Quynh Tran | Humanitarian Affairs Officer, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UNHQ -New York

Welcome to the United Nations Secretariat Career Journeys podcast brought to you by the Office of Human Resources and UNDP. In our conversations, we talk to colleagues from around the world about their career paths. We explore what career satisfaction means to them, what keeps them inspired and motivated in their daily work. My name is Kate and today we’ll hear from Quynh Tran, a Humanitarian Affairs Officer based in New York with OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Welcome Quynh and thank you so much for joining us today.

Hi Kate, thank you so much for having me. Really looking forward to this.

So to get started, could you share a bit about yourself with our listeners?

Sure. I joined the UN in 2005. I had successfully taken the NCE in legal affairs, and have been in the UN since then, in various roles and in various duty stations. On a personal level, I’m a mother of 3: a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old son who I just dropped off at college earlier this year, big milestone there. And currently, I’m… as you mentioned, I’m working in OCHA as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer in the Policy branch where we do horizon-scanning work.

I see…well, congratulations, first of all, on your son starting college, that must feel like a huge accomplishment. And so, in your work today as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer, could you tell us a little bit about your daily activities these days?

Sure, it’s very busy these days, as you can imagine around the world… with humanitarian crises with COVID, with the work that we do. For me, my work these days mostly entails managing reports, producing reports, writing, drafting, consultations. I’m working on two reports in particular: one is on the climate crisis and humanitarian action, and then one is on cyber threats and humanitarian action. And that is a spinoff from a report that I had done last year on new and emerging technologies in humanitarian action. So aside from those two reports, there’s all the usual UN work that we all do, whether it’s programme planning, budgeting, hiring consultants…all of that work that keeps the wheels going, so that we can do our substantive work as well.

I see….it sounds like a really interesting and varied job. What do you find satisfying about it these days?

Well, for these days, my most recent experience I think that’s been really satisfying was being able to attend COP26, in person in Glasgow. For the research and some of the related advocacy work for our climate paper, I was able to attend that event. And it was just a really fascinating event, because it brought so many people around the world together, who are all, you know, at least united in looking for solutions to the climate crisis, whether or not they all agree on those solutions is a different thing. But at least you got that sense of the energy at COP of people really trying to make a difference.

And how will the experience inform the report that you’re writing? Could you share a little bit about the purpose of it?

Sure, so the report that we’re writing is about the climate crisis and humanitarian action; and, of course, what we’re seeing as humanitarians is that, for us, the climate crisis isn’t really about mitigation anymore. It’s about adaptation for the communities that we work with the most vulnerable for women, children, refugees, displaced communities, the climate crisis is now. And what we’re dealing with and what we’re seeing is increasing need, ever increasing need in condition, in places where we work where there is conflict where there is displacement, where there is social and economic inequality, and fragility. We’re seeing exacerbated need due to the climate crisis….and how do we in the future, meet those needs, when we know that the funding that we get, the contributions that we get, as well intentioned, as generous as they are, are not going to be able to meet that exponential growth in need? And so the report is really looking at how we can work more effectively…more efficiently — one — in the way that we deliver humanitarian action, and two — how do we make communities more resilient, so that it doesn’t get to the point where they are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

And does your role right now — that involves a lot of research and analysis and drafting — does this build on other roles that you’ve had in the past either in OCHA or other departments?

Sure, so when I first started in the UN, after the NCE, I worked in Policy and Best Practices at DPKO, and that is where I started in the policy area with the UN. And, you know, I had the luck and the privilege of also being able to do a temporary deployment when I was with DPKO, to the UN Mission in Nepal, and had that field experience, which I think has been absolutely crucial to the work that I do now. But not just that experience directly with DPKO and peacekeeping in the field, but also the roles that I’ve had in other duty stations, right… and being able to look at the economic and social side of the work that the UN does, when I was working with ESCAP in Bangkok…working on humanitarian financing in a different role that I had before this at OCHA. It’s been a long and varied career path. And I think each of those jobs has contributed to the experience that I can bring to this job now.

And how did you find yourself drawn to the United Nations to begin with — to make your professional career at the Organization?

So, you know, I’m one of these people who sort of knew when I was 12 years old, that this is what I wanted to do. As corny as that might sound. But, you know, I was a Vietnamese refugee. So, I left Vietnam on April 30, the day that Saigon fell, and was a refugee in Hong Kong as a baby. So, for me humanitarian work, and when I speak about refugees, and displaced people and affected communities, it’s very personal and very real for me, obviously, right, because I was actually a beneficiary of the UN of NGOs, of Catholic Relief Services. When I was resettled in the United States, I, you know, lived on welfare and had church assistance. When I first came here I wouldn’t have had anything…my family wouldn’t have had anything if we hadn’t been helped by various charities. So, for me, it’s a very personal experience that I had growing up, obviously. And then, when I was 12, I just remember, and I don’t know if you remember this, but it was when the famine in Ethiopia was very severe. And I just remember seeing those images when I was a kid, and just being so profoundly affected by it. And I remember seeing of all things, UNICEF workers on television talking about the famine, and I think that right then, I knew that this was for me — working for the UN and humanitarian work in particular.

