What I wish I’d known… Thomas Byrnes

Food-Security-MalawiIt was a pleasure to host Emergency Overseas Aid Worker and SOAS alumni Thomas Byrnes as part of our ‘What I wish I wish I’d known…’ series. Thomas shared his fascinating insights and experiences gained during five years working for NGOs as a Food Security and Livelihood Emergency Specialist, managing projects in Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria, Philippines, South Sudan and Pakistan.

A key message from Thomas was that persistence, proactivity and more persistence are crucial to entering the international development field. This is reflected in his own career path, working his way up from intern to senior manager.

Whilst an undergraduate at the University of Kent (Intl Politics & Intl Relations, BA), Thomas co-initiated ‘UNICEF on Campus’ – a project raising funds on campus for UNICEF. It was through a contact he made at UNICEF during this project that he found an internship position in Ghana. After graduation he headed to Vietnam to teach English. Here, he made the most of opportunities and also volunteered helping Vietnamese orphans. After these experiences overseas he was passionate about ‘changing the world’ and wanted to get involved at a structural level. Realising that postgraduate qualifications are essential for working in the NGO sector, Thomas joined us at SOAS and gained a Masters in Development Studies.

In terms of job hunting, Thomas had some key advice: “Keep applying! Keep emailing! Email until they say ‘Please don’t email us any more’”. Advertised jobs receive such a high number of responses from applicants, that it may be that your application gets filtered as reaching the requirements yet not actually get read due to the high numbers of applications received. Thomas first got a role through his persistence with Acted, the French NGO. He applied for every opportunity they advertised over two months. He was interviewed for a position in Pakistan, and received an email saying he wasn’t suitable. He emailed straight back with a suggestion: “What about the position in Sri Lanka?”. And they agreed! Essentially, the people carrying out the recruitment process are very busy, solutions help them too.

The essential value of contacts, networks and LinkedIn was also a key message. Research is crucial when making applications, and contacts can be a huge source of information and advice. Don’t ask directly for a job, ask about them, ask how they got where they are, and you can learn a lot of valuable insights. 90% of the jobs in the Aid sector are not advertised online. Volunteering and internships are a great way to gain essential skills and experience, they are also a fantastic way to make useful industry contacts.

What are the biggest challenges?

Having to make really tough decisions. For example, digging a well is undoubtedly a positive thing: clean water will reduce the mortality rate in the under 5s by 80%. When we are investigating 10 villages and building 1 well, however, we are having to choose between people and make decisions that will affect their lives and their childrens lives. There is always a trade off, we’re always working with ‘just enough’, we can never help everyone. We give just enough food that will mean people wont die, but they will still be hungry.

What do you enjoy most?

Knowing that we have delivered tangible benefits for people, which is really satisfying. It is a tough day, standing for 8 hours in a food distribution centre in a refugee camp, but at the end of the day I know in a very real way that 30,000 people now have food because of me.

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Thomas is happy to share his valuable insights and experiences with SOAS students, he can be contacted on LinkedIn. He also gave a wealth of information about working overseas for NGOs, which will be shared in a blog post to follow.

Alice Moon, Careers Consultant

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