What Do You Actually Do? Episode 54: Rob Simmons, Working in international development

Listen to this and all the previous episodes.

This episode is for anyone interested in international development or the humanitarian sector. Rob Simmons works in Somalia for Committed to Good (CTG) and speaks to Kate from a shipping container next to the airport. They talk about what you need to get into this kind of work, the bests bits and the worst bits. He also shares his advice on how students can approach people working in the sector.

Rob’s bio:

Rob completed a master’s degree in Post-war Recovery Studies at York and now works in Somalia as the Deputy Country Manager for Committed to Good, providing services to the United Nations to help them deliver their projects in high-risk areas. Before that he worked in Mine Action in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Before studying at York, Rob spent 12 years in the British Army.

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Transcript:

Kate:

You’re listening to the ‘What Do You Actually Do?’ podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 

Hello and welcome to this episode of ‘What Do You Actually Do?’. My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about international development and humanitarian work. We’re joined by Rob Simmons, who’s a Deputy Country Manager for CTG (Committed to Good), a private sector company that starts humanitarian and development projects. So, Rob, that sounds really interesting. What do you actually do? 

Rob:

Hi, Kate. Thanks for the warm welcome. It’s a great question. So I head up the CTG team in Somalia. So it probably makes sense to go with a brief overview of what the organisation does. CTG supports the humanitarian sector to have a positive impact in local communities in some of the most challenging places in the world. So where I’m based in Somalia, it’s a country, you may know, in a perpetual state of conflict, vulnerable to climate related disasters, currently going through severe drought. So there are a lot of people in need. We offer employment opportunities for people to work on a wide range of projects in their communities. So, for example, there are engineers building hospitals, schools and roads, they are monitoring food distribution to make sure it’s reaching the right people. We also have staff working in mine clearance, so just making the country that little bit safer. The list goes on, but that gives you a flavour of what we do. So to go back to my role, I lead a small team of eight that oversee a workforce of about 460 people. And my job is predominantly to keep everybody safe and keep everybody happy. Our people work in volatile areas, so it’s important I’m available 24/7 to respond whenever I’m in the country to whatever may happen. I also spend quite a lot of my time engaging with our humanitarian partners, because we all share the same goal of delivering a positive impact. So it’s important that I understand what their goals are, and how we all work together to achieve that. So if I had to summarise what I do, it’s a real coordination-heavy role.

Kate:

So do you recruit the team from the country as well, like the actual team members that you’re saying work on these different projects? Are you involved in that side of it, or are there other people who do that, and once the team is up and running, you then manage those people as they’re doing their work? 

Rob:

Yeah, we do everything. So from recruitment all the way through to onboarding, duty of care, performance management and then managing them out at the end, because everything is project based – that tends to be how life is in the sector – so projects come, projects go and we take care of everything from start to finish. 

Kate:

So does CTG have the projects, or does CTG sort of facilitate other people’s projects with staff? 

Rob:

CTG facilitates other people’s projects. So the reason organisations like CTG exist is that it’s very difficult for some organisations to recruit and operate in these very high risk areas. So they bring in people like CTG with the expertise in this area, duty of care to make sure we look after people and they’re operating safely. And this is where we really work closely with our partners. It’s this concept of shared value – that we all share the same goals, and we can provide that expertise and bring people in and look after them to deliver that. So, otherwise these projects might not be able to kick off without organisations like CTG. 

Kate:

So you mentioned, obviously, where you’re working at the moment has a lot of challenges with security and environmental issues. How has the pandemic added into that mix? What’s been the impact on things from that perspective? 

Rob:

So the main impact has really been the ability for people to come in and out of the country, which means as a result you’ve got a lot of remote management. We’re quite lucky in the fact that actually the people we recruit live in these local communities, so they can still continue to work and deliver the projects. What we really see is where normally I would go and meet with the partners face to face, sit down and talk through what’s going on, what needs to change and generally get a feel for how the projects are running – everything becomes virtual. So that in some ways is good, that, you know, the projects can still go, but you do lose an awful lot of the value that’s had by just being in the same room as other people and discussing things in the margins – everything suddenly becomes an awful lot more formal when you’re on Skype or Zoom meetings, and time is of the essence. 

