How to tell if you work for the UN

How to tell if you work for the UN

These are the top twenty or so indicators that tell you if you work for the United Nations. None of the scenarios are made up; they all reflect everyday situations. If you recognise yourself in more than five, you’ve been in the aid business too long and should consider taking a break.

1. You’ve just come out of a pre-meeting at 8 o’clock in the evening, having spent the last three hours discussing terms of reference for a task team whose job will be to spend the next six weeks coming up with recommendations on whether or not an ‘evaluability’ study is required to assess whether or not what your office does is ready to be evaluated.
2. It’s midnight, and you just spent the last half hour trying to join a conference call with New York, Delhi, Nairobi and Melbourne only to find that you have the wrong telephone number. Having called New York to track down the right number, you find when you ring it that you are barred from entering because the access code you were given is out of date. After another call to New York, you eventually join the ‘conference’ to find the chair wrapping up.
3. The wilting pot plant in the cubicle of your open plan office has been removed because it turns out that you weren’t entitled to it. But you don’t really mind because you still have the extra chair and enough space between the piles of folders littering your tiny work surface to place your coffee cup. Chipped, and with the various UN agency logos a little faded now, the cup itself was a parting gift from the last but one field office you worked in. On the partition wall, vying for space with the half dozen carefully collected course attendance certificates, hangs a garish finger painting from West Africa and a fake tribal mask from Burundi. The voodoo doll from Haiti sits forlornly on the window ledge along with the home-made wire aeroplane you bought from that sweet smiling kid in the IDP camp in Darfur, and a 30 mm brass shell case from Kosovo. The kilim from Pakistan lies at your feet. But the humourless guy sorting out the mouse infestation seems to have removed all your box files which are nowhere to be seen.
4. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you just completed a long and repetitive report to one of your eight different donors in which you explain why it was that you only managed to complete two of the fourteen deliverables on time, only to realise that you have used the old reporting format and you now have to re-write the whole thing.
5. You just got off the phone to your donor explaining why it is that a one year extension and an injection of a further $200,000 will be needed to hire a consultant to complete the activities originally proposed.
6. Your international non-governmental implementing partner is updating you on why the school was rehabilitated without the installation of any toilets, and why competitive tendering was not used when deciding which sub-contractor to employ, through which community based organisation, and via which national counterpart.
7. You say “Karibu”, “Insh’ Allah”, “Namaste”, and “Nema Problema” a lot despite being neither Kenyan, Iraqi, Nepalese, nor Bosnian.
8. When saying ‘goodbye’ to a departing colleague, you say, “Safe trip. See you in Lao next month”.
9. You realise you travel too much when the Turkish girl at the coffee bar in Terminal B of Schipol airport – the one at the end of the concourse where it’s still allowed to smoke – recognises you.
10. You tell yourself that the programme was not a “failure” because you submitted your ‘lessons learned’ paper three hours before expiry of your contract.
11. Your government counterpart thinks there must be something wrong with your vehicle when you start talking about “tools”, “toolkits”, and “traction”.
12. You keep glancing at your blackberry wondering why the light isn’t blinking.
13. That’s the one hundredth e-mail you have deleted today which was “cc’d to all” by some moron the far side of the world, but which has absolutely nothing whatever to do with you.
14. The ‘newbie’ from the ‘knowledge management’ section asks what was meant when you said, “The YCSD workshop at next week’s APRM needs to inform the ROMP and be situated within EMOPS’ revised CCCs which have now been approved by PD.”
15. You wake up in the middle of the night having flashbacks, not about the death and destruction you have witnessed, but about whether you remembered to empty the fridge.
16. An administrator from the country office you were deployed to as ‘surge’ for their floods response at the beginning of last year just rang demanding payment for nineteen dollars’ worth of private phone calls.
17. Your partner just fell asleep while you were in full flow about the benefits of the ‘Cluster Approach’.
18. You’re back home, in a place where the tap water is clean, safe and perfectly drinkable. Yet, you still reach for the bottled water to brush your teeth.
19. It’s been so long since you were home that you have to ask a friend to download the music that everyone is listening to now.
20. Your initial impulse having been to the toilet in a friend’s house back home is to look around for the bin into which to throw the used paper.
21. You find yourself watching the guys in the car pulled up alongside you at the traffic lights to see if they are pointing guns at you.
22. The travel section to which you submitted your itinerary three weeks before, changes your flight on the morning of departure to a flight which leaves in one hour. You realise they have done this to save fifty dollars, but also realise that this re-routing means you are now ‘waitlisted’ for the New York sector of the return leg. You are later happy to find the whole process has taken so long that that you are now travelling business class because all the economy seats have been taken, and only mildly irritated that the UN agency for which you work has paid over five thousand dollars more to send you to exactly the same conference, only in a different part of the plane.


  1. Brilliant, James. Sadly, it all rings too true… particularly the parts about the blackberry, the bottled water and the Business Class flight… You need to quit the UN and write a novel. cheers, FS

  2. Somehow relieved looking at my own office that these stereotypes ring less and less true. The UN sure has changed in the years I’ve been working here now. More entrepreneurial people, more innovation, more cost-cutting, less travel, less waste. Surely not perfect, but on the right track.

  3. Hilarious! A typical UN….ACRONYMS, BUREACRACY etc! You’ve made my day

  4. So funny, so sad and so true….unfortunately, i recognised myself in more than 5. In addition, when i read number 17 “your partner fell asleep ….” , i wasn’t sure whether you were referring to partner as loved one, or partner as in counterpart….
    and i could add number 23: one day, your boss tells you in front of counterparts that she spends more time with you than her partner (loved one in this cas)

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