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The United Nations is looking for new blood to staff its peace operations while prompting long-serving employees to get out of headquarters and work in the field.
In demand for jobs in UN peace operations are female managers, bilingual English-French speakers and those psychologically capable of performing effectively in a difficult environment where there is “no peace to keep” and a long list of tasks from the UN Security Council to shape something resembling peace.
Almost every deployment of an international civilian to a peace operation is being filled from rosters of candidates who have been vetted through a competitive process carried out intensively by the Field Support Division of the UN’s Department of Field Support over the past few years. Rosters will be added and refreshed occasionally, so applicants from outside the UN who have missed the latest round can still submit profiles and sign up for alerts on the UN Careers site.
Among the objectives of the new recruitment system are greater parity between field and headquarters in mobility and career paths and a better ability to respond to crises.
Though most personnel on a peacekeeping mission consist of troops or police — more than 128,000 personnel are currently deployed — UN peace operations employ more civilians than all other multilateral organizations combined, with some 10,000 international staff posts and 18,000 nationals hired locally for 16 peacekeeping operations and 13 political missions worldwide.
A peacekeeping operation can resemble a self-sustaining universe, drawing staff from 24 “occupational groups.” Of the 70 vacancies currently listed for field missions on www.uncareers.org, job categories run the gamut from political affairs to aviation. Jobs are classified as Directors (D), or management posts; Professional (P), requiring a university degree and some work experience; and Field Service (FS), largely technical or administrative positions.
But starting this year, as the UN has been reaching out globally for applicants, more competition will be coming from inside the UN system. The staff mobility policy approved by the General Assembly in 2014 went live in January and requires headquarters professionals to spend at least two years in another country in order to be promoted. This can create musical chairs for desirable posts.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked staff members to “share the burden” of service in hardship stations and will reward those who opt for such posts with only a one-year requirement on the ground.
The kinks are being worked out to marry both systems: “Rapid deployment,” for example, has eluded peacekeeping for years. Recently, it has taken six to 12 months from the posting of a vacancy for a candidate to be rostered. Ban told the Security Council last September that it took another six months to actually deploy selected staff (the target is actually 28 days).
The attraction of peace operations work includes decent pay, set to a high civil-service standard, with a hardship allowance and danger pay that increases with the level of insecurity — $1,600 a month in Somalia, for example — for a total pay package of around $130,000 a year for an international professional working there.
Vacation time also expands with hardship. Most peacekeeping missions are nonfamily duty stations, and at the least-secure locations, international staff members get one or two weeks off for every four weeks they work on the ground.
UN recruiters are hoping this schedule and the education grant that subsidizes offspring of staff members to attend private schools and universities will be particularly attractive to women. So few women work in peace operations that a special “senior talent” track offers support to promising candidates through the recruitment process and helps them stay in the system.
Gisele Bekoni, a Cameroonian, says her work for the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan, is not about the money: “It’s the desire to help people from my continent. . . . And despite losing quality time with our families, we are gaining capacities for project implementation that we can transfer back to our home countries and even help us to start businesses.”
It was not so long ago that landing a job in UN peacekeeping from outside the UN could be a byzantine exercise, seemingly penetrated by knowing someone or by showing up with the right skills at the right time. Missions used to seek “area” expertise — knowledge of the specific culture or conflict — but that is no longer required, let alone easily acquirable in today’s restricted peacekeeping environments. Immersion in the local culture has on some missions become another victim to deteriorating security.
The UN International Civil Service Commission ranks field-duty stations from A to E with levels of hardship based on factors like health, security, climate, housing and isolation. E sites include Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Central African Republic, parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur and South Sudan. Most of the international staff of the UN mission in Libya, also E, were moved to Tunisia in 2014 for better security.
But hardship and danger are not necessarily the same thing, and peacekeeping fatalities have actually declined over the past 20 years, spiking unusually since 2013 after attacks on the UN in northern Mali (E), “the most demanding and bloodiest operation in the organization’s global portfolio,” as reported by PassBlue. (Five peacekeepers from Chad were killed on May 19, for example, near the UN base in Kidal, with a wounded Chadian peacekeeper dying soon after.)
