Working in between "temblores"
On my second day of work, the floor started swinging as if my office had turned into a boat caught in a storm. "Terremoto!" I yelled running towards the stairs. I could see the dumbfounded looks as I ran in front of the series of open doors along the hallway.
A colleague stopped me half way. The shaking had stopped. That was only another "temblor" or tremor, he told me. It happens almost every day. Although it was a bit stronger than usual, I shouldn't worry about it too much. I went back to my desk but found it difficult to concentrate for the rest of the day. Every few days afterwards I felt a slight tremor but wasn't sure whether it was real or in my head. At this point I understood the meaning behind the country's Pre-Columbus name: Valley of the Hammocks.
I've been one year on the job and I'm just starting to feel adjusted to the country and the work. Adapting to two worlds at once is a lengthy process: not only must you adapt to a new environment, where you might have to work in between temblores, but you also have to adapt to the very complex organization of the UN system.
The UN experience
No matter how prepared you are, how much support you get from the JPO Service Centre or the Country Office, if you were not familiar with the UN prior to this job, you will most likely feel as though you have been thrown into the water while others watched to see whether you could swim. Becoming part of the UN System implies entering a huge, new and complex environment that can not be underestimated, nor easily explained.
I had to learn how to navigate the complex channels between country office and headquarters as well as between UN agencies. Having worked at the headquarters of the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank for over four years, I was used to a centralized, hierarchical and orderly environment where most decisions would be taken in Washington, with no need to consult other organizations or agencies.
Here on the other hand, processes were cleared internally, the information was diffuse, and our strategic plan needed to follow an all UN Agencies Framework that was not easy to implement in practice. I had to learn to put on the side my HQ reflexes and dive into the independent logic of a country office and inter-agency coordination.
New job, shifting roles
Unsurprisingly, there were many adjustments at the beginning. Someone was already in charge of most responsibilities of the position I was supposed to fill. This was probably due to the length of the hiring process, which took almost a year. After some reshuffling, where I worked at a few different levels and was exposed to various structures of the organization (mostly the unit of management), I ended up working for the capacity development team.
The process of shifting roles lasted several months, and required a lot of flexibility, open communication and more than anything else - patience. My terms of reference changed drastically. But in the end it turned out for the best. Today, I am seeing a very practical side of the organization and managing a portfolio of projects I believe in.
So little, but with a huge heart
In addition to all the above, I had to adjust to the country. What a strange country I'm in - full of paradoxes and contrasts. El Salvador is the smallest country in continental America - roughly the size of New Jersey (or Macedonia). Yet it is also the most densely populated.
Picture a small country full of pick up trucks covered with religious stickers, black sand beaches, malls of all sizes and shapes, volcanoes and crater lakes, gated communities, coffee fields, and many, many private armed security. An interesting mix, wouldn't you say?
El Salvador is probably best defined by its dynamic and resourceful people who are characterized above all by - their kindness. After a year living and working here, I have never met a rude Salvadorian.
El Salvador’s paradox
Which leads me to El Salvador’s most inexplicable paradox: How can a country made up of so kind of a people still show such a high homicide rate – one of the highest in the world? The homicide rate in 2008 oscillated between 56 and 65 for every 100,000 habitants, reaching 177 for 100,000 in some parts of the country, which experts have compared to the levels of a civil war.
Needless to say, adapting to the country has implied accepting the limitations posed by the security situation: freedom of movement is limited, walking on the street or public parks discouraged, and so is venturing into the beautiful countryside, unless accompanied by an escort of armed police.
All that said, working in El Salvador has been fascinating. The country has very high regards for the UN and particularly UNDP, due to its strategic role in the peace negotiations of 1992. It welcomes its involvement in almost all sectors. Plus, I got to witness first hand the exciting historical election process of March 2009, which brought a change of administration after 20 years in power of the ruling party.
To sum up
If you ask me about my biggest achievement up to now, as I've mentioned, much of the year was spent learning about and adapting to the organization and the country. But if I stop to think about it, I realize that there were many small successes along the way. For example: resolving a series of problems, building a network of contacts within UNDP for professional advice, shaping solid and harmonious working relations with colleagues and counterparts working on the projects I'm in, and not least - getting a group of friends with whom I can share my interests and explore the country.
I can say today that managing projects at the country level, where you can have daily contacts with the counterparts and see the products of your efforts has been most gratifying. Even only after a year, it's hard to imagine my life today without this experience.
And I almost forgot, advice?
First of all, don’t get bummed by all the bureaucracy and rules about what you can and cannot do. Don’t ever stop suggesting new ways to do things and drawing on your creativity. Of course, it can be frustrating and you need to respect the way the machine works, but that shouldn’t stop you from putting your ideas on the table and speak out when something does not make sense.
Also, no matter how good or bad things are at the beginning, there will be ups and downs. Problems might take a while to get resolved or they might not get resolved at all. It takes extra sang froid and patience to address some of the issues you’ll face. Think about it as an exercise in itself, which will deepen your problem-solving skills. I always remember a quote by Churchill: "If you are going through hell, keep going." Basically, try not to lose sight of the big picture.
Finally, don’t forget to explore the place where you are. There will always be too much work and too little time. After all, the price we pay to be away from our family and friends is high. Getting to know a new country and its people is perhaps the most rewarding compensation.