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Interview with Doug Lau, Public Health Consultant for UN-Habitat in East Africa

By Suneet Grewel, Jeff Minthorn, Tannis Hett, Jessica Lockhart, Rebecca Lee, J Taylor

Careers for Globetrotters: Meet Doug Lau, Public Health Consultant for UN-Habitat in East Africa

Doug Lau is the latest person to be profiled in our new Careers for Globetrotters series.  Doug Lau didn’t originally plan to specialize in global public health—he majored in international relations—but opportunities led him to a specialty he now loves. He talks to us about being an Aga Khan Foundation fellow, gives us tips for making yourself valuable to a development organization, and why if you’re stood up for a meeting in Tanzania, you should head for the bar!

Read the interview below.  You can also watch his series of videos here.

What organization do you work for and what’s your role there?

Right now, I'm working as a consultant for the United Nations Human Settlement Program, or UN-Habitat. I'm based at the global headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and I work in the youth and livelihoods unit as part of the urban economy branch. So basically, I'm here kind of lending a little bit of assistance in terms of evaluating some of the youth programs that have been going on in the unit. I currently work on projects in Somalia, Rwanda, India, and Colombia. We provide direct technical assistance to on-the-ground partners and just try to capture as much of the kind of stuff that's happening on the ground and report it back to donors.

How did you get to where you are now?

I started my university career at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. I majored in international relations, and did quite a bit of coursework in like African Studies and international development. After that, I went straight into a master's in political sociology at the London School of Economics.

After I graduated, I thought about my education, and what area I wanted to start working in. It can be kind of tough, especially when you're not in a really technical degree and you're just thinking about which sector you want to go into.

I remembered my third year of undergrad, and I had a really good experience when I was part of this Go Global program through the University of British Columbia. I was sent to work a three-month placement with a local organization in Uganda, within the international development world. I had a really good experience, and I had been interested in seeing what it was like a little bit further down the line.
So after I finished up my master's, I decided to actually go back to that exact same organization in Uganda. I did a short internship with them, which eventually graduated into paid work. At that time, I was kind of just scouring the internet looking for different opportunities that, as a Canadian, I was eligible for. I stumbled upon the Agha Khan Foundation in Canada, and their International Youth Development fellowship that runs every year. I put in an application to that and luckily enough, I was accepted and that kind of put me on to my next step.

From there, I spent the next eight months with a local organization in Tanzania working in the field of maternal and newborn child health. I really enjoyed the work. This whole field of global public health is something that really interested me, so I ended up staying in Tanzania even after the original eight-month contract expired. I did a little bit of research for them and got to the point where I had a pretty decent understanding of how the field of international development worked.

After that, I decided to take a little bit of a break because at that point, I'd been in Africa for a fair bit of time and it's nice to go back home and see the family and things like that.
Rather than leaving the field entirely, I decided that it would actually be a good idea for me to start up a second master's. One of the things that I realized was that there were quite a few gaps in my knowledge in terms of the technical aspects of the work: I was in the public health field, but without any actual health training. I thought that doing a master's in public health would really supplement, the knowledge that I already had.

I looked online and found a whole bunch of programs that were a little bit more flexible than a traditional classroom setting. I didn't really want to go and do a proper in-person master's because I'd already done one—and I didn't really want to spend another year or two years not working. I went back to my hometown of Vancouver, and enrolled in a University of London International Program, where I was able to do a master's in public health completely online. It was really nice because I was able to take jobs on the side and build experience professionally, and also get an educational certification as well.
After that ended, I went online again and I found this consultancy for UN-Habitat. I applied and here I am and that kind of brings me to where I am today.

Working for the UN is the holy grail for many people. Tell us how you got your foot in the door.

I actually got into the UN through a unique program that's run by an organization called the United Nations Association in Canada. They are an NGO that follows a mandate of trying to get Canadian values and Canadian individuals represented in the UN system. They run this twice-a-year program where they send recent graduates out into the UN somewhere into the UN system, based on relationships that have been built up over the years with managers.

How I actually got into this position is that I first applied for that particular program. There's an interview process, where you're either accepted into the cohort or not. And, once you are accepted, they match you to agencies where your skills align with the needs of the agency. I was put into UN-Habitat basically because I had a decent amount of experience in monitoring and evaluation work. So, here I am!

Tell us about landing an internship with the Aga Khan Foundation.