Kate:

What was your starting point then? Where did your interest in international development and  humanitarian aid come from? 

Rob:

I spent some time in the military, and as part of that I had a few jobs where I stepped briefly into the humanitarian sector, predominantly working in some of the refugee camps in Greece in 2015/16. And I had a real, not epiphany moment, but I knew as soon as I kind of took up that job that actually this is what I wanted to do, and then not really having any idea of how you could even go about getting into the sector. I designed a bit of a plan that led me to the University of York and studying a masters to get an academic grounding in all things sort of international development. And that was my way in. 

Kate:

So you did the Masters in post-war recovery studies, didn’t you? How have these sort of academic qualifications impacted on your career then, because it sounds like you had some really useful work-related experience through your time with the military and the projects you worked on. How did the academic stuff enhance that? 

Rob:

The academic stuff has, I can’t begin to describe how useful it actually was. I now go into meetings and I talk to people, and I understand their challenges. And we have so many different clients working on so many different projects. But broadly speaking, whatever issue they’re working on, we would have loosely covered it on our masters, so I at least have a starting point where I roughly know what they’re talking about. Obviously, I lack the, you know, the fine grained detail of exactly what they may be doing in the country, but it gives you a really good base to start from, that in this sector where acronyms and all other random combinations of phrases won’t make sense to anyone – it gives you a little bit of a head start, which I found incredibly useful. 

Kate:

Do you think – because sometimes students go straight on to a masters after their undergrad – do you think for something like this it would still be as useful? Or was it more helpful to have that work experience behind you, a bit of life experience as well behind you to understand what you wanted to get from the masters and then be able to use it? Is it better to have a bit of time out, or is it kind of actually either option works? Was it quite a mixed bag on the course? 

Rob:

There was a real, real mix on the course and, like you said, we had some people that had come straight from undergrad, but the vast majority of people had been working for some time. For me that worked; I understand for everyone it will be a highly personal choice. I think it’s possibly a symptom of the sector where, if you really want to get on and progress, you’ll find that in management positions a masters is almost a prerequisite for quite a lot of the jobs you would be looking for. So people tend to take breaks to study, like I did, or do it remotely and part-time whilst they’re still working, which I have a lot of respect for. I found doing a Masters full time quite demanding, I can’t quite imagine trying to balance that whilst working full-time as well. But that worked for me. If you could crack it post undergrad, I think I wouldn’t discourage that, it just wasn’t the path for me. 

Kate:

Yeah, I’ve over the years met students and graduates working in the sector, and it does seem to be that magic combo of having the masters degree, but also with experience as well. It can be a tough sector to break into can’t it, so it’s kind of, I get the impression as well that there’s a lot of networking involved. So again, I guess a benefit of doing a masters, but also getting the work experience, is that you’re meeting like-minded people who are working in different aspects of the sector. 

Rob:

That’s right, it does have a pretty bad reputation for jobs through networking, and I find those education and experience requirements can be quite demanding, and potentially unrealistic sometimes, that is my kind of assessment of that. Yeah, I agree. 

Kate:

So you’ve mentioned the potential for a lot of projects working within the sector. You’ve worked in the public sector, charity sector, private sector, NGOs – lots of different aspects there. So what kind of personal strengths or qualities would you say you need to have to be if you want to be happy and successful working in the international development sector? 

Rob:

That’s a great question. I think resilience is really important. Obviously, you can’t just say “just be resilient”, because what does it really mean? Because it’s a very personal thing, so some of the postings that you might potentially have could be quite arduous and quite tough, and quite restrictive. So today I’m speaking to you from a shipping container that I live and work in at the airport in Mogadishu. It can take a toll on some people, and it’s not for everyone. I don’t mind it so much, life is actually quite comfortable, even though I’m in a shipping container. 

Kate:

So, you know, there’s a lot to, in some ways, endure with that kind of work from the sounds of it. What do you really love about it? What keeps you within the sector? You’ve committed so much to it now with both your experience and then gaining these further qualifications. What is it that you really love about it? 

Rob:

When I decided to leave the military, find something that really made me feel a sense of purpose, and working in countries where there are challenges, and being able to contribute in my own small way to trying this idea of shared value where, you know, you make things better, where everyone comes together, you pull in the same direction. It’s a very purist view, and the sector doesn’t really work in that way. But I think the principle of that is pretty good. And it’s that sense of knowing what you do has value and kind of creates purpose, which really motivates me. 

