Is there a (professional) life after the UN?

For those considering a career change from the international civil service, what are the obstacles and challenges to overcome?
April 2023 I Opinion Article
By Michael Stopford, Founder and Managing Partner at ANCORED

Was the financial “bottom line” a more effective driver of results than the intergovernmental bureaucracy could ever manage?

The UN is a wonderful place to work. I recall my excitement when I first crossed the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan, about to start an assignment in the Secretary-General’s Office – having just resigned after a few years with the UK Foreign Service. Some fascinating and memorable experiences followed, from New York to Geneva, to Washington DC, interacting with Congress on US/UN issues.

I have had some great colleagues and inspiring mentors, from Sadruddin Aga Khan and Jan Mårtenson in Geneva to SG Perez de Cuellar, Kofi Annan, Yasushi Akashi… Some less than stellar colleagues too, but then no institution’s perfect…

If you have been at the UN for a while and are thinking of a change in career - how difficult is it to make a successful transition? What will the change be like? And how do you explain the value of your UN responsibilities to prospective employers eyeing the East River or the Palais des Nations, for many of whom the UN edifices seem impenetrable and incomprehensible?

I was around 40 when I began to think I could not spend my entire professional life in one institution, however rewarding (intellectually and emotionally, rather than financially!) and varied the organization might be. I was also deeply curious about the private sector: were these businesses and companies really so much more efficient than the UN, could they achieve the practical results on the ground that the UN just aspired to in its resolutions and documents? Was the financial “bottom line” a more effective driver of results than the intergovernmental bureaucracy could ever manage? So a couple of years later I moved – no courageous jump at first, merely into the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation – and since then have traveled back and forth between private (ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Syngenta, Public Affairs consultancies) and public (NATO, and an EU institution) sectors and universities.

"Generally, the private sector considers the public sector – even the international one – to be slow and bureaucratic. It’s worth acknowledging this and perhaps expressing admiration for the rapid results possible in the private sector…"

Let’s suppose some of you may be in the same position: loving the UN but wanting a change, or frustrated by aspects of your current job. You begin to look around: the private sector, the non-profit world, or even academia. What are the challenges you may face and are there ways of resolving them?

The first problem is that “the UN” is an unfamiliar concept to those working outside the organization. A private company large or small will have little idea of what UN work entails. Consequently, it’s useful to explain your UN duties in simpler functional terms: communications, HR, project management, event management, sustainability, purchasing, marketing, IT: something that applies to similar functions elsewhere. In my own case it was communications, although I could hardly claim to be an expert. Naturally if your expertise is more specialized, such as interpretation or translation, that will relate directly to relevant opportunities outside.

Some corporate positions will nonetheless have a direct bearing on your intergovernmental experience: all large companies today have a Coporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department where prior dealing with issues such as human rights, the SDGs, etc., will be valuable. The same goes for sustainability and environmental management.

Generally, the private sector considers the public sector – even the international one – to be slow and bureaucratic. It’s worth acknowledging this and perhaps expressing admiration for the rapid results possible in the private sector…

The corporate culture will be different, despite the efforts government has made in recent years to emulate some of the private sector’s processes. In a public affairs consultancy, every hour – sometimes every fifteen minutes – must be accounted for and billed to clients, much like a law firm.

And the non-profit sector? In some ways this can be an easier transition, with NGOs in human rights, development, etc., often working together with the UN. Working conditions will be tougher, the pay less – but the sense of motivation and dedication at somewhere like Greenpeace may compensate.

Academia and higher education may also be an avenue worth pursuing. Knowledge of international organizations is often sought by universities: many welcome ‘practitioners’ as Adjunct Professors, although it is practically impossible to earn a living wage through this path alone. Full-time positions running international programmes may be a more viable choice.

Again, there are no easy answers: do we castigate “big pharma” for charging exorbitant prices for new drugs, or be grateful to them for coming up with new cures for hitherto untreated diseases?

Faced with some of these trade-offs, you may be tempted to opt for remaining with the international organizations! And indeed, the UN and its multilateral system is a destination that so many aspire to. The work is frequently absorbing, the international atmosphere unparalleled, the sense of contributing to the greater global good unsurpassed. However, it is always preferable to keep some options open, to renew professional enthusiasm at any time during our various long and winding career paths. I hope that some of these insights may be helpful in this perspective. 

About the author(s)

Michael Stopford, Founder and Managing Partner at ANCORED

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