The Aga Khan fellowship was really an important moment in my life because that was the jump from being just an intern, or in some sort of volunteer-based position, to something that was really substantial and skills-based. There were a whole bunch of professional development opportunities, from training seminars to actually being given higher-level work within the organization in which we were placed.
I actually had no idea what or who Aga Khan was, prior to applying for the fellowship. I come from Vancouver and the office there is quite a bit smaller than what you find in Ottawa or Toronto. It was something that had just completely flown under my radar. So, it wasn't until I was actually preparing for the interview that I got a better idea of who these people were and what they do. It was pretty amazing, because everything I read was super positive.

After going through the rigorous application process, I saw that there was a whole world of opportunity out there, within the Aga Khan Development Network and its partners. It was a really good experience for me because they managed to walk me through a lot of the basic things that might have been missing from a university education. So, it was a good bridge between what you learned in school and finding a full-on professional job.

Since you’ve been successful with both the UN and the Aga Khan Development Program, do you have advice on how to stand out from the crowd and land that job or internship?

I think that whenever you're kind of considering these types of applications—where it really gets quite competitive, and you're competing with hundreds of other people from all over the country—you really have to take whatever experience that you were able to get at any stage in life and make it shine on your CV. The important thing is to take every opportunity that you can to gain as much experience in whatever area that you're able to get, especially earlier in your career—and to then make sure that you're able to highlight what the actual deliverables were at the end.

So, I mentioned earlier that I have taken part in an internship program through UBC, back in my third year of university. It was I think it was really helpful to be able to point to that, and say that, look, this is the long-term thing that I've been interested in. I have extended periods of experience overseas in developing countries. And I’m quite driven in terms of where I actually want to be in the long term. When people assess your application, these are all things that they look at to evaluate whether or not you're going to be able to handle the actual experience—and also whether or not you're going to turn the experience is something that develops you as a professional, essentially.

Any specific tips you can share with us?

I think there are definitely a whole bunch of good tips to kind of think about, especially in this type of world.

The first one would generally be to just get used to the idea of doing Skype interviews. I think I've actually never done an in-person interview ever in my life. This is the world that we're living in now. You have to get used to being able to talk on camera and present yourself in a way that people like. Now, you know, there are benefits and there are drawbacks to being on Skype. One of the benefits is that you don't really ever have to go anywhere! You can interview for as many positions as you want and it’s pretty low-risk. But, you know, there are also drawbacks. You're less able to pick up signals from your interview—you're not able to watch them and see whether or not they like the responses that you're giving quite as easily. So it's definitely a skill.

I think it's important to really prepare well for interviews, but at the same time, not put too much emphasis on any individual interview. Don't really get too stressed out about whether you're going to get the job or not—because I think the important thing in any interview is to just let your true personality shine through, and let people know that aside from all the technical skills that you have on your CV, that you're actually a likable person that people will want to work with. I think that's something that a lot of people forget: so much of the professional world is people skills, being able to be in an office and get the job done, but doing it with a smile on your face and everybody else's face around you.

Tell us about an average day in your role in Nairobi.

If you're at the UN, it's definitely unique in the sense that there isn't really a typical week. Every day is really based upon what the priorities of the office are. Everybody in here has a whole range of projects that they're working on; it's never just one thing. So, you know, one part of the day you could be dealing with a project in India and in the other part of the day, you could be working with somebody in Somalia. The important thing is that you're able to manage all these things in a timely fashion and meet the deadlines.

It's honestly a little bit on the boring side compared to what I was doing before—which was a lot more field-based, with the human interaction and everything. The UN is kind of just a typical office job that could be happening anywhere in the world. It just so happens that I'm in an interesting city and an interesting country and an interesting part of the world right now.

A lot of your work centres around monitoring and evaluation. Can you tell us more about what that is and the role it plays?

Monitoring and evaluation, first of all, are really important aspects of international development. On paper, it's supposed to be a key component of any type of intervention that's delivered anywhere in the world. There's a good reason for that.

There are two main aims within monitoring and evaluation, both of which are incredibly important.

The first one is to give an ongoing analysis of whether or not what we're doing is actually working, and whether or not there's something that we could do better. This is just an ongoing audit of how we're actually delivering whatever it is that we're delivering. And it's important because while the project is still going on, you can make adjustments that might improve the end outcome of whatever it is that you're doing. So quite often we call this process evaluation. You look at things like how much of the money that was supposed to be delivered is actually being delivered, how many of the people that were supposed to be trained are actually being trained, these types of things.

The other main reason why people do monitoring and evaluation work is the end or “outcome evaluation”. This involves looking at things after the project has actually finished, so at the end of the timeline, and looking at, ultimately a report card of how you did in terms of delivering the intervention. This is a really, really key step because this is what people often use to present to donors to make them happy: the fact that they were able to give you this money and you were able to accomplish X, Y and Z. But, at the same time, it's really important for future grant proposals to continue programs to expand and become mainstream programs at the government level, which is ultimately the aim for most development projects. It's really hard to actually reach people at scale without involving bigger players. And, in order to involve bigger players, you have to prove that your concept works—and that it works in a way that is advantageous to a lot of people. And this is really one of the key aspects of monitoring and evaluation.

