Hello Francesco, how did you end up in the Middle East, playing a substantial role in the Syrian emergency when you started with a fairly more common degree in Engineering?
I’ve always been passioned for International cooperation. Actually, I spent one year volunteering in Africa during the university and, after my graduation, I did an internship in Ethiopia with an Italian NGO. There I got my first contract and for two years I handled projects that dwelled with my engineer background: building schools, wells…
Step by step, as my experience broadened, I became more a manager than an engineer, for example by managing projects in the health field. In more than 10 years I’ve changed many organization and lived in Africa and Middle East, until I got my present job which focuses on the emergency in Syria.
What’s your role in this project?
The mission of the NGO I work for is to bring help to people in Syria. My main office is in Amman, Jordan, and from there I manage 4 different branches in 4 different countries that share borders with Syria. I supervise almost 200 people of different nationalities. For the most part are Arabs, from Syria.
We know you cannot give us the details of the project, but what’s the budget you handle?
10,000,000 euros, give or take.
Would you consider your career path as a standard in your sector?
Yes, I would. Usually you start from highly specialized roles to rise up to more complex managerial roles. Many are engineers, or doctors or economists, or they have a Bachelor degree in Social Studies, but whether 10 years ago a degree would have been sufficient, now you really need a Master to smooth your way to your first job. And you must be ready to go and live abroad, usually starting from “easier” countries and after 2/3 years your chances to stay in this field increase a lot. Some positions open up almost constantly.
Are they always contract short-term assignments?
Usually, yes, but they vary very much, depending on the country where the NGO is based. If you are talking wage, the most desired are the NGO from the North of Europe.
We gather it is a job that can give you tons of pride and emotions, but that is also very demanding…
It is difficult to build your daily life, your family. More often than not, you’re changing country, project, organization. In some of the most sensitive zones, you don’t stay for more than two years. In some areas you can move around only with a driver. Some can't live with this situation for a very long time. Then they go back to the headquarters, in Europe or North America, but there are not many career opportunities and need to have built a strong experience on field.
Have you ever felt you were in danger?
Some situations were a bit complicated for sure, but NGOs are usually very cautious and you have to follow some procedures in order to contain any risk. I would say that aid workers lead a far safer life than that of freelance journalists or military personnel. And we are always free to choose less dangerous countries.
What should be the traits a newly graduate should have to pursue your career?
Flexibility, ability to adapt, communication skills, the energy to work long hours in stressful conditions, the empathy and patience to solve things as peacefully as possible. English is mandatory, as are French (for French-speaking Africa) or Spanish (if you’re working in Latin America). And here, in the Middle East, speaking Arabic gives you a sizable advantage against the competition.
How much are idealism and motivation important in your job?
A lot. It's necessary to be hired for the job, but only to be able to do it as best as you can and therefore to really take pride in what you do. I strongly believe in everything I do and I want to keep doing it. You really need to learn and be detached, you don’t want to depend on your desire to save the world, you often need to act in cold blood.
For instance, in this moment we are living the siege of Aleppo and the city is almost impossible to reach, there’s no help we can bring to the people there. You may just sit and feel desperate, but instead you have to wake up and keep on bringing your help to other more accessible zones in Syria. But this clarity of mind does not come easy, it is something you learn. And in the end, I will be evaluated as any other manager according to the results I’ll get.
Thank you Francesco, for this interview which we feel is more and more significant now. In Job wish you good work and good luck, hoping that 2017 will finally see the end of the conflict in Syria.