March 4, 2024


When, on February 6, a devastating earthquake devastated Syria and Turkey, leaving behind more than 55,000 dead and enormous material damage, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was one of the first international organizations to act on the ground, since It was already in northwestern Syria and was able to provide an almost immediate human and material response, while emergency teams to Turkey were not long in being sent. The NGO is present today in more than 70 countries, in which it acts through more than 46,000 people of 169 different nationalities; the vast majority in projects on the ground. “Interestingly, and contrary to what many people believe, most of MSF workers are not doctors, but we have all kinds of profiles: from other health workers to journalists, anthropologists, engineers, architects or administrative staff,” Muskilda Zancada, delegate of the MSF Central Office in Spain, tells.

What is needed to work in the field of international cooperation? Although heterogeneity is precisely one of the most visible characteristics in the personnel recruited by NGOs, as the example of MSF illustrates, the most in-demand knowledge, skills and abilities could be summarized in three axes: specialized technical knowledge (which normally includes a degree , postgraduate and other training courses); languages ​​(English, French and Arabic, above all); and a series of soft skills (flexibility, adaptability, resilience and integrity, among others) that are essential in the world of international cooperation. And, first of all, be very clear about what it is (and what it is not) to be a cooperator, a reality that goes far beyond the romantic myth of the young adventurer who travels to other countries to help.

breaking down stereotypes

“What we (NGOs) are looking for are much more specialized and technical professionals who really provide added value, who go to a country for a shorter period and for a very specific task: it is not that they simply go to help, but rather that they complement a local team that already knows the reality, but which still lacks certain profiles”, explains Rosa Sala, director of Operations and Human Resources at Oxfam Intermón. In 2021 there were 2,708 Spanish aid workers spread around the world, according to data from Europa Press, but it should also be remembered that much of the work that these organizations do (donation campaigns, grant management or project creation and management, for example) takes place in the countries of origin, without the need for any travel. At MSF, without going any further, 83% of the staff hired are from the countries where each cooperation project is carried out, while 800 of the 1,200 who work at Oxfam Intermón are locals from countries such as Peru, Morocco, Chad or the Republic Central African.

Why collaborate with local organizations? “There is a limit to what you can get to know about a country when you document yourself online. A local partner has more knowledge, understands what really matters on the ground and knows the best way to get closer to the community,” says Anna-Lena Strehl, Head of External Affairs at the TUI Care Foundation, an NGO based in The Netherlands and dedicated to environmental protection and human empowerment in tourist destinations. “Working with and supporting local partners also means that jobs will be created in those destinations. In many of our projects, we create jobs for people from vulnerable backgrounds, which not only benefits them, but also their families and communities,” she adds. Strehl is part of a multidisciplinary team that includes from specialists in International Relations and Political Science to Business Management, Journalism, Intercultural Communication, Climate Change and Development.

“As we dedicate ourselves a lot to issues of water, sanitation and food security, we have (in the countries) agronomists and water engineers, profiles related to sanitation, logistics and purchases,” argues Sala. But, she explains, you also need professionals with a financial orientation who know how to manage grants, make reports, balance the numbers and ensure the necessary transparency; Human resources and people management; and those specialized in impact measurement, “of what we call the Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (impact evaluation and learning): measure the appropriate indicators to know that what we are doing has a positive impact, and integrate the learning of both what works and what does not, to improve our programs”. And, of course, lawyers and other legal profiles, who are dedicated to articulating proposals for changes in laws or accompanying organizations in the implementation of some reforms such as, for example, “the regime of access to land or that women can obtain bank loans, because sometimes the law has already been changed but later we see that its implementation does not favor the vulnerable people with whom we work”, claims Sala.

The focus, of course, changes when a health or humanitarian emergency occurs, such as the one caused by the aforementioned earthquake in Turkey and Syria. “Unlike in Turkey, in that area of ​​Syria the needs prior to the earthquakes were already critical: the 180,000 displaced by the earthquake added to the 2.8 million people who already lived in extremely precarious conditions after having been displaced. repeatedly during 12 years of war”, remembers Zancada. Mental health, shelter and access to drinking water and food are today the main needs of the population in this area of ​​northwest Syria, which faces the challenge of strengthening a health system and very weak infrastructure. In Turkey, MSF’s work focuses on psychosocial support for the affected population; donations of medical, logistical and essential supplies; and water and sanitation interventions, such as the construction of showers and toilets in makeshift camps.

The most relevant studies and skills

One of the courses (whether through a degree or a master’s degree) that can be most useful in the field of international cooperation is, without a doubt, International Relations, in order to “understand the context when you finally go to work to another country as a cooperator: being able to read different contexts, different forms of government, the relationship with neighboring countries, with embassies, United Nations or EU organizations and different financial organizations”, says Sala. “To have a good cooperation program, it is essential to know the framework in which you operate, to know who is who and what your alliances may be, where to get funding and who you should talk to to ensure a positive impact”, he adds. Other specialized postgraduate courses have to do with the environment and development, security and cooperation, project management or the aforementioned impact measurement.

In addition to technical knowledge, working as an aid worker also requires having developed a series of soft skills such as flexibility, the ability to adapt, resilience and tolerance for frustration, in order to keep moving forward even when things don’t turn out the way you expected. “You have to like being challenged to get out of your comfort zone, live multiculturalism, different values… You can’t go with preconceived ideas,” says Sala, who also highlights the importance of one’s own integrity when coming into contact with situations of great poverty and with people who may also be suffering from a humanitarian crisis, to avoid taking advantage of desperate situations”. And, of course, passion for what is done.

“It is an exciting and fascinating job that allows you to learn, question many things and value what we have and the privilege from which we approach it”, acknowledges the head of Oxfam Intermón. Strehl, for her part, recalls how she always wanted to get to a point where her work would make a positive impact, “especially in vulnerable communities. My mother is a social worker and teaches German to refugees, so helping those who have not had it as easy in life as I have is something I grew up with and is close to my heart.”

Any final advice for those interested in starting their path as a cooperator? “Don’t give up on it, if that’s what you want. That they contact various organizations, that they follow us on social networks and look at our websites, because we publish the profiles there (which we need); that they are trained in something transversal, like what we have indicated, and that they begin to collaborate in some more voluntary or specific way, to see if it fits them ”, concludes Sala. Because it is never too late to redirect a career.

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