What are some of the challenges you faced early in this field?

One of the most interesting things that I learned, at least early on in my career, was the need to work in tune with the people around you.

I remember when I had just graduated from university and I was ready to go out into the world and apply these new skills that I had learned, and really contribute to whatever was happening on the ground. It wasn't until I first arrived in Uganda that I kind of got to feel that, you know, things here are a little bit different from what I was used to back in Canada, or the UK where I was doing my studies.

Not everybody works at the same pace, and that is something that's really important to remember. If you really want to make a meaningful contribution to any office, you have to kind of understand how things work, and why they work the way that they do. And, an important outcome of that is to be able to match your own contributions to the office with the pace and style of everybody else in the office as well. Whenever you're coming in as a newcomer, your contributions are always less important than what everybody else has already been doing. It's your job to go in there and place yourself into the office, as if you were a cog in a wider machine, in order to actually get stuff done. I know it's really common for people—especially people who are new to the international development world—to just come and do as much as they can as quickly as they can. And it seems like that would be a good idea. But actually, when you look at it closer, it's a much better strategy to actually align yourself with the priorities of the office.

Tell about a lesson you learned.

When I first started working in Tanzania, I was contributing to a project that was dealing with maternal newborn and child health. And, the way that things worked, it was really important that we had a good relationship with the local government there, the Ministry of Health. I was the representative from my office who would deal with the government in that specific region, and I remember my first day of trying to schedule a meeting with the district head there. I had called in, and told them that I was going to be there first thing on Monday morning. And, sure enough, I showed up at about eight in the morning and sat in the office. I was told by the receptionist that the person with whom I was trying to have a meeting was in another meeting, so I would have to wait. And I waited, and waited, and waited, it was approaching lunchtime, by the time the receptionist came back, and essentially said that the person with whom I was going to meet would not be available to meet that day.

And you know, this was maybe my first week on the job. And I was a little bit thrown off, because this was completely different from what I was used to back in Canada, where if you set a meeting, people are going to come in and you're going to discuss what you want to discuss. And it was something that was quite perplexing to me, I didn't really understand why it was the case.

Anyway, I went back to my own office and started talking to some of my local colleagues. And I was just kind of like, “Oh, yeah, have you guys been here for a long time? Do you know this particular person? I was meeting with her, but she didn't show up.” And, I spoke to one of the doctors on staff, and he said, “Oh, I know this lady really well, we were colleagues, we went to the same medical school. The problem is that she doesn't like meeting strangers. So this is what I'll do. Come and meet me at the bar tonight. And I'll call her up.”

And that's exactly what we did. We had our first meeting about 7 pm in a bar in a little city that I was in, and after that, I got her personal phone number and our relationship went perfectly. Ultimately, that's kind of a lesson that I learned. The important part of being a good development worker is, you know, recognizing the culture, understanding the culture and becoming an expert in that culture as much as you can, so that you can kind of bridge the gap between whatever intervention is being delivered and the actual implementation of it on the ground. And I think that that's what I did. To a degree.


Do you have tips as far as moving to another country is concerned?

On the topic of moving to a new place for the first time, and trying to get yourself in a position where you're going to be a valued member of the workforce, one of the key things is money.

It's really, really difficult when you're new to the field to go directly into a paying job. So often what we find is either unpaid internships or low-paid internships, or even situations where you yourself are paying programs in order to take part in an internship or something like that. And I think that it's important to understand that this is just the nature of how international development works. If you think about it, in terms of an organizational perspective, if you run an NGO and you want to hire staff, you're going to have to pay them some amount of salary. And, if the person that you're hiring is not able to deliver that amount of benefit back to your organization, you're essentially going to be wasting money. So, as somebody who's new in the field, you have to kind of keep that in mind—like, you know, am I really going to be able to deliver, let's say, just randomly $50,000 worth of benefit to an NGO? The answer is most likely going to be no, at least for the first few years of your life, right? Three years of your professional life—I mean, and that's where the kind of important thing comes in when you are preparing for these trips.

We come from Canada, or I'm assuming a lot of you guys come from Canada. And, unfortunately, we just don't have the same level of financial support that other governments provide their citizens who decide to go out and work in international development. So, if it's something that you're serious about, you have to really become prepared to look for outside funding. And, if worse comes to worst, work those summer jobs, go tree plant, go surf or go bartend, and save up money that can sustain you and make you comfortable while you're abroad.

