The challenges and rewards of a career as a Program Officer

Fernando Soares, Head Program Officer for Mercy Corps Scotland. Photo: Craig Alness for Mercy Corps

My name is Angus Millar and I volunteer at the Edinburgh headquarters of Mercy Corps for two hours every week. To get a better understanding of the agency, I have decided to interview various staff members here. I hope to gain insight and find out what motivates them in the work they do, as well as share those findings with Mercy Corps supporters.

Prior to coming to Edinburgh to work for Mercy Corps six years ago, Fernando Soares worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for eight years. He describes coming to work for the organisation as a culture shock — not having fully appreciated the differences between the two agencies — but clearly settled into the new position quickly, becoming Head Program Officer about a year after the move.

Fernando described the role of his team in the organization, managing the various Program Officers, who are each responsible for a geographic portfolio of programs that they support from here at the Edinburgh headquarters. The role also entails reasonably frequent trips out to the field, and staff tend to rotate between headquarters and field positions every few years.

I was excited to meet Fernando — not just because I coveted his job — but because he seemed like an interesting and engaging character who I felt might be able to tell me a lot about the mechanics of the organisation.

I first asked Fernando about how Mercy Corps, in general, worked with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I was interested to find out what level of co-operation there was, given that development and humanitarian organizations often have common interests in particular areas in terms of what they are aiming to achieve:

“There are lots of joint projects and that is on the increase. I think it makes a lot of sense because we are a very diverse community with lots of different capabilities and experience and we do achieve more impact when we work together, also making sure that we can speak to the best possible extent as one strong voice on behalf of the communities we serve.”

Fernando’s argument is one of practicality — in the field, where NGOs’ interests are often the same — it would seem a good idea to share resources and information, to cooperate with one another in order to achieve common goals. But this is in stark contrast to the apparent funding battle, with international NGOs vying for financial support for their projects — which, presumably are generally of equal merit and value.

I asked Fernando about the difficulties surrounding funding, and he echoed the comments of a number of others I had spoken to during my time volunteering at Mercy Corps:

“One of the constraints that we have with Mercy Corps is that we are largely a grantee organization; 95 percent of the revenue that we get is earmarked for very, very specific activities and most of the funding mechanisms are very inflexible. If we had greater and less restricted income we could then say ‘This is the program that does the most, this is the kind of project that makes the most sense,' and — even if donor governments don’t agree with this view — you don’t then have to spend years advocating to these donors until the penny drops. You can go ahead and do what you think is most needed and then engage in evidence-based advocacy to influence donor behavior.”

The current situation means that Mercy Corps sometimes finds it difficult to start new projects up quickly, meaning that often the impact upon the beneficiary community is delayed, or may never materialise due to a lack of guaranteed funding. Furthermore, it hinders the organisation’s ability to be proactive. The danger is that the requirement of the agency to guarantee separate funding for specific programs might force it to act on a reactionary basis, responding to direct need rather than fostering general sustainable development.

Indeed, this is the organisation’s fundamental aim. When I spoke to John Cunningham — Mercy Corps Scotland's Director of Corporate Development and Fundraising — I gained a better understanding of Mercy Corps’s goal to support communities in their development rather than just providing aid. I talked to Fernando about the role of the communities at the heart of Mercy Corps programmes:

“The communities that we work with have to be more than just beneficiaries of the aid. They are the ones who can promote their own development. We are just there to facilitate that. But I would say that every beneficiary of Mercy Corps should be engaged in every possible way throughout the entire process of assessing needs, designing an intervention, delivering that and then evaluating results what the next steps should be’”

Finally, I wanted to know what Fernando’s advice would be to a young person such as myself looking to get involved with the international development sector. The area is highly competitive, with jobs at NGOs being seen as ‘trendy,' as Fernando puts it.

Indeed, Fernando tells me that upon advertising for a Program Officer position he never gets any less than 400 applications for one post. Therefore, it follows that those looking to go into this area of work will have to be the best of the best.

Fernando first tells me that being highly qualified is a must and that any serious applicant to a job in the development sector should have a Master's degree in a relevant subject. In the highly competitive jobs market, having the right qualifications is essential — without them, resumes will not even get a second glance.

Fernando also told me that language skills are highly useful in an area where there is very much an international focus. Again, no surprises. But the thing which he stressed the most, the most essential quality was that you “get on a plane, go and see the people, go and see what it’s all about, understand the context” of international development. Indeed, having a degree in theories of developmental studies may be necessary for consideration in this field of work, but practical experience on the field is even more vital.

Voluntary work on development programs or projects of a similar nature have — says Fernando — become the norm for those seeking to enter employment in the third sector. A fantastic experience, undoubtedly, and one that will surely provide you with the best insight into development work.

But with the sometimes astronomical cost of volunteering abroad, and the expenses naturally incurred by travelling in the most socially remote areas of the planet, is development work becoming increasingly exclusive?

Personally, I do find the potential costs associated with such experiences extreme. But I feel the benefits of working in such a rewarding and engaging sector would surely far outweigh any concerns. International development is an area which is competitive for a reason. Its allure is not just the interesting nature of the work it does, but the perception that those who work in it leave the office at the end of the day feeling a great sense of achievement, something which few can attest to.