I do remember that terrible time when we heard a lot about Ethiopia. I remember it very well. Interesting — how you knew so early that you wanted to work with the Organization. Do you find yourself today still thinking about your early life in the context of your work?

Yeah, absolutely. And I think as the UN, and the humanitarian sector becomes more and more responsive to local communities — you know, we have this term in the humanitarian world now we call it localization. After COVID, it became very clear that the international community can only go so far in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. And what we have to have are stronger relationships and partnerships, and a shift of power even, from the international community to local communities who are there and we’re better able… better equipped to deliver aid. Because, you know, during COVID, everything shut down and the usual ways that we worked and operated changed and it wasn’t really about internationals going into places to do work anymore. It was about how could we enable local actors to do that. So for me, I think the idea of the shift of humanitarian action, international action to local communities is very real, very tangible. And as we continue to think more about our accountability to affected people, again, having been an affected person…I feel like that experience that I have is…. it was always valued…but I think it’s even more come front and center…that that having lived this experience, there’s something unique that I have to give back in a policymaking arena, for instance, on humanitarian action.

Now you’re someone who’s worked in several duty stations, you’ve mentioned Geneva, Bangkok, Nepal. Could you tell us which other countries you might have been in and how you were able to manage that, especially as a mother of three children?

So it’s not easy, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been really difficult…it’s been every few years moving. And it was all during the time when my children were quite small. In addition to that, I also went on Special Leave Without Pay so that my husband — who also has a career… he works for the Asian Development Bank. So we’ve been trying to manage two international careers while raising three children. And it’s not easy. So he’s actually based in Manila, and so after my Special Leave Without Pay, I came back to New York with my three kids, and my husband stayed in Manila. And he did sort of a telecommuting arrangement with the Asian Development Bank, and he would work six weeks in Manila and be two weeks in New York. And it’s not easy. It is challenging. And it’s very difficult as you can imagine, to find a duty station where five people can be happy with their careers…you know…the kids can all be happy with the schools that they’re in. Jt does become a tricky balancing act. And I’m both grateful for having had the flexibility of having been able to do that. But it’s come at a big cost, I think, to the kids and to our family dynamic in all honesty.

How did the moves affect your children?

I have to say they’ve been real troopers. I don’t think we would have done it if you know, the first move had been bad. They’ve been really good. And it’s funny — when we were doing college essays for my son, for instance. My son had been in I think, by the time he applied for college, he lived in five different cities and had gone to six different schools by the time he’d gone to high school. And that meant that…. every time he moved…he does have a very good skill, a life skill, of being very adaptable, of being very quickly able to adjust and make new friends and you know, learn new cultures and, and really settle in quickly. And for my daughters it’s been the same as well. But I have to say for my littlest one, for instance, she’s not so keen to do it, right. She’s not as she’s not really, you know, looking forward to moving again, or doing any of those kinds of things. And I think once your kids hit high school, it’s really difficult to do. Funnily enough with little kids, it’s easier to move than with high school-aged kids, because then it becomes a matter of, you know, finishing applying to colleges, and those four years of high school are really important for their academic futures. So, you know, at some point, it does become challenging. And I think, for us, we decided as a family that when the kids hit high school age, that was when we would stop, and we would try to be in one duty station, even if it meant — as it has for us — that my husband and I are in different places.

And although it might have been challenging, I’m sure there were some very enjoyable times because it sounds like you kept moving. So could you talk about that? What was what was meaningful and really memorable for you and your family about living in these different cities, different countries?

Yeah, I think for us, because my husband and I are both Vietnamese-American, being in the Asian duty stations were really, really great for us because we were able then to go back to Vietnam, you know, a place where we had both left as refugees. We were able to go back to Vietnam, see family that we hadn’t seen in a long time. So being based in Bangkok and the Philippines, enabled that. And, you know, the kids…I think really enjoyed that and benefited from that as well. Because, you know, my husband and I are like I said Vietnamese-American and our kids were born in America and I are very American, for all that means. And being able to be in Asia, being in international communities and international schools, has been a real privilege. And I’m thankful for that. And those were really fantastic experiences for the family.

And I think in your time with the UN you’ve moved up the ranks a couple of times…how has that figured into your career satisfaction?

You know, in all honesty….I came to the UN and my son was already two, and then I had two more children while I was in the UN. And, for me, moving up. And I mean, this totally, honestly, was less important than having the right job and being on the right team. Because I did need to balance work and my family. And I’ve never been shy about that. I guess I’ve never tried to be on…this super career ladder, you know, career climber or anything like that. I’ve always wanted…it was more important for me to do interesting work with a good team, so that I could balance that work-life. And be able to spend time with my kids and be able to be there when they needed me for homework help and be there for dinners and things like that. And, you know, also maybe as an NCE, and knowing that I was going to be at the UN for a good long time, you know, for 30 plus years, I think that may have also taken the pressure off to feel like I needed to, to speedily climb up the ladder, because whether you’re a P-3, P-4, or a P-5 didn’t seem to matter so much, right? Because at the end of the day, it’s quite unusual to be a D-1, right? So we’re all going to most likely end up as a P-4 or a P-5. And whether you do that when you’re 30, or you’re 40 or 50, when you’re going to retire at 65…I’ve never felt the pressure to do it, you know, super-fast. So the moving up the ladder was less important. And the bigger priority was working on interesting things. And with a great team.

