Birgitte is the General Secretary of DanChurchAid, which is a Danish NGO working on development and humanitarian issues, employing directly more than 700 persons worldwide. Before joining DanChurchAid in 2010, Birgitte built a great international career both in the UN and in NGOs. One of her first professional experience was in 1994, when Birgitte was a JPO sponsored by Denmark with UNIFEM (now UN Women) at the UNDP Regional Office in Bangkok.
Birgitte explained to us how this experience spearheaded her career in the development sector, and she shared her views on how JPOs can make a difference.
When and where did you work as a JPO? What was your assignment?
In 1994, I started as a JPO in UNIFEM in the UNDP Office of Bangkok which covers the Southeast Asia region. Initially, I had applied for a post in Amman, Jordan but this was changed at the last minute to Bangkok. Though a bit disappointed, my husband and I decided nevertheless to go to Bangkok – and we never regretted it for one minute. Southeast Asia is a wonderful part of the world, - interesting people, and interesting politics. Being in a regional office gave me the opportunity to get to know more countries in the region.
I didn’t have any assignments to begin with but gradually, by taking initiative, I became responsible for the monitoring of projects in Vietnam. During my stay, it was the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, which was a major event and - the UNIFEM Office covering China - was of course very involved. I had never participated before in such a big event and it was an amazing experience. I also developed my own project, - the Danish Government gave project funding to JPOs if they wanted to develop their own project. Previous to my assignment as a JPO, I had worked as Community Relations Officer in Belfast, Northern Ireland so I had experience in conflict resolution and mediation. The project I developed looked at the role of women in conflict resolution with the Mindanao Peace zones as example. So I spent quite a lot of time on this project.
In what way has your JPO assignment shaped your career?
I got a more realistic view of living in a very different cultural setting and I learned to appreciate that not everything has to be done in your own way. For me the assignment made me more open and humble towards other cultures, respecting and understanding that we come with very different skills and understandings of the world. Working in a multicultural setting opened my eyes and gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges but also the beauty of the UN as multinational organisation.
So my JPO assignment matured me and prepared me for my next job. It gave me an understanding of the complexity of the UN system and the way the UN works as well as its importance as global actor.
What are your major lessons learned during your career in terms of professional growth, career planning and opportunities?
I have said it above – except the fact that people know the UN, and having worked in the UN is a very good experience to have on the CV.
What kind of advice would you give to current JPOs?
Seize the opportunities in the UN – there is a lot of room to do the things you would like to do – be innovative – be useful – and be humble and bold at the same time. JPOs are the ones who can take risks and push an agenda – they are not part of the system and career infights. Being a JPO is about learning and doing – and remember to appreciate the people and the culture in the country you work. As a JPO you get to know the UN but also the country you live in, which is an experience for life.