Terri M.

Humanitarian Adviser
Happy to mentor
Happy to be contacted

About me

Terri M.
English Literature and History
United Kingdom

My employment

Humanitarian Adviser
Medecins sans Frontiers
United Kingdom
Large business (250+ employees)

More about Terri

Low Income Household

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A day in the life of a Humanitarian Adviser in the United Kingdom

Humanitarian Adviser for Médecins Sans Frontiers

How I looked for work

My 'foot on the ladder job' was as an administrator and database manager with a UK based charity, sidestepping after a year to a similar role in a smaller office with a wider range of responsibilities that then led to an overseas role after completing a Masters in International Peace and Security at Kings College London. Good websites are Reliefweb and BOND. There are generally many internal opportunities in International Humanitarian NGOs, especially since field work has a high turnover, so staying in touch with desk and pool managers in Head Quarters to preview upcoming roles is very useful. Enrolling on rosters internally and with other organisations that use them is also key (can provide a list if asked).

The recruitment process

This role was recruited internally and was new and I was invited to apply after presenting in an internal operational conference while I was in a different role. The process this time was an interview based on the JD and as an 'over preparer' I gave a short presentation on some key challenging issues for the organisation that I was prepared to take the lead on, with some ideas about how using my experience both inside and outside of the organisation.

My career goals when I graduated

To work for up to 5 years in International NGOs in conflict zones, specialising in humanitarian assistance in challenging environments, then moving to a donor agency or policy think tank.

My career history

Starting with administrative and management roles in NGO HQs in the UK while studying for a masters in London, including grant management and presentation to donors responsibilities then moving into similar roles in country offices in Afghanistan and Sudan with GOAL, with internal promotion to project and programme management positions. Moved to MSF in 2007, took on a variety of roles in different contexts from conflict to emergency HIV/TB, from Field Coordinator to Head of Mission and Country Representative in places like Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Turkey and Syria. Moved out of direct operations and programme management into representation and advocacy for MSF in Turkey, developing the skills the network, to be able to then transition to be a consultant Humanitarian Adviser for the Department of International Development for Syria. The combination of this experience and long MSF experience brought be back to the current Adviser role for MSF in Barcelona.

What has helped my career to progress

Saying 'yes' to offers in the first few years and keeping an open mind rather than anticipating a very quick direct career progression or working in the 'perfect' context. I had brilliant and patient mentors in the first few years to remind me that being 'clever' or 'right' wasn't enough to keep a team together and moving in the right direction!

I was also willing to stay longer in specific contexts, using the context knowledge and networks that I had developed to become 'indispensable' in situations of high turn over, but also taking the time to develop and deploy other skills. Most of my internal promotions were within the same context as senior managers are more likely to give you a chance to learn and try new things if they are confident that you have a solid understanding of the context and security situation, and have developed good networks both internally and externally.

I deliberately remained longer than average in a Field Coordination/Programme Manager role, not only because it is the best and most 'proximate' role available with the best opportunities for impact and innovation, but also to be in a good position when I took on Head of Mission roles to be able to effectively manage coordination team members at the same time as absorbing new responsibilties.

Using this progression to eventually be more selective about the roles and contexts in order to better control my career development.

Courses taken since graduation

MSc International Peace and Security at Kings College London - well recognised course and department, provided network beyond that of the usual development and humanitarian realm and helped me to really be able to understand the dynamics of the conflict zones and conflict actors that are an integral part of my work.

Various Hostile Environment Awareness, Security and Critical Incident Management trainings (provided by employers or self sponsored with RedR) - useful for 'live action' role playing and testing responses in a safe environment, as well as great networking.

Languages! French, Arabic and Spanish basics are really useful and even conversational French is a good basis for work in some environments.

Project Management Cycle and similar courses - always useful even when systems are slightly different from organisation to organisation, the basics are the same.

How my studies have helped my career

Studying the combined History and Literature course at York was a brilliant foundation and sparked a curiosity in systems, people and cultures, and the processes of societal change, as well as introducing me to the frameworks with which to understand them. The importance of asking as many questions as possible, even in limited time and with limited information, is invaluable in environments where the consequences of poor assumptions can be significant.

The MSc in International Peace and Security brought my studies firmly into the present with the study of the conduct and consequences of contemporary conflict, and for which I was very well prepared already by my experience at York. Being able to both engage with civil society and conflict stakeholders with confidence has been really invaluable, as has the understanding that many stakeholders have a part to play.

