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Learn what people really do at work

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Program Officer – International NGO

I’m working in South Asia. Currently I’m Program Officer for an International NGO.


The majority of the time I’m in head-office, where our days are 9-5.30. I start the day checking email, preparing my TODO list and greeting people in the office. I also try to do some non-vital reading of publications etc connected to my work or area but not directly needed for the work I’m doing at the moment.


Work in head-office is a lot about meetings/emails/phoning/writing reports/planning. Some people are very good at reading/responding emails; others aren’t for various reasons, including not so great expression in written English. So with many colleagues I often start off by phoning or meeting someone face-to-face before writing an email. The routine of the day can be quite peaceful – working on own stuff, or gentle cooperation – or quite hectic. Something will be needed, to get it you need to talk to several different people, sort things, etc. Often I am working on several different things in one day.


Some time each week is devoted to stupid paperwork – getting permission to go on a trip, use a vehicle, claim an allowance. It’s not always clear what form is needed to be signed by whom, or someone half-way down the chain might change what you’re doing so you start again from the beginning.


Oh, and checking up and micro-tasks. If you need something to be done, or ask for it, you probably have to check in to see its status. This is with minor requests as well as major requests. If you don’t check in, you might not be informed that there was a problem fulfilling the request. Micro-tasks are various: as people’s English isn’t so great there’s editing, or say, people’s computer skills might not be so strong so you need to support with a spreadsheet / formatting a word document etc.


When we have external meetings in the same city we normally go by office car. And given traffic it can take over an hour each way, so that can whack most of your day. When we go to workshops/seminars/etc lunch is included. Sometimes people call this type of work “eating, meeting, cheating”, but I am not involved in the cheating.


Sometimes I get to go into the field! Awesome. This can involve a day of travel (normally by car) there and back so two days are gone. “Field”-work can be just sitting in someone else’s office having meetings there. But sometimes I get to go into communities we’re working in to meet with people or groups. I love either type, as I love when I am able to support the staff working in the field and I love meeting people we’re working with. I speak the local language, so in either case I am speaking 80-90% of that and 10-20% English; in head office I am probably speaking 70-80% English.


It can be quite an existential shock, though, to go out of your air-conditioning, go to a house of someone who’s very poor, hear about their problems and then be back in your air-conditioned car within an hour. My ideal job would be working more closely with field-staff or field workers.

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