Because a large part of what you're going to be doing is going to be quite toxic, it's going to be difficult, it's going to be doing a lot of work that you've never done before. And it's going to be hard on your mind. And one way to kind of take care of your mind is to treat yourself to nice little holidays, or you know, good food whenever you want to have it. And an important way to do that is to have money to be able to purchase those things.

So, don't be discouraged by the fact that you're not getting paid big bucks right off the bat. Because that's completely natural. That's the nature of the industry that we're in. If you don't have sufficient support, to kind of get through the experience, there's no way that you're going to be able to compete with others in the field, who may have alternative supports that are superior to your own. So it's really important that you line up all your ducks before you kind of embark on an expedition like this and make sure that you're really able to learn, and give back as much to the organization as you can, wherever it is that you're working.


Are there certain skills or abilities that help to make someone successful in this field?

There are many really important qualities that make individuals good—or not good—at international development work. The key ones are flexibility and willingness to put in the work beyond what is necessary. I think that the flexibility aspect is important because no matter what it is that you're doing, you're going to be in quite a different situation than what you're used to, especially if you're new in the field. How offices are run in Canada is going to be completely different than in a place like Afghanistan or Syria.

So, it's important that you understand why it is that you're there, and never lose sight of that, and be flexible in what it is that you're willing to accept in your everyday work life. A willingness to put in more than what's expected is a really key component of being a good international development worker, I think that the nature of the work that we're doing kind of demands it. Quite often, whether you're working in emergency relief, or, you know, HIV-AIDS care, there are bigger implications than your nine-to-five workday, or whatever it is that you have, in terms of expectations.

It's always important to do your best because ultimately, working in this industry, it is a privilege, right? We get to travel, we get to do all these amazing things we get to help people for a living, it's something that you know, hasn't really existed in human society for very long, at least not in a structured way that we do it. Now, you have to treat it as such, you have to have a bit of reverence for the work that you're doing.

And always keep in mind that you're working for the beneficiaries, whoever they may be. Besides actually doing more than what's required in a work situation, an important aspect of this is to actually apply your personal time to try and you know, bolster the skills that you have. Here at the UN, it's common to find people that speak six or seven languages at a level that they are completely fluent in them. That doesn't just come from taking a couple of classes in university, it's about added effort, it's about going out and actually improving skills that you want to develop and being able to apply them in your professional life. It doesn't have to be languages—things like web design, things like programming. These are important skills that almost any organization is going to be able to use. Even something as simple as brushing up on your Excel—skills like these will really serve to differentiate you from other applicants in other fields and help you become a stronger worker that's able to be able to handle more diverse situations.

There’s a Catch-22 in international development work as far as needing experience to get a job and needing a job to get experience. Do you have any advice as far as that’s concerned?

So for those of you that are interested in coming into this field and maybe don't have as much experience, I think it's really important to go online and do the research based on job postings. There are literally thousands of different postings every day. They all have a qualification section that outlines what it is that you need in order to get into the field. After you find a job that you think would be interesting, you have a look at the kind of subject area that it's in.

So, within international development, there's a whole bunch of different fields. You know, some of them would be like health education, disaster relief, procurement. These are all specialist areas that you eventually will need to pick from, and build skills in. It's not something that you have to do necessarily right off the bat. But it's important to know what's out there, and the best way to do that is to really just go online or speak to people around you and discuss what it is that you'd like to be doing in an ideal job.

I think for me, my personal experience, I didn't really know that I was going to be put within this public health stream of international development. It was just kind of by chance that I was offered a position, at least my first few positions within public health. After you have these kinds of tangible sets of skills, they tend to snowball. It makes you a better candidate for the next job down the road that's usually in a similar type of area.

You have a Master's degree. Can you talk to us about education as it relates to this field?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I was kind of in an uncertain place. I was asking questions about whether it would be a good idea for me to go directly into my master's, or to go out into the world and get a little bit of work experience first. And, ultimately, I went the Master's route immediately after my undergrad, and thinking back about my experiences since then, I'm really happy that I did.

Now, this isn't going to be the case for everybody. But, what I found in my own personal experience was that having a master's degree, especially early on in your career, really helps you grow at a faster pace than what you would be able to do with simply an undergraduate degree. Even if you're able to get a job in international development internationally, with only a bachelor's degree, the kind of level of work that you're going to be given is going to be completely different in most cases, than what you're going to be able to do if you have a technical, specific master's degree with training that is applicable to the organization.

So, I think it's a possibility for you to just go directly into your master's or as soon as you can into a master's. I think that it's safe to say that you will actually grow at a faster pace than if you're trying to work from an undergraduate alone.


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