Meet Carla Chan Unger – she is a dear friend, a beautiful soul, and happens to live a nomadic lifestyle due to her career in international development. Read on to find out what it is like to lend a helping hand across the globe…
Amica: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in international development?
Carla: I’m originally a Canberra girl (and still a Canberran at heart!) although I moved to Melbourne for about five years following the allure of big city lights. About two months ago I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, which means I’m still the new kid on the block and finding my feet. It’s the first time that I’ve lived or worked in the Middle East and it’s definitely an eye-opening time to be here considering all the political issues going on within the region – Israel and Syria are just over the border, and the situation is heating up quickly. There are over 1 million refugees in Lebanon making up a whooping 25% of the total population.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in working in international development, mostly because I’d like to see the world be a lot nicer to its people. I’ve travelled a fair bit in my life and there’s an astounding amount of suffering out there. Through my experiences working and travelling, I’ve come to realize that pretty much all of the injustices and the poverty we see today are human-made – fueled by greed, ignorance and an unequal system that serves only a lucky few at the top. And seeing the problems are man-made, with hard work and perseverance, they can eventually be ‘un-made’ as well. I strongly believe the postcode you are born in shouldn’t dictate your future, and since I’m one of the lucky ones who were born in the right place at the right time with no rhyme or reason, I guess I see it as a moral responsibility to help tip the scales in the right direction.
Amica: What are some of the past projects and countries you have worked with?
Carla: I tend to jump around a lot depending on job opportunities and restlessness. My longest posting was for two years in Bangladesh, which I just finished and I’m still a little homesick for. For the first year I worked for an international public health institute doing research on diseases that affect young children under five years old, such as diarrhoea. My office was located in a slum area, attached to a hospital that would treat around 1000 people in a single day during peak monsoon season – at times there were so many patients that they would expand the building by turning the car park into a hospital ward by constructing make-shift tents.
For my second year in Bangladesh I worked for the UN World Food Programme, which provides support in both emergency and non-emergency (longer-term development) settings. The best part of the job was being able to travel and visit remote areas of the country, to step away from my desk and get out of my comfort zone.
Unfortunately, for months on end I was restricted from travelling to project sites due to back-to-back political strikes, known locally as ‘hartals’, leading up to the national election. During hartals everyone had to stay in their houses between the hours of dawn and dusk to avoid violence and bombings on the streets. Definitely it a very frustrating period for everyone working the development sector, and obviously for the communities too. But somehow these organizations manage to navigate and hurdle major political challenges and continue to deliver humanitarian assistance to where it is needed.
Amica: Tell us a bit about your current role?
Carla: My current job is with the International Labour Organization (ILO), a main UN agency dealing with labour rights issues. I’ve been brought on board to help roll out an advocacy project that is pushing for the rights of domestic workers (known colloquially as ‘housemaids’) who are typically women who immigrate from poor countries like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and go to work in Arab countries. The national laws and policies in these Arab countries don’t provide any form of protection for these women – their passports are taken away by their employers on arrival, and in many cases, they are imprisoned or deported if they try to terminate their employment contracts early. In essence, many domestic workers are trapped in a form of modern-day slavery. My role is to figure out ways in which we can convince governments to develop or change their national legislation and regulations to align more closely with international human rights conventions, the ultimate objective being to improve the working and living conditions of these highly exploited migrant workers.
If you’re interested to find out more, here’s a 3-minute video about the project, specifically the work ILO is doing in Lebanon.
Amica: International development can be quite a hard field to crack. What are some tips for people wanting an international development career?
Carla: Good question. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a straight-forward answer! It comes down to a combination of studying something relevant, luck and putting yourself out there even if it may be a bit risky. That can mean volunteering or working for a low salary after you finish university for a number of years to accrue experience, which isn’t really fair since not everyone can afford to do that, but it’s almost become expected within the sector as the normal path you have to take these days.
What I’m about to suggest definitely takes some courage, but my one piece of advice would be to just buy a one-way ticket and go! Once you’ve arrived in a country it’s a million times easier to network, find out about vacancies, and get a sense of what type of job you want to do. Almost everyone I know who has just landed at the airport without a contract has managed to secure something within a couple of months.
I think it’s also important to point out the difference between skilled and unskilled volunteering, since there’s money to be made in ‘volun-tourism’ and companies often capitalize on people’s good will. This type of volunteering can be downright unhelpful and in some cases even harmful (for more information read this). An in-depth understanding of development – it’s issues, causes and solutions – requires a combination of both experience and education, so in this way, enrolling in a good programme will give you the right qualifications.
Amica: Living around the globe must be hard while missing loved ones. Can you give some advice to our readers about living abroad?
Carla: True, it can definitely be hard living so far away from family and friends who are back at home. Skype, email and Facebook are great ways of keeping in touch and we are lucky to live in the age of technology, but it’s not the same thing as being face-to-face. On the flipside, there’s a strong sense of community when you go abroad to work. After all, there are loads of like-minded people who are in the same boat, sharing the same experiences, and who looking to make friends and form networks. People also have a lot more time on their hands when they arrive in a new country without their usual obligations and commitments. Surprisingly, I’d say the harder the posting is, the easier it is to make friends since people really band together and lean on each other for social support. You also learn to be more outgoing and willing to open up quickly to strangers, which helps to speed up the whole friend-making process.
Amica: Not everyone can make a full-time career out of development but still believe in the cause. What are three things our readers can do to contribute?
Carla: The first thing that comes to mind is to READ. Read so that you understand what’s going on, and most importantly, to learn about the root cause of a problem. Take the time to understand your place in the chain, and how you can affect positive change. Ignorance is one of the major reasons why so many problems exist in this world and our governments love to capitalize on misunderstanding. Take asylum seeker issues for example. If voters properly understood the struggle faced by refugees, the reasons they are forced to seek refuge, and the obligations their own governments are committed to under international human rights law, governments would be forced to retract their hardnosed stance on asylum seekers and reverse many of their discriminatory policies.
Secondly, demonstrate. Get out there on the street and make some noise! Today, in the world of social media, we think we are doing our part by simply clicking on the ‘like’ button. But sadly, it seems our generation, the younger generation, has become rather complacent. Look how effective all the sit-ins were in swaying popular opinion in the wake of the Vietnam War. My parents were part of that movement and I envy their generation for their passion and compassion and engagement with what they felt to be morally right and morally wrong. They really took a strong stance on what they believed in, to good effect. We should be doing the same, whether we are pushing to reverse government cutbacks to overseas aid, lobbying in support of Palestinian independence, or voicing our disapproval against some racist comment Tony Abbott probably blurted out in parliament last week. I think many people don’t realize that affecting change abroad can start by making waves within the borders of your own country. Votes count for a lot.
Finally, donate to a cause you believe in. But do your homework first. Think carefully about your motivations for donating, and that you are doing it for the right reason. Take Tom’s shoes for example, with their ‘buy a pair of shoes and another pair will be given to a child in Africa’ model. The shoes are funky, sure, but many critics have pointed out that giving shoes away for free ruins local shoe economies and shoemakers and sellers in those African countries are losing out in the end. Plus, are shoes really what these children need the most? Again, having a decent grasp of the issues by reading and doing some research will help you figure out where you want to put your hard-earned cash, and how you can donate most effectively.