Kate:

So what’s the worst aspect of the role then? 

Rob:

Probably the polar opposite. You come in with that purist view, and then the reality is not always how you would view it. And you know, some days you look at what you’ve achieved and you wonder whether it’s actually very much because, you know, there’s a reason these places are very difficult to work, and it doesn’t mean everything is going to go great, and not getting too down by that, and actually, you’re almost in a way have to review what you think a good result looks like, because it might not necessarily be what you envisaged at the start of the project. 

Kate:

That’s really interesting, because it’s something about accepting what might be considered a small win, but it’s still a win, and it’s kind of a step in the right direction. But I can see how if you come in with all these hopes and dreams of what it’s going to be like, and then maybe not achieving, it must take so long as well, so not achieving it as quickly as hoped. And a lot of stuff must be completely out of your control as well, as you set the scene for your particular location at the moment, but I’m sure each location has its own challenges as well. I guess that links with the resilience as well, being able to see the positives from even negative situations. 

Rob:

Yeah, absolutely. The resilience part is really quite important to this role. I think it comes down to understanding yourself and what you like. So when, for example, the listeners of the podcast might be at that stage where they’re thinking of stepping into the sector, which can seem a bit murky, and actually what I think the individual does have within their control is understanding themselves and at least what they think they might like. I suppose the one real positive for them at the moment is that actually the first decision you make or the first job you get, isn’t going to define your future, because a lot of the work is project-based and time limited. And you know, you’ll be moving into a sector where moving on every two or three years is actually really quite normal. So you have the ability to sample and see what you like, and really start to understand yourself. And I think that can even start long before people have even left university. 

Kate:

Yeah, I agree. I think that self-awareness and really understanding what motivates you, what kind of situation you’ll flourish in, what you want is important. Thinking ahead then, what do you think the key challenges will be for international development and humanitarian work over the next few years? What should people kind of be preparing for, or trying to develop skills in, and think about? 

Rob:

It’s a great question. I think that looking to the future, we could perhaps look to the past a little bit. And what has always been one of the huge challenges is funding. I don’t really foresee that changing in any meaningful way, it’s always going to be an issue. If we look, for example, at the moment, you see funding gaps all over the place. In the recent past there have been calls for donations for Yemen, Afghanistan, UK reducing their commitment to development funding. So what you have is essentially people competing for the same pot of money, that is slowly diminishing. And when you look to the future and you think, if we take climate change, for example, and some of the projections for the worst case scenario of mass movement of people, conflict over scarcer or and scarcer resources – so you have this funding issue with the scale of challenges increasing at the same time, and that really throws in an awful lot of uncertainty. I think to prepare for the future, the great thing is to just really be on top of the reading and get a general flavour of where things are going, because there’s an awful lot of work out there. And then the good thing is, as you do more reading about some of the challenges, you’ll then understand what really does it for you, in terms of – you might find something that you want to do that you may not have previously thought is, but actually, as you look into it, you really find those competencies or qualities in a particular area that help you decide where you want to go with your future. 

Kate:

So when you mention reading there, are there any specific publications you’d recommend as good ones for people to sort of help get insights into the sector and keep on top of developments? 

Rob:

Where would be a really good place to start, and not necessarily academic reading, but job websites are really where I would recommend people at university looking at the sector to dig into. Something like ReliefWeb, for example, is very good, because it gives you the opportunity to look at everything that’s available in the sector job-wise, you have a number of filters, so you can narrow it down to however many years experience you think you might have going into the sector. And then it will just bring up all the jobs that are available. And then if you take time to look through those and then pick out the key qualities within that job specification that you think you might like doing, you can then narrow it down and have almost a checklist of things that you liked the look of. So then when you do meaningfully start to look for a job, you have a checklist of everything that you think you might want to do. So for example, when I left the military, I didn’t start looking for jobs with a specific title. I made a list, and on that list were: being in the field, being overseas, leadership of teams, and I ended up moving into mine action, mine clearance, which isn’t a job I ever thought I would be doing. And if I’d started just by scrolling through and looking at jobs, I would never have applied for it. But it actually ticked a lot of the boxes I was looking for. So I did a bit more research and then I submitted a job application and I was successful, and went off to do mine clearance for a while before moving back into the private sector. 

