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What about the military experience on my resume?

I get the question of how to translate military service into success in the humanitarian sector quite a lot, so here are my thoughts on how best to do this. But first, a bit of history…

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Modern humanitarianism traces its roots to the battlefields of Solferino in 1859, where a businessman named Henri Dunant’s horror at the suffering caused by war set in motion of chain of events that would result in the founding of what became the Red Cross movement. One of the values that the Red Cross holds very dearly, and which has subsequently become part of the DNA of many western relief and development agencies, is the idea that in order to operate effectively, humanitarian agencies that operate in conflict ridden areas promote and defend their independence from belligerent parties fiercely, and bristle at any suggestion that they may be captive to, or allied with a military force. Their staff are often deeply suspicious of military personnel, sometimes perceiving military action in the country in which they operate as a source of suffering and privation of the populations they serve. There can also be a tendency for INGOs to attract staff with a left-of-centre political leaning, many of whom are philosophically suspicious of the organized application of violence that military groups provide, and of the motivations of those who serve in them.

Both these historical and cultural factors can lead INGO staffers, perhaps especially (but by no means exclusively) those from the european medical traditions (MSF, MDM etc) to harbor ideological or practical objections to cooperation with military groups. This will sometimes extend to an overt or subliminal distrust for people who have served in militaries. Rightly or wrongly (and not exclusively – I am talking in very broad brush-strokes here) INGO staffers can perceive former members of the armed forces as:

  • overly hierarchical, and unable to function in a free-wheeling entrepreneurial organizational culture,
  • dependent on command models of leadership,
  • having a view of security that stems from force-protection models rather than community-acceptance and risk-reduction,
  • being un-creative and waiting for orders before acting,
  • being blood-thirsty war-mongers.

I present this disgraceful laundry list of prejudices not to dignify it, but to bring into the open some of the attitudes that you might encounter. I want to reiterate that not all of the tree-hugging patchouli-oil-scented commune-dwellers that make up the INGO community* hold these views, but some do. You should be prepared to encounter these kinds of prejudices, and as part of your interview prep have some responses to educate and reassure people who may have very little real idea of what service in a modern military is like.

Now, if you’ve served in the military, it’s likely that you feel that you have picked up some skills that you feel might be helpful to anyone operating a complex and urgent enterprise in a challenging and under-resourced environment. You’ll want to figure out the best way to explain these skills to an NGO hiring manager. My advice is simple:

Throw away your military resume. Begin from scratch, describing, in plain language, what sort of skills you have and achievements you are proud of that will translate well to someone utterly unfamiliar with the military. Don’t assume that the person reading your resume will know:

  • what the rank you achieved means, or even where on the ladder it lies,
  • how many people there are in a company, or division, or whatever it is you commanded,
  • what an AQD or an E8 is,
  • why you think they should know you are rated to repair a particular type of vehicle, or operate a particular type of weapon,
  • what sort of skills a ‘surface warfare officer’ might have been expected to pick up on the job.
Emphasize your flexible problem solving, leadership, management, and logistics skills, and above all, avoid any kind of jargon. Have someone with no military experience look it over to tell you which parts are jargon – it’s likely that you missed some.
Be prepared to address head-on the issue of how you reconcile the ethical issues of violence and warfare with humanitarian practice. For a primer on some of the issues that might come up in a conversation like this check out Mary Anderson’s ‘Do No Harm’, in particular the chapter on implicit ethical messages.
You might want to avoid mentioning anything you did that you think might be controversial in an interview. For example, I once interviewed someone who had spent his recent time in the military conducting ‘information debriefs’ with ‘persons of interest’. When I asked him outright whether this involved holding someone’s head in a bucket of water, he blanched, and muttered something about ‘not exactly’, but was squeamish about precisely what it was that he did. If you’re not prepared, or allowed, to explain it in detail, leave it out.
So – the bottom line?
  • I think there are a lot of useful skills that people can pick up in the military,
  • some (but to be honest, not that many) of the most effective humanitarian practitioners that I know have served in the armed forces in the past,
  • there are a lot of misunderstandings, and a general lack of knowledge about how modern militaries work in humanitarian organizations,
  • there is a huge cultural, philosophical, and practical gulf between the two types of organization that you need to be prepared to address and navigate head on.