That’s really good to hear and somewhat refreshing because as you know, a lot of people at the UN start to get very focused on the next level… when am I going to be a P-3, or a P-4. It sounds like you’ve really been able to stay challenged and have a large family by today’s standards.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, you know, I have to say, it was a really good piece of advice I was given as an NCE….you know, we had during our orientation, sort of a senior UN person come and she said, she said: don’t fixate on this. This is one of the things that people make as a mistake. They fixate on how quickly they go from P-2, P-3, P-4, P-5 and her advice was: don’t do that. And I think that’s just stuck with me. That was just one of those things that stuck. And I think that’s the right advice. Because I think you’re right, I’ve seen a lot of people really stress themselves out over it. And sometimes it’s not something you can control, right, you know, hiring and promotions, and getting the right job at the right time. Sometimes it’s luck, and just timing and it has nothing to do with you as an individual at the UN. And so I’ve really tried to keep that at heart. Not to say that I haven’t been disappointed. And it’s not to say that, you know, there haven’t been moments when I thought oh, it’s unfair. But I try to move on from it.

And just to clarify the NCE was the prior name for the YPP Program.

Sorry, yes. I am dating myself by saying NCE probably!

I know what you mean, as your fellow NCE! But listeners might not. And so I have one final question for you. Could you tell us about a time when you were at a career plateau? And maybe you weren’t so happy in your position or whether it was the duty station…what did you do about it? Like what has worked well for you when you’re not in a good place with your job or your team or whatever it may be?

I mean if you’re going to have a career for 25, 30 years in one organization, there are, of course, going to be plateaus, and they’re going to be not just even plateaus, but they’re going to be really low dips and valleys. And I have had those, there have been absolute moments where I’m like, this is it, I can’t do this…. I’m done with this, or this, you know, this team leader’s awful or whatever, you know, this team is awful. This is not what I thought I was getting into. There are definitely moments like that. And I would be lying if I said that I didn’t know, you know, plenty of people who have been in those valleys. And I think the thing is to maintain a strong network. And, you know, I have been lucky in that I’ve been able to rely on those networks that I’ve made over the years to help me see, you know, what’s possible, where I could move next…you know what was the next thing that I could do to get to….whatever end game or whatever endpoint. And networks don’t always have to be within your — what you perceive to be your substantive area. So I’ve jumped, like I said, from peacekeeping, to humanitarian affairs to evaluations, and I did a long stint in admin, and HR, which were absolutely invaluable to me, because it made me learn and understand the organization I work in, and how the organization functions and the limits to that. And so that’s the other piece of advice that I would have is to not stay too narrowly focused in what you studied and what you thought you were going to be doing, you know, as a lawyer, as a Political Affairs Officer, but to really embrace the organization and how the organization is run and manage for all of its shortfalls, and pitfalls in that area. And, you know, the other thing is, there’s so much to do at the UN, there’s so much going on, that if you get out, get involved, and listen and learn from colleagues who are doing different things that will help you as well. And you may not make the move in one step, it may take you three or four steps to get there. But I think keeping an open mind will certainly help.

Turns out I have one last question. You’re someone that’s worked in substantive areas: peacekeeping, humanitarian affairs, and also on the administrative side of the UN. How important do you see that, that you’ve seen both sides of our operations? How has that influenced your perspective?

I think it’s absolutely…I just I think it’s something that we all should do. Because management, administrative management at the UN is so challenging. It is such an unusual organization, that nothing can really prepare you for it. And I think, you know, everything that we do, from HR, to our accountability to Member States to intergovernmental negotiations is so unique, that our management then becomes so unique…whether it’s procurement, or how we do our administrative law. And, you know, I don’t think you can really appreciate what it takes to run the Organization to do the recruitments, to do the budgets. And you can’t appreciate our colleagues who do that work day-in and day-out, unless you’ve done it yourself. And I think that was a big eye-opener for me at the UN, right? Because I’d been doing sort of, you know “substantive work.” I’d been doing peacekeeping, policymaking and then humanitarian affairs work in taking the time to learn how the organization is run, how it operates, both at HQ, and in the field has been invaluable. And I think it’s actually a skill that my managers appreciate, too. So now that even in the Policy Branch, my experience with recruitments, my experience with programme planning, my experience with career development and performance management, is an asset, I think, especially if you want to become a manager in the UN, right? How do you become a manager in the UN if you don’t know how to manage in the UN? So it’s absolutely important to do both sides of the house, in an organization as unique as the United Nations.

Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. It was a pleasure. And just want to wish you and your family all the best and I hope that we can see each other in the office sometime soon.

I hope so too after this this long, hybrid working experience that we’ve had in New York. It’d be nice to get back to some type of new normal.

Definitely. Thank you again.

Thank you

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