Kate:

I think that’s really brilliant advice, because often it’s very difficult for students, like, they’ll be overwhelmed by job titles that can be pretty ambiguous sometimes actually, and become kind of really fixated on I’ve got to work out what job I’m going to do, whereas as you say – if you start with the skills, what do you actually want from a job, what are you good at, what you enjoy doing? And also other things like you say, what you want in terms of values, and perhaps location – thinking about those things and then finding different potential roles that might tick the majority of those boxes, is kind of a flipped approach, rather than, as you say, scrolling through the job titles, it’s actually looking at the detail and working your way backwards from that point. 

Rob:

Yeah, absolutely. There is so much out there, and now I work for HR company, so my first engagement with our clients is generally them submitting job specifications, for example, of like “We need this person”, and it’s often littered with abbreviations, things that your average person wouldn’t really understand. So by actually looking beyond just the job title and that cursory information, just start digging into the types of person they’re looking for, and understand whether that aligns with where you would like to be and who you want to be. 

Kate:

So finally, have you got any other advice for students thinking about working either in international development, humanitarian work, within either the sort of private sector NGOs, public sector, any of those things. Is there particular work experience that would be useful? Any other tips for breaking in? 

Rob:

Networking is key, particularly in this sector. I’ve read some great articles over the years, and one that really stuck with me is that if you’re looking at a job advertisement, you’re already quite late in the hiring process, because there’s a good chance that job would have been circulated internally in the organisation, and done the rounds elsewhere. And it’s a really good way to sort of fix your mind, that actually a lot of the work involved in finding a job takes place long before a job advert is posted. And really, that leads into networking and talking to people. For some people that’s very easy to do, for others it’s challenging and difficult. And I would probably put myself in that second category that networking doesn’t necessarily come that naturally to me. So I think there are a number of things you can do in those circumstances. I think I’m going to use an example now of actually somebody from the University of York who reached out to me. So now I work in HR and recruitment, I generally get a lot of approaches on social media or telephone calls, for example. One of the best ones that stuck out to me was: a student reached out and they said – “Hey, just like to connect with you. You work in a sector I might be interested in and I’d really like to connect”. And that was it. There was no ask, there was no request. It was almost frontloading a connection that further down the line, that person could reach out and the hard work’s already been done. And I really liked that, because normally, whenever you’re approached, it’s generally somebody who wants something. But in this case, it wasn’t. But what you’re doing is kind of buying that goodwill for an ask in the future. And I thought that was a great way to do it. And it’s really stuck with me, and I was very impressed. It was a great way to go about it, I think. 

Kate:

So is that through LinkedIn then? 

Rob:

It was, yes, it was through LinkedIn, which I think is a great platform for this sector and doing what you need to do, like many others, it’s a great way. 

Kate:

Yeah, I’m hearing more and more from people who are finding it so useful to just start to gradually build relationships and gain insights into, you know, how people’s different career paths have developed, and what their kind of experiences have been, to then give them ideas about – Okay, that will be useful for me to get this experience and that experience. But that’s really useful to hear it from the other side, when you’ve been approached, what makes a difference that kind of polite, to the point, but just building the relationship rather than necessarily going in straight off with – “Hi, can I have some work experience, or can I have a job” kind of thing. 

Rob:

Yeah, it really is. I absolutely loved that approach. So I wish I got more like that. 

Kate:

Well, that’s brilliant. So for more information about the careers we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the show notes and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. Rob, thank you so much for giving up your time today to talk to us. Really fascinating! And we’re very lucky, no aeroplanes have tried to land anywhere near your shipping container that you’re in, so that’s been a win. But yeah, thank you very much for your time. It’s been really, really interesting. 

Rob:

Yeah, thanks very much, Kate, and I can reassure everyone that the aeroplanes will probably land just as I’m going to bed, so don’t worry. 

Kate:

Thank you for joining us this week on “What Do You Actually Do?”. This episode was hosted by me, Kate Morris, edited by Stephen Furlong and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and follow us. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers

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