Helpful skills

Follow up article on the previous one.

Frequently asked question:

Q: What skill is helpful in careers in international organizations or academia?

My A: Anything! A few categories, I guess.

  1. Professional knowledge and skills on the subject
  2. Local knowledge
  3. Communication, drafting, organization, project management, and people management
  4. Languages
  5. Technical skills
  6. Anything else
  1. On the professional knowledge and skills – obviously you need to be good at what you do. For me, international law, especially in the area of International Human Rights Law (HRL), International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Criminal Law (ICL), was absolutely crucial. I needed to have a general knowledge on these areas, updated with cases and developments in the world. Often times, when I was surrounded by human rights experts, my knowledge on IHL and ICL was very helpful, especially when I was involved in mapping of violations of human rights and IHL in Nepal. It also helped me a lot when I had some areas that I could be confident in – e.g. right to self-determination, law of peacekeeping (which is outside the three areas of international law I mentioned above) or freedom of expression. These specialized areas need to be developed continuously, and my area of expertise changed through working in various positions. The areas that I have built quite a lot after I started working are accountability, the rule of law and policing, transitional justice, and sexual violence. One tip I can give is not to assume at any point that you know everything. There are always developments, and much more to learn. Do not get swallowed by busy days, but continue learning.
  2. Local knowledge is one that helped me so much, especially in my early career. My BA dissertation as on East Timor, but as soon as I got the news that I would be sent by the UN to East Timor, I re-learned the history, people, culture and about the tasks in front of the UN. This helped me a lot to understand what was going on when I got there. As I learned about the place and the people quickly, people started to come to ask me about East Timor, and I had great rapport with Timorese people. When I was selected to assist the Director of the UN Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste in 2006, I hear that he selected me based on my knowledge and understanding of the place, which he considered a vital help he needed from his staff.
  3. There are abilities and skills that are very helpful in doing the job effectively. One I learned is the ability to explain complicated things in a brief and logical manner. I was transferred from the Far Western Regional Office to Kathmandu in the course of my work with the UN-Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN-OHCHR) in Nepal. I got assigned to training, and in training and other capacity building activities we conducted, the ability to explain complicated international-law related matters to the people on the ground was very crucial. In another context, you may have heard of ‘elevator rule’, which means that you need to be able to brief your boss while you go up or down in an elevator together, as that would be the only time you can do so before his/her important meeting. Communication skills are very important, too, and I believe that is a skillset that people can learn. No long excuses and getting to the point for your busy boss, but it is completely different for talking to victims People in villages in Timor-Leste used to tell me a lot of their life stories. ‘When the sun was up just above that roof, X happened’, they said, for example. Translation of that into what time that was my job. I would then talk to them in the same way: ‘so, when that happened, had your roosters already made noise?’ Talk in the way that is understandable to people. In a slightly different context, drafting skills have been vitally important. Long messages short, make a point without leaving important parts. This has been crucial in any jobs, but especially in legal or law-related positions. Organizational skills are also very helpful. In any job, I would think, you have a lot of things that you need to organize, be it an event, meeting, discussion, or project. It can seem rather daunting at times, but the neat organization is very important, and gives a large impact on how professional you look. Project management is really vital, too. In fact, not only management but the entire cycle is important. Fundraising, planning, finance, hiring people, making and agreeing on aims and objectives, assigning tasks to people, liaising with stakeholders, reporting, evaluation and planning again. When I first worked for the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, writing up a proposal to raise fund was the skill that got the professor’s eyes. We successfully raised fund with my proposal, which got me the next position. Project management skill was indeed very helpful later when I managed the UN Peace Fund’s transitional justice project in Nepal. People management is increasingly important as one moves seniority. I am good at managing motivated people, but have a space to work on those who are not necessarily driven by their commitment to the cause.
  4. Languages skills are so helpful to have, at least a few at the business level, under your belt. When I was in East Timor before the Popular Consultation in 1999, the first thing I did was to get Indonesian dictionaries and books (as they were not selling Tetum ones), sit by my accommodation in my free time and practice it with local children. They then taught me Tetum slowly, too. This was so crucial for the Popular Consultation itself as well, as good translation service was scarce to have, and I also wanted to make sure as much as possible that translators were not adding anything that I did not say. Later on, I got fluent in Tetum, which was a crucial basis for me to have a good rapport with people, especially victims, as well as for the UN to have good understanding of what is going on. I had a similar approach in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sri Lanka and Nepal, but I did not quite get to the level (business possible without translation) in those countries. I worked on French when I was in Geneva. Now I am trying to get my French back. Often, what language you have a command of determines where you go, or whether or not you get selected. I have to say this trend is clearer in your early career.
  5. Technical skills can also be very helpful. Any software that you can use may be your ticket. For me, I have designed a database in one project, which was noticed by my next boss, who asked me to help him with building a database. Currently I am trying to learn skills to analyze big data, but my progress on that part is shamefully slow. For younger generation, you need to remember that your boss/employer may be from an order generation, among whom your computer skill may be amazing. In one of the projects I have currently, an assistant researcher is using Python, which I know is common knowledge for their generation, but not for ours.
  6. My point, though, is that any knowledge or skill you have can help. I was surprised that my skills in playing the piano helped in a few occasions. Probably in social settings, too, but here I mean in professional life. I got involved as a pianist for a charity concert organized by the UN, which became a great network for information sharing and discussion, and later collaboration in a project. Driving skill is another thing that I took for granted, but without that, I would not have been able to talk to so many people in remote places in East Timor/Timor-Leste or Nepal.

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