What surprised me about my career so far

The range and scale of responsibilities that can be undertaken quite quickly by those who wish to put themselves in the position, and how rewarding it can be when you in turn extend that trust to your team and are willing to learn from them.

That I waited 10 years before moving out of operational roles, and how naiive I was at 24 to think that it could or should be otherwise!

That it is not easy to find roles in the UK outside of London due to the concentration of INGO HQs in the capital...

Where I hope to be in 5 years

I intend to return to study, transitioning slightly into the subjects of equality and exclusion from a current and historical perspective with a view to supporting a combined international and UK focused career in the future.

My advice to students considering work

Keep an open mind and say yes to opportunities that might not seem immediately perfect but will help you develop transferable skills and confidence.

My advice about working in my industry

Hone your language and IT skills and keep on top of the latter even if it doesn't seem immediately relevant, especially data presentation and analysis.

If you are willing and able to work in a second language, do it as early as you can in your career and when the stakes are less high. It is easier to make language mistakes when you're working with a local team willing to help you with any mistakes and practice than when you are a Head of Mission trying to negotiate with fighters or the Minister for Health!

Don't underestimate the 'unplanned' opportunities in roles that don't seem immediately relevant or lucrative. Not every step has to be a big leap forward and don't be afraid to stay in a role that you're enjoying so that you can use the flexibility and confidence you have to then learn and develop new skills under less pressure. In this industry you will tend to achieve a high level of responsibility quite quickly so take your time as and when you can, and look for opportunities to take side steps every now and again and take some restorative time back in your comfort zone.

Remember, if you're in an international role or a series of them, to keep an eye on what and who is important at home or wherever your centre of gravity is. Make sure that you are well informed about all administrative arrangements that you need to stay on top of as your employer might not necessarily do it (monthly minimum in UK bank accounts, voluntary national insurance payments, making sure you're on the electoral role etc). It is easy to slip from being an 'expat' to an 'administrative exile'!

Networking is invaluable and make the effort to keep it alive.

Above all, listen to your local team and deliberately focus on accountability to them and the population. If you're spending more than 50% of your time in your office responding to internal organisation demands then work with your manager to change that balance.

Contacting me

Happy to answer questions on any aspect of work in the humanitarian field, including support with networking and signposting, interview and CV prep etc.

What I do

Provide humanitarian advice to operational desk managers and Heads of Mission with direct sparring, positioning, programme review and recommendations for adaptive, conflict sensitive programming.

Conduct short field visits to provide direct support to teams, perform critical incident reviews, liaise with key national and local stakeholders.

Provide training, mentoring and advocacy and operational support to mission coordination teams, with pre and post mission briefing and debriefings and in missions follow up.

Conduct research and positioning on key transversal themes such as Protection, post World Humanitarian Summit developments, medical humanitarian action in detention and closed settings. Can be anything from one page of talking points with one hour's notice, to a 20,000 word analysis with ops recommendations and an advocacy plan.

Collaborate with Humanitarian Advisers in other operational centres in Amsterdam, Brussels and Geneva on transversal humanitarian themes, Human Resources and training and context specific issues

Skills I use and how I developed them

Key skill for this role is operational analysis and presentation for a wide range of audiences, often having to try to distill very complex situations into a succinct 'gobbet' with concrete operational follow up and advice. At the core of this are the critical thinking and communication skills acquired during the study of History and English Literature at York.

Other key skills are management and coordination, developed on the job, starting in administrative roles in order to understand the basics and acquire the knowledge necessary to be able to support and train junior team members in future, gradually gaining more responsibility in project management and coordination.

What I like most

Working with cross cultural teams, local communities and actors in order to find the best way to build on their existing capacities.

Supporting teams to be able to anticipate crises and their consequences for populations in conflict and other emergency conditions and mentoring through the key questions and options that they have to be able to provide critical support.

Working with colleagues from other organisations, government and non governmental institutions to analysis and prioritise responses in a crisis situation.

What I like least

Situations that require a power point presentation!

The changing humanitarian landscape which is reducing space for principled humanitarian action and exposing team members and populations to danger.

Email culture.... Frequent flying...

What surprised me most

The transferability and importance of basic team management skills, albeit in much more intense environments.

Next steps...

If you like the look of Terri’s profile, the next steps are down to you! You can send Terri a message to find out more about their career journey. If you feel you would benefit from more in-depth conversations, ask Terri to be your mentor.

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