Monday, November 8, 2010

How to land a HRI job and survive savage attacks on the industry

Despite spending more than half of my life in "geographically intriguing and historically fascinating" locations (euphemism for "shitholes"), I have retained a strong desire for recognition and acceptance in more conventional, home-based circles and for these reasons I maintain subscriptions to several high-brow publications that reach me regularly through complicated and expensive systems involving document delivery companies and forwarding rules at HRI's various "administrative centers"
Sure, these days I could easily have these publications delivered on my standard issue I-pad, but that would deprive me for one of the most important uses of high brow magazines: conspicious reading in planes, generating thoughts of "cultured, thoughtful individual, in spite of rough life in hardship postings" in nearby passengers. With an I-pad I would just be another aging hipster on a plane.

It is all about the image in this business.

Think about it: sooner or later in most jobs, there comes a point where the results of your work are more or less visible, for everyone to see. Not in this business, though, and not at HRI, where success is defined in "burn rates", "leadership of past complex projects involving cross-sectoral cooperation" and "commitment to capacity building" often defined by the statement that someone's "local assistant" was "exposed to learning opportunities". Short of an unlikely scandal, feud or fall-out with the wrong guy there are few tell-tale signs to give away the good candidate from the bad one.

But then it doesn't really matter, as the new job will be all about "strong leadership of dynamic team" and "delivering against indicators", which is another way of saying print t-shirts and organize workshops with people paid to attend and not likely inclined to rock any boats.

Which leaves an important question open: as an employer, how does HRI decide who gets what job, when going through thousands and thousands of applications?

First of course, there is the degree. You gotta have the right degree, otherwise any HRI employer will understandably feel nervous about allowing a young and unexperienced "westerner" to lead a team of "locals" many of which have 10-15 years hard-core experience (known in HRI interview jargon as a "diverse team"). This degree must also be from a "reputable institution", which not only ensures a comfortable intellectual inbreeding so necessary to a business that has been implementing the same strategies for decades with no significant results (except vast collections of "lessons learned" and many, many 300-words success stories), but it also keeps present and future decision-making among the ones for whom such degree at reputable institutions is within reach for solid reasons mostly involving the accident of birth. This fact has naturally generated further growth in expensive degrees offered by some of the worlds leading institutions, in "poverty alleviation" and "aid and development" and if you will take one single advice from me, here it is: fucking get one, whatever it costs.

Then there is the experience. You can't run a "complex project" without "significant experience" can you? Which creates an excellent opportunity for well-educated young people with some resources to their name and some time to spare, to bob about for a year or two, in "Africa", gaining the necessary experience to land them the dream HRI job in the future.[**] During this time they learn all the good habits from their supervisors, ensuring what we like to call "continuity of ideas".

These two criteria alone will ensure a vigorous initial selection and the reduction of applications from thousands to merely tenth, most of them solid-looking candidates of familiar socio-economic backgrounds. But then what? Now comes the point where the instincts of the interviewer and their extensive network of contacts kick in to ensure the ultimate success of the recruitment:

"You were in sudan, were you? have you met my friend Pat from OCHA?" or
"You're into livelihoods, what do you think of Margaret from FAO HQ?

Their responses to these hard questions should pretty much clarify what they're made of and how effective they were in their previous jobs in meeting the right people - another undisputed sign of success.

What you do next is you ask them about how they will "lead and inspire" their team. The successful candidate will speak with humility about how important it is to "listen and learn" - a theoretical concept learned during their "povery allleviation" degree - after which they will hopefully drop an anecdote or two about how they learned a few words in Lingala during their previous posting, an objective, telling achievement.

Finally, it really helps if their references are from people i know personally, so i can call them up and be like "really between you and me how is this guy" - the ultimate test.

And so, reader, have we built the cutting-edge organization that we are today, on the shoulders and commitment of our excellent employees that have taken us all the way to the top of the industry.

Which brings me back to the high-brow  literature i mentioned. Just recently in a plane, i happened to sit next to the representative of an HRI competitor partner in the Emirates business class headed for Nairobi. She started talking about some article, which i haven't personally read but according to her was a savage and entirely unjustified attack on our whole industry. I couldn't but agree of course and we continued our conversation over vodka tonics at the Northfolk (which will surely lead to closer partnership among our organizations).

In this business you must develop a hard skin and live with the fact that that's what you get for sacrificing yourself for the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable. Rabid critiques from high-brow magazines (how would they cope with all the hardship?) is just one small extra adversity we have to put up with in this hard but spiritually rewarding job.

[**] the ultimate trump in "past experience" if of course experience with that or the other donor, a detail that may just help propel you all the way to the final step of the recruitment process).


  1. No Kurtz - don't do what Anonymous said - instead, please fuck ME. You are amazing and the only one that really understands. That last comment must have been written by the same self-righteous journalist (Polman or whatever) ...always so easy to judge - but who has the guts to stand before the jury and say "yes you motherfuckers, I did it and you better believe we all suck at this together and equally".

    This blog is the best literature there is today - it is pure poetry.

  2. Dr Kurtz,

    Is there any chance you might set up some cult/religion thingy. Many willing followers here in Central Africa waiting for an appearance from the Messiah of Development, Dr Kurtz.

    Reading your blog is like coming up for air.

    Stay classy.

  3. I second the second Anonymous. Like coming up for air.

  4. Oh Dear. I think Emma found the HRI blog. My guess is she'll probably retaliate by screwing with the dial-an-indicator macro in your logframe folder on the HRI file.

  5. Yes, come visit your disciples in Kabul too please! We'll find you a room and a gin and tonic to make you know you are in hardship. Just discovered your blog but already ready to join the cult.

    Confucius says: it is always better to fuck a friend than be Anonymous.

  6. the good doctor seems to have quite a following. including here in southern sudan. now that i'm thinking about it, i probably know the good doctor. i may have also fucked him, after a few too many drinks.