Natalia Voronova, about her experience as an UNV in Ethiopia: “My very first concern was my cat”

Natalia is 32 and grew up in Chisinau, Moldova. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences specialized in Psychology and Comparative Law and a Master of Laws Degree in International and European Public Law. Her hobbies include travel, reading, and pets. She is currently working towards her second Masters degree in Evaluation.

Leaving no-one behind. Travelling to Addis Ababa from Chisinau Airport.

How did you decide to become an UNV? What was your motivation?

Growing up in Moldova, especially in the 90’s, made me aware of cultural, political and economic circumstances and differences between nations at a very early age. Since I remember myself I wanted to spend my life in multi-cultural environments and have a career furthering human progress. This dream turned into a more specific goal of working in the field of international development. Becoming an International UN Volunteer (UNV) seemed to provide the opportunity to do exactly that.

Prior to taking up the UNV assignment in the UNDP Regional Centre for Africa based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I lived and worked for 4 years in Kosovo, and 2 years at UNDP Moldova as a project manager. By that time I started realizing that I enjoyed comparing plans to results more than implementing activities of projects. I also wondered about how other UNDP offices work, wanted to experience the work of other development areas, and see the impact of our work as development professionals from a bigger perspective.

And that is when the opportunity to become an International UN Volunteer and move to Ethiopia, to the UNDP Regional Centre for Africa, appeared. This was an opportunity to understand the internal workings of the UN better and contribute to a large development programme focusing not just on one country but an entire region, a chance to perform the tasks I genuinely enjoyed in all previous positions, as well as an opportunity to grow within my own profession — of course I said I was interested.

The Great Ethiopian Run is a yearly 10km run in Addis Ababa with as many as 40,000 participants.

How was the procedure of application? What steps did you take?

I knew about UNV for many years and had registered my profile in the system on my 25th birthday (the minimum age to be a UNV is 25). But, of course, every year I would review my profile to reflect any new work experiences, education, and interests I acquired.

Entering my profile into the system was an easy process which resembles entering a CV into any online recruitment system. Generally, once a profile is online and an opportunity matches this profile you get an email asking if you are available for the task. That’s what happened in my case as well. So, once I confirmed my availability, I had to complete a video interview where I had to record my answers to several questions. I didn’t think I performed very well as it was the first time I experienced such an interviewing system, but about a month later I was invited for a Skype interview with real people sitting in Addis Ababa. The interview was constantly interrupted due to internet issues in Addis, I had to repeat myself, they had to repeat themselves, but in the end we understood each other and 2 months later I was flying to Addis Ababa from Chisinau.

Tell us more about your UNV position.

I think the variety of UNV assignments that exist reflects the variety of roles in the whole UN. Some UNVs work with local communities and implement projects. For example, a friend of mine — a UNV in Sudan — came back with fascinating stories about how she arranged meetings to discuss healthcare with women in remote villages despite various challenges and instabilities.

My role was a bit different: some days I developed briefing notes for high-level meetings, sometimes even for the UNDP Administrator or UN Secretary General; other days I arranged consultation meetings, met with potential donors, or prepared reports. For example, I was closely involved in the review of the 6-year programme on Preventing Violent Extremism in Africa, implemented across 16 countries and regionally at African Union level. I communicated with regional project managers, worked closely with the Regional Centre’s Director, consulted with colleagues at headquarters in New York. When the new Regional Programme document was drafted, I took the lead in developing the Results and Resources Framework for the whole four-year programme, which included developing the indicators, finding best formulations for outputs, etc. I knew what my responsibilities would be from the very beginning and feel that this role was exactly what I needed to understand my further aspirations and move further on my career path.

How did you adapt in a non-home duty station? What were your concerns and how did it go?

Interestingly, my very first concern was my cat. I adopted her in Moldova when she was a kitten and, naturally, she had to come with me. With a few stressful moments here and there bringing her to Ethiopia was manageable and she even had her first outside experience in Ethiopia, chasing flies and pigeons in the garden.
Hiking in Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains.

One of the things some people find challenging about moving to a new place is making friends. So in Addis, especially the first few months, I would grab any opportunity to meet new people, visit new places, join parties, etc. Personally, where there is an international community of people — I never feel alone. Being a part of this community turned out to be very helpful when Ethiopia went into a State of Emergency just a month after my arrival in 2016, resulting in blocked internet, social media, phones, etc., making it very difficult to connect to the outside world or back home. I am very grateful for the community of friends that I was a part of.

And finally, there are the small routine things which you never think of at home, but suddenly become stressful abroad. Like: where do you throw away your garbage? How do you order a taxi in a place where people don’t use street names and house numbers? But in the end you talk to colleagues, new friends, and it turns out that everything is manageable. And for me that moment of realizing that anything is possible is worth every stressful minute that comes with moving to a new place.

To what extent was the UNV experience worth pursuing for career growth?

Being a UNV does not guarantee a job after an assignment. What it does guarantee is work experience. What happens afterwards is up to the UNV. I know some UNVs who used their assignments as a first step towards brilliant international careers at the UN or other international organizations. I also know UNVs who used the experience to do something different.

Visiting Lalibela, a town in Ethiopia famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches and beautiful landscapes.

My UNV experience turned out to be life-changing both personally and professionally. I decided that I enjoyed the monitoring and evaluation side of my role at the Centre so much that I decided to become an evaluator. As a result, I am currently enrolled in completing a Master’s degree in Evaluation. I know I will come back to the UN and very much look forward to engaging with the UNDP and other UN Agencies in a new capacity.

Would you recommend someone to become an UNV? Why?

Absolutely. If you aim for a career in international development — UNV is a great opportunity to gain work experience, expand your professional network, and experience what being outside of your comfort zone feels like — it is an important skill to have.

By working with different people in multi-cultural settings you see and learn other ways of thinking and doing things. It opens your eyes to how diverse our world is and realize that our strength as human beings lies in this diversity.

Follow this link to learn more about how to become a UN Volunteer. #BecomeAVolunteer