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Interview – Martin Penner – Web Editor at UN World Food Programme.

Martin Penner is the Web Editor for the United Nations World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian agency fighting global hunger. His work has taken him around the world, from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to Manila, Philippines. Most recently, he was reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting has displaced thousands. Click to see the video which Martin produced, to get an idea of the challenges facing field operators in the DRC. Martin’s job is to help make these ground realities resonate with WFP’s online community, ultimately helping wide audiences understand the challenges and possibilities of solving hunger.

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Nick: What is your background, and what got you interested in working in the humanitarian field?

Martin: I studied languages at university and that in itself got me interested in travel and different cultures. After university I worked for a few months in Sudan, as part of a development programme aimed at improving education in schools. I liked it, but felt I didn’t really have enough experience of life at that point to take this kind of work further. And in any case, I was set on a journalistic career. So I worked as a journalist for 15 years, in the UK, and then in Italy. I had a wonderful time and often focused on social issues in my reporting. After my experience in Sudan and with my interest in social problems, it was only a short mental step to find myself thinking about the humanitarian sector. I suppose having kids also made me think more broadly about the world too. Anyway, it soon became apparent that I could use the skills I had learned in journalism and apply them usefully by getting involved in communications for a humanitarian organization. Surprisingly quickly, an opportunity appeared at the World Food Programme, and so I jumped.

Nick: What is your current role at WFP?

Martin: My job title is web editor, which covers a broad range of responsibilities connected to WFP’s online communications. Basically, it’s my job to ensure that we are saying what we want to say on all of our web platforms and that we’re saying it in the best way for that platform. It means I have to produce some content myself – stories, photo galleries, tweets, for example. But more importantly I have to coordinate the creation of content by the other people in my organization. This means making it clear what we need and then helping people shape the raw material they gather in the best way possible. And then making sure the content goes onto the platforms where it can work best. Most of my days are spent sifting through potential content, or ideas for content, commissioning material and talking to people in the organization who have web needs but are not sure about the best approach to take.

Nick: How did you get your first job in this field?

Martin: I guess my first job was the one I did briefly in Sudan, straight after university. I was a volunteer really, and didn’t get paid very much – just enough to cover expenses. I got that opportunity simply by applying to a British volunteer organization involved in development. On the basis of a test and an interview, they gave me a chance. I think that was the crucial first step both mentally and in terms of my CV. It was a clear experience that I had had and so in my own mind, and probably in the mind of prospective employers, I had already taken the first step. I had shown a certain commitment. Later, when I was working in journalism, I had professional contact with UN agencies and NGOs. And some people working in the humanitarian field were personal friends who had moved into it from journalism. So I had an informal network of people who could keep me abreast of job openings.And it was one of these friends that gave me a heads-up when WFP were looking for a short-term Public Information officer in Rome. That means someone who deals with the media, acts as a spokesperson and generally provides information about the organization and the work it does. So I arranged a meeting with the head of Communications and explained what my background was, adding that I was interested in moving into the humanitarian sphere. If you’re going to be a PI Officer, it’s clearly a great advantage having journalism experience: you know instinctively what they need! Anyway, I got a call shortly after and I worked for 6 months as a freelancer. During that time it became clear that I enjoyed working with WFP and vice versa, so when a regular job came up I put myself forward and got it.

Nick: What other advice do you have for anyone looking to get into this field?

Martin: I think the most important thing is to get some real experience in another field first. For me it was journalism. Once you’ve been in the world, doing something well for a number of years, then you have something to offer. UN organisations and NGOs need all sorts of people with all sorts of skills. And if you come from outside you bring a lot of valuable experience and knowledge with you. So I guess my advice is to do something else first, perhaps something that has clearly transferable skills. Or if you have already worked in some field or other for several years, then think carefully about what skills you have and where they could be useful.Then just present yourself. Talk to people in the field and get a clearer idea of where your experience could make a difference.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 1:47 pm

    Good stuff!
    Thanks Nick and Martin.

  2. dabesa permalink
    December 6, 2012 1:49 pm

    Hi guys,
    Being an IT professional with 12 years of experience, can you advise any humanitarian organization looking for this kind of expertise?
    Journalism sounds much more interesting, but in any place where an Internet infrastructure is required needs people like me!

    Thanks

  3. December 6, 2012 2:03 pm

    Hi Dabesa –
    I’m going to ask around some of my IT colleagues, but it depends a little on what you want to do. All large organizations employ IT staff to manage their infrastructure, and in general they are looking for all the same qualifications any other organization is. There are other kinds of jobs however that focus on field deployment of IT solutions, including remote satelite phone and internet, VOIP etc, and support to field offices. This kind of job clearly calls for experience working in those kinds of locations, and willingness to travel, but people often seem to transition to the latter from the former.
    The third category is the ‘IT as development program’ type of person, looking to do things like deploy technology to the developing world. I would check out Wayan Vota (http://wayan.com/about-wayan-vota.html) who is my goto guy for all things IT and dev.
    Nick

    • dabesa permalink
      December 6, 2012 2:07 pm

      Thanks a lot Nick!
      I think I’m more appropriate for the field deployment of IT solutions.
      I’ve worked with the biggest mobile operators and service providers around for an American producer of networking equipment.
      I know those companies don’t even sell in most of the developing countries.
      But still – they do need and have internet! So there must be people working on those projects, right?🙂

      Many thanks, I’ll check Wayan Vota.

      • December 12, 2012 10:32 am

        Dear Raju,
        I’m afraid that your situation is a little outside of my area of expertise. I would suggest however, that most of the advice I give in general would be applicable to you. You need to work out what your transferable skills are, and how to relate them to jobs you are interested in. The UN is a huge family of large organizations, many of which are present in Nepal. You should definitely begin by networking in those circles, getting informational interviews with people who work for the kinds of organizations that you are interested in.
        Good luck, let us know how you do!
        Nick

  4. Moises Valencia permalink
    January 31, 2016 9:07 am

    Hi … I’m a chef and I’m 39. I feed the homeless every night at closing time at my restaurant; but now I feel the need to get out in the world and help. Any advice on how to go on with it ?

    • January 31, 2016 8:23 pm

      Hi Moises, in fact I have a blog with a lot of advice on this – perhaps you had a more specific question? Thanks! Nick

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