I think, openness and integrity. You have to put forward your ideas and you have to believe in them and you have to be dedicated enough to keep going with those ideas. But adaptability and flexibility are definitely two of the biggest. And then, it’s something which you can’t really quantify, but it’s having the right kind of attitude to be able to fit in in lots of different situations and working with people from all kinds of different backgrounds, and still being able to feel like you’re building teams and being part of something as well. And I think probably for me, I mean looking back, we were mentioning before, but I’m Italian and I grew up in England. My family moved to England when I was two years old, so I grew up in the UK. So, for me, from an early age, I was very lucky, I had two languages, I had Italian inside the house and English outside. So I was from a very early age sort of living with two cultures, living with differences, living with different foods and different weathers and everything else. And I think that you learn how to move between those different worlds. So I think that, for me, that was definitely something which now, looking back, probably helped me a lot when I then started to travel around and try to find my way in different contexts.
UNjobfinder: Another tricky question. When you say these important skills, for example saying attitude, when you then are recruiting to your team, in what way can you find out if the potential candidate has the right attitude?
Carlo Gherardi: I think it has to be somebody who is positive. You have to be positive and you have to be able to make the best out of very difficult situations. So I’m looking for somebody who comes across as resilient and positive. And also, I think the other key thing is somebody who comes across as a team player. You can’t, in my experience, do very well in this sector, or in many others actually, if you believe you have the answers to everything, if you believe that you’re always right and that other people should listen to you and change their mind immediately. So I’m really looking for somebody who has their opinions and who puts those opinions forward logically and in a way that makes a lot of sense but is also open to discuss while remaining positive, is also somebody who wants to be a real team player. That’s critical really.
UNjobfinder: Great, thank you. You’ve mentioned earlier a bit about what you are recruiting or what you are looking for now in Jordan for NRC. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Carlo Gherardi: Yeah, absolutely. I mean in terms of the Jordan office, as I mentioned, we have over 400 national staff and those positions range massively from engineers who are designing classrooms and architects who are designing classrooms to jobs kind of for fresh graduates who are looking for some experience but maybe aren’t as skilled, who are more interested in learning about a life in the humanitarian sector. We have very technical positions in our information counselling and legal assistance teams, so working with paralegals. Education, obviously. We have people, teachers, we have lots and lots of different profiles in the Jordan office. And then, based in Amman, we have the regional office, and I think regionally now there are around 50 or 60 open positions for international staff across the region. So the NRC Middle East response in the Middle East regional office is currently handling I think one of the biggest growths ever seen by NRC. So there’s a huge number of opportunities in the region. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the fact that this disastrous conflict in Syria doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and the humanitarian response is actually intensifying and growing trying to respond to the issue, of course, the big unknown is what will happen when aids and humanitarian access to Syria opens more, and that’s a whole new world that I think the UN and the NGOs and everybody else will have to adapt to when it happens. I think one of the rewarding things that I’ve seen is that, in the Middle East region, for me personally in Jordan, is that these 400 young Jordanians are not people who’ve had 10 years’ experience in the humanitarian sector. They’re people who were graduating from university, who were working in the private sector and who had chosen to come and work for NRC, and the ones who were also working for the other organizations, often earning less than what they would be in the private sector, and that’s wonderful to see and it’s extremely rewarding because those people are already at the level where they can start looking, and have done already, moved to international positions in the humanitarian sector. So, in terms of the capacity building and watching staff grow, that’s a fantastically rewarding thing as well.
UNjobfinder: Great. So I’m sure that lots of people hearing this will actually be quite interested. So working there, for example, if you are working more in a field setting, on the sites, what are the language requirements that you have?
Carlo Gherardi: Well, I mean of course Arabic is desirable. Depending on the type of position, it’s not essential. So I think that people should take a look at the job descriptions when they’re posted. We post all of the international positions and some of the national ones on the NRC global website. We also use some local Jordanian recruitment companies to post all of the positions in Jordan for Jordanians who are looking for work with NRC, but I wouldn't say that Arabic is a deal breaker. So if you feel like you have the right experience and you’re interested to have a look, don’t feel like you shouldn’t look just because you don’t speak Arabic.
UNjobfinder: Right, that’s excellent and good to know. As we are one of NRC’s partners, you can also find all of NRC’s vacancies at UNjobfinder.
Carlo Gherardi: Absolutely.
UNjobfinder: Great, Carlo. So, to end, because I want to respect your time, I know that you are a very busy person, what would you say if you could give any final recommendations to people who are interested in working for NRC? What would be the best tips for you?
Carlo Gherardi: I would say spend the time to do the research on what NRC is doing in the place where you are looking to apply. There’s a huge amount of information out there, so make sure that you really understand the context and understand what NRC is doing in terms of the project and the programme, ask questions, be positive, and make sure that you apply for positions that really are in line with your background and skill. I think that one of the things that often puts people off is when you see the same name applying for 7 or 8 different positions because you start to wonder why. So be focused and focus on what you’re good at. And I would say those are the main things.
UNjobfinder: Great, excellent. Thank you so much, Carlo. It’s been really a pleasure talking to you and for sharing all your insights and experience. So I think that what you’ve told us has been extremely valuable. Thank you so much.
Carlo Gherardi: Thanks very much, Magnus. It’s been a pleasure. Cheers!
UNjobfinder: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Carlo Gherardi from the NRC. Carlo, again, thank you so much for joining us. To ensure that you get all new episodes, we advise you to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. Showing what you think about this show by leaving an honest review on iTunes is something we really appreciate. And at unjobfinder.org/podcast you can always find show notes of the episodes and full transcripts. So bye for now and see you in the next episode!