Interview – Lorina McAdam, former Country Director, Mercy Corps
Lorina McAdam started out in development working for the Lao Government, and has since worked for a wide range of relief and development organizations including the UNDP, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and her most recent role as Country Director for Mercy Corps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I caught up with her as she was winding up an appointment at the University of Oregon as a development Practitioner in Residence.
Nick: How did you get into this line of work?
Lorina: I was an undergraduate studying development, and I was very interested in the Mekong region, and I was preparing a paper at a workshop. I happened to meet someone that night who was working with the UN in Laos, and after talking extensively he asked me whether I would be interested in working for him in Laos. I found out that it was a UN Volunteer position, which I knew nothing about, but basically I think they had to pull a lot of strings to get me the job in the end because I really didn’t have the qualifications or experience that they wanted – I think I was the youngest UNV ever at that point!
When I finished university I went backpacking, and went through Laos to check in and meet with some of the people, met with the UN and a few other groups, and met with some government representatives, and a few months later it all came together. It was a pretty lucky break for me, I was just in the right place at the right time, although I do think that having a specific interest helped.
Nick: How do you think the field has changed since then?
Lorina: I don’t think what happened to me happens as often as it used to. I think you can still get lucky, but you have to work hard at positioning yourself to get lucky. It seems to be harder, and more competitive to get that first job unless you have a really specific niche or you happen to meet the right people.
What I see people doing now is a lot of internships, either by applying for ones that exist or creating their own. You can create your own opportunities by doing your research – knowing what you’re interested in, knowing what other people are doing and where they might have gaps, and making yourself available to them and offering something specific.
Nick: Do you have any tips for job-seekers?
Lorina: Sometimes just going there is a useful way to approach it – I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve been attracted to a country and they know something about it and they just go – they base themselves there, they give themselves a few months to try it out and they go and join the softball team and the ultimate frisbee team and hang out with the right people in the right bars and often opportunities arise. It’s a lot about networking and legwork, at least for your first job – once your foot’s in the door it’s a bit easier to move around within the field. To be taken seriously the first time, to show that you’re serious and that you can handle the country and the position, sometimes it helps to actually be there. What that looks like in practice depends a lot on the country – I certainly wouldn’t advise it for an active war zone, or somewhere where there might not be much infrastructure, in terms of accommodation and transport, and if your security is at risk. Obviously you need to take care of your own security and you don’t want to make your security someone else’s responsibility, you could become a burden to the very people who you’re trying to help.
Depending on the country you probably could just pick up a Lonely Planet and go there, one approach I’ve seen is someone who had been doing a lot of research on the country and had been studying it and started writing to people – she got a list of NGOs from the UN and started writing to people systematically. Of the 20 or so emails she sent out maybe only 5 people replied, that was 5 people who now knew her, and she went and stayed in a hotel for a while, but after a couple of weeks one of these people offered to let her stay in their spare room. Having contacts on the ground is always useful, and the next step is to grow those contacts, having each of those five people introduce her to other people, slowly growing that network until eventually she found a job. Of course she also had a very good set of qualifications, but the fact is that someone who is sitting across the table from you is a lot more valuable than someone who is a piece of paper thousands of miles away.
You need to research the situation in the country, figure out how much it is going to cost to stay there, to eat, to get around, which organizations are working there, what they’re doing, and what positions they have open. If possible try to get any strategy papers that they might have written, try to predict areas where they might want to expand if they had more resources. If UN OCHA is there see if you can get hold of their contact list which will often give you a head-start in who is doing what where.
Also some of the local organizations are worth a look. Some of them are very open to taking on foreigners, it’s good exposure for them and the likelihood is that you might have skills that you can contribute. I had a lot of opportunities just because I was an English speaker and could write reports. Once you have experience with a local organization that can give you a lot of credibility with international organizations.
Nick: What kinds of qualifications do you think are most useful? Do you think a Masters’ degree is important these days?
Lorina: I think undergraduate degrees are pretty much obligatory nowadays. I don’t think the field matters very much – it comes down to what you want to do and what sort of work you envisage yourself doing. There’s definitely still a role for generalists who have a good understanding of development theory, but there are also a lot of roles for people with strong technical skills in medicine or engineering. I actually know someone in an international NGO who is very senior who never went to college, but I think that she was exceptional in terms of her personality and skills.
This is my personal opinion, but I think a post-grad makes more sense after you’ve got some experience, either as a way to take a break from the field and reflect, or to build skills that you realize you need. I actually did my masters while I was in Laos actually – I had a job that wasn’t very demanding and I was out of the office by four, so I studied in the evenings. I had a very general degree – I sometimes wish I was a little more specialized, I think it can help you to stand out, but I always encourage people to study what they’re most passionate about, not necessarily what they think will get them a job, because that’s what you’re going to be good at if you’re interested in it!