Gabrielle Kluck, an ex-UN ombudsperson for the Sudan region, described hardship to thepeacebuildingpodcast.com: “It’s such a high-pressure cooker to live in a compound with movement restrictions, food restrictions, illness, issues with water and housing, without family and friends, your structure completely changed. You have to make do with people from all over the world and then your beneficiaries have been or are surviving war. . . . ” Add to this “dealing with a bureaucracy that can take the soul out of what people are doing,” which is, she says, “trying to bring peace out in the world.”
It is so difficult to find people for some hardship posts that standards for some candidates can be lower than ideal, some UN officials say, and even the rosters may fail: at its start, the peacekeeping mission in Mali (Minusma) was unable to find a political affairs officer among 500 rostered candidates who was bilingual (French is the main language in Mali) and willing to work in the most restrictive part of the country. (Almost three years later, nearly 90 percent of the mission’s posts have been filled.)
Overall, vacancy rates in peace operations have been falling for the past five years, although the youngest peacekeeping operation, Minusca in the Central African Republic, had only 68 percent of its posts filled two years after the mission’s original authorization.
UN field recruiters are trying to determine which candidates have the resilience to handle such restricted lives as part of the assessment process and are offering counseling to support them in situ. Staff-welfare offerings are expanding beyond the traditional gym and bar. Employees have even started churches, yoga classes and gardens in the places where they are based. Pregnancies and marriages are not uncommon.
Depending upon the security situation in a given place, a staff member may live in a a large house in the middle of town or in a bathroom-less container in the same sealed compound as the office.
“My day is nonstop, 24-hour forced intimacy madness, with a mostly convivial mix of action-oriented intellectuals working toward a common objective, fervently and thoughtfully debating every political move. . . . ,” a UN employee wrote from Afghanistan. “The work is stressful, but it’s a good stress.”
Yet young people these days are not particularly interested in peacekeeping — whether this is because of difficult conditions or the reputation-damaging issues faced by UN peacekeeping in recent years is not clear. Twenty years ago, the UN’s current field mission recruitment chief, Kristina Koch, practically leaped from graduation at Johns Hopkins School of International Relations to a peacekeeping post as a human-rights officer in Bosnia. Now, when she visits her alma mater to plug for peacekeeping, she is met with indifference.
“Kids now don’t aspire to a life of adventure in a conflict zone,” she said.
Few college graduates who succeed in the Young Professionals Program competitive exam, which can lead to lifetime employment with the UN, opt for peacekeeping missions. A more organic path into field professional jobs has become the UN Volunteer program. These volunteers spend a few years getting by on subsistence pay doing a wide range of mission tasks, enabling them to enter the UN’s professional workforce as proven and well aware of the joys and difficulties of operating in the field.
Nationals of the country hosting a UN peace operation handle a large part of the peacekeeping work, from cleaning to running humanitarian projects. National Professional Officers, with university degrees and relevant experience, have also worked their way to international staff posts elsewhere in the UN system.
When it was not necessarily a good career move — as it didn’t guarantee any future in the UN system — deployment to a peace operation could lead to one of the most dramatic chapters in one’s life. Staff members enjoyed an independence, responsibility and creativity foreign to working in large headquarters, back in New York or in Geneva, say. Risks aside, the sense of adventure and meaningful work with people recovering from conflict was something unique to peacekeeping. Some of this element may have been compromised by the move toward a global civil service, especially for those cloistered in insecure zones.
“Sharing the burden,” Ban Ki-moon’s promotional language for encouraging staff to work in the field, is not exactly an inspirational mantra.
Indeed, the complex dangers of today’s conflicts will not turn around anytime soon. If Syria, Yemen or Libya stabilize enough to host peacekeepers, they don’t promise to be less volatile. Meanwhile, missions in Haiti, Ivory Coast and Liberia are downsizing or closing, mostly because UN civilians helped to bring the people of those countries a measure of stability and peace.
And that’s something to put on the CV.