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How I Became An International Aid Worker: Victoria Cavanagh

From nutritionists to logistics officers – World Food Programme (WFP) staff often get asked about how they got into their line of work so we decided to ask them to share their experiences with you through our new monthly Q&A series. Hopefully you’ll find it a useful insight into international aid and how to work in the sector.

We kick off with Victoria Cavanagh, a communications officer for the UN Humanitarian Response Depots (UNHRD), WFP – managed warehouses that stockpile equipment and relief items for use in the immediate aftermath of a global emergency. She is currently based in Vanuatu as part of the Cyclone PAM response.

1. What does your job involve?

My job is to report on how the UN Humanitarian Response Depots enable rapid response to emergencies worldwide. It’s a varied role that involves writing articles, documenting the facts on the ground, liaising with media and other WFP units, making videos, supporting events and managing our social media accounts.

2. Why did you choose this line of work?

It wasn’t always part of my life plan! I applied for an internship with WFP and was hooked from the first day. I love that improving people’s lives is at the heart of what we do.

Victoria interviews a community in Zimbabwe

Victoria interviews a community receiving WFP food assistance in Zimbabwe. (Photo: WFP/Victoria Cavanagh)

3. The aid industry has become notoriously hard to break into – what route did you take into your current role?

When I finished my degree in media and communications, I began job searching with only two criteria; I wanted to work with people, and wanted to travel outside of my home country (Australia). I contacted anyone I knew, and spent hours online researching organizations, positions and internships.

WFP’s office in Zambia was testing a new electronic food voucher system and needed an intern. The project seemed so innovative and the people interviewing me over the phone were so passionate and professional. Despite having to look up Zambia on the map, I knew I wanted to join them!

This led to a permanent role and a move across the Zambezi River to WFP’s office in Zimbabwe for another couple of years. Then, early last year, I moved to WFP’s head office in Rome to take my current role. Instead of writing about food assistance activities, I started writing about warehouses, cargo, planes and supply chain solutions.

4. Can you describe a typical day?

There isn’t really a typical day, and that’s what I love. Last month I received an email asking if I could join WFP’s team in Vanuatu responding to Cyclone Pam, and I was on a plane the next day!

My job was to collect photos, interviews and video footage of WFP’s activities and speak to the media. The first few days were mostly spent at the airport capturing all the supplies and equipment arriving, then at the port where food was sailing to hard-hit islands. I flew to those islands to interview families who had their homes and vegetable gardens completely wiped out.

Victoria films an interview with a man receiving WFP food in Liberia.

Victoria documenting WFP's Ebola response in Liberia. (Photo: WFP/ Emma Fitzpatrick)

5. What have been your career highlights to date?

One highlight was responding to the Ebola crisis in Liberia last year. My job was to highlight WFP’s logistics activities there; receiving, managing, storing and dispatching tonnes of critical supplies for governments, UN agencies and NGOs.

I was constantly in awe of my colleagues’ indefatigable work ethic and dedication – the task was enormous but they tackled it head on and simply would not stop until completing their mission.

6. What were the biggest challenges in getting where you are today?

I’ve been quite lucky but I guess job security is an on-going challenge. The nature of this industry means it’s hard to plan very far ahead, so I’m always conscious of saving ‘for a rainy day’ in between contracts.

7. What advice would you give to someone who hopes to work in a similar role?

Be open-minded, pro-active and take any opportunity available. The best way to learn is on the job, whatever level and wherever that may be.

Once you’ve joined WFP, it’s easier to understand how the various units and activities are interrelated, and other opportunities may present themselves where you least expect. Personally, I had never considered working in logistics!

Got a question about careers at WFP? Tweet us or take a look at current vacancies.

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