Good luck!

—-

Q. “I’m struggling to get my foot in the door, I served 5 years in the armed forces with one tour of Iraq, I’m trained as a combat medic and conflict manger and I speak Arabic. I still can’t find anyone hiring security details or coordinators or the opportunity to offer my services free. Any advice would be good.
A. OK – this isn’t an uncommon situation. First of all, the good news – you have some great transferable skills, including Arabic language, which is huge. I suspect your problem is that you don’t ‘speak INGO’. The fact that you mention that you’re looking for people hiring ‘security details’ makes me think you need to do some homework on how INGOs manage and think about their security. While your Iraq experience is valuable, INGO hiring managers will be worried that you might bring a military perspective to security to the table, not understanding the values and approaches that INGOs take.
I would recommend:
1. Read the Humanitarian Practice Network Network Paper Good Practice Review 8 (sometimes cryptically called the ‘GPR8’) – it’s available free on the HPN site, but you should buy a hard copy.
2. Check out REDR (http://www.redr.org.uk/) and become certified through their security management courses. INGO hiring managers treat this a a good yard stick of fluency in best practices in NGO security, and it’s a good networking opportunity.
3. People in Aid (http://www.peopleinaid.org/) also has some great resources on their website.
4. Network. Get to know people in international agencies who manage security. Ask for informational interviews. Get out to the regional hubs where aid agencies work and meet country and regional staff. Network. Make yourself useful, offer to help out reviewing security plans, conducting training, translating Arabic documents etc.
Good luck!

* This is an ironic statement too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vicky permalink
    May 15, 2014 12:27 pm

    Hi Nick,

    First I would like to thank you for setting up this website – it is hands down the best source of information I’ve come across for getting into the humanitarian sector.

    I’m from the UK and am about to graduate with an undergraduate degree in International Politics. I want to go into humanitarian work eventually. I know I need to do a postgraduate degree, get experience under my belt, and preferably a couple of languages too.

    As it seems virtually impossible to graduate and get a paid position, and I don’t have the money to both volunteer and fund a postgraduate degree, I’ve recently started looking at joining the Royal Navy where I’d be able to train in something more technical such as engineering or medicine. My initial thoughts were that this would enable me to get technical skills (for free, too), as well as being able to travel the world (another of my many dreams that I’m trying to juggle altogether aha) and experience in harsher conditions than I would otherwise experience (although I’m aware that it won’t be the same/ viewed as being directly relevant to experience in humanitarian work. The Navy is also known as being more involved in humanitarian work than other branches of the military. All good stuff, I thought, Then I read this post!

    My question is this: would an organisation have the same qualms about my military experience if it was not in something that was (to put it bluntly) involved in violence? If I do go into the Navy I wouldn’t be involved in weaponry or launching attacks, etc. For example, if I had experience as a medical officer or an engineer would that help or hinder my chances, given that I gained it from being part of a military organisation?

    Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated!

    • May 15, 2014 7:38 pm

      Hi Vicky,
      Thanks for your question – let me take it in several parts:
      First – I would not encourage you to get a graduate degree straight after graduating – I think a graduate degree adds more value later in your career. Also, while languages help, I would focus on picking them up as you go if you don’t already speak them. You do, absolutely, need to get experience.
      Second – it is tough to graduate straight into a paid position. It’s certainly not impossible, but it is tough. On the money side, I would not suggest you try to volunteer while funding a graduate degree. My take is that volunteer experience overseas is worth more than a graduate degree in terms of getting your first job, and that you should be able to save the money to spend six months overseas relatively painlessly, at least compared to what a graduate degree is going to cost.
      Third – I don’t want to sound too negative about the military, I had the privilege of spending some time this week with a senior NGO leader who is doing a fantastic job and spent a considerable part of his career in the military. That said, I don’t think I would advise it as a good entry to humanitarian work. Frankly the technical skills that you pick up are probably under-valued in the humanitarian world, and I pretty certain that you’re unlikely to spend much time doing anything that is recognizable as humanitarian.
      I don’t think having served in the military is a big barrier to getting a job as an aid worker, and it can sometimes help, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an easy route into this kind of career. People do do it, it’s certainly possible, but it’s not that common.
      Good luck – let us know how you do,
      Nick

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