Negotiating a Future

Behind the Glamour of Diplomacy, an Uncertain Life

Nayeli Urquiza | March 2007

The image of a diplomat is wreathed in glamour, cocktail parties, world travel, and meetings in exotic places with the movers and shakers of world politics. But the glamour has its price: Short-term contracts and intense competition for good positions have come to define the scene. Thus a party in their honor is just one of the places where this concern creeps up, in the froth of mingling with colleagues.

"I don’t know if I will have a job when I come back from my holidays," said Carina Wesson, a human resources assistant at an international organisation. Wesson was sipping a glass of chilled wine and smoking Cartier cigarettes at a Young Diplomats Party Feb. 20, organized by the Ukraine Diplomatic Delegation in Vienna.

The informal gathering held, perhaps appropriately, at the Chill Out Bar on Salvatoregasse in Vienna’s 1st District had begun at 7 pm sharp. As the minutes passed by, the low-lighted rooms of the lounge were quickly filled by elegantly suited men and designer-dressed women, while, the wait staff hurried to bring drinks to impatient customers. In the rush, one lost his balance and dropped his tray full of drinks with a crash, as he tried to pass through a very narrow corridor blocked by the food table and a knot of chain-smokers.

Who are the "young diplomats" in Vienna? Yuriy Tokarski, staff member of the Uzbekistan Embassy in Austria, described the target group as the junior staff of the embassies and permanent missions, as well as of the secretariats of the Vienna-based international organisations - UNODC, OSCE, IAEA.  Their list also included  a number of Austrian diplomats from the Foreign Ministry and students from the Diplomatic Academy.

About 100 people showed up at the event, out of the 500 invited from the email addresses gathered at previous parties. The Young Diplomats is organised on a voluntary basis by foreign missions in Austria every month or two. The purpose is clear – "to get people together in an informal atmosphere," Tokarski said, "and have fun while exchanging the latest news and interesting information."

Coming from such different cultures and backgrounds, the guests seemed to have more differences than similarities. What they did share was their work, so that networking and mingling as much as possible was at the top of the agenda, a must for job-seekers and deal makers.

"I don’t know if I will get my job back," said Wesson, since "so many people applied for it."  After her contract at the Department of Human Resources expires, she feared that someone else would show up with better credentials and be hired in her stead. She was not the only one; several of her friends also reported being on a tight rope, looking for new positions within the regional organisation while still keeping up with their current job.

Away from their home countries, and often without an Austrian work-permit, they search for jobs in any international organisation, where   permits are not required. And in any position. Overqualified people will apply for positions way beneath their actual skills only to stay in Vienna, and sometimes below their current salary, explained Wesson. But applicants have no other choice, as the OSCE and the UN are not "career oriented" organisations, meaning that rarely are management positions filled from within the ranks and few positions come with permanent contracts.

The conversations at the Young Diplomats Party reflected this reality.

"Did you apply for a P1 position or a P2 position?" asked a woman to one of her co-workers. Still, the insecurity from fixed yet short-term positions cannot topple the benefits and the salaries of these organisations. Entry level salaries, known as P1 positions, range from 1,500 Euros while the highest a P-5 level  position, pays up to about 5800 Euros. If the P5 employee has a child or spouse dependent of their income, they get in average an extra 400 Euros per month, about 5,000 Euros more per year.

But the road to reach a P5 sounds like a game of shoots and ladders. One has to jump from one organisation to another or one agency within to another, as there is a limit to the number of times someone is allowed to reapply. And the rules for employment vary from one organization to another. .

The OSCE and the UN offer similar remuneration packages and terms of employment.  A young newly-minted graduate can strive for a professional level position, but the contracts are on a one-year basis and renewable only up to seven years. So one could find ones self jobless just at the time one has settled down and started a family.

The UN fixed contracts for professionals generally last from three to a maximum of five years.  The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna is governed by a policy of rotation, intended to allow "Member States to benefit from the return of their nationals after gaining expertise at the IAEA"  and "to have a continuous influx of fresh knowledge and experience at all levels," according to the nuclear verification and technology agency. Rarely does this reflect the realities of the domestic job market or the patterns of people’s family life.

The rotation principle however doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s career at the UN is finished after the contract expires. Some are reassigned to other agencies or bodies within the organization or in other international organizations. The aim, according to the UN’s International Civil Service Commission, is to increase the adaptability of the staff, acquire skills in different agencies, organizations, and "when possible, in the national civil services and public" of one’s country of origin as well as in the private sector.

However what is lost is continuity, and the opportunity to develop a deep knowledge of the diplomatic landscape within which the organisation operates. Or, in many cases, for the employees themselves to have lives that work.

Sot the competition can be fierce within the UN, considering there are 50,178 employees registered in the organisation’s Common System, plus the external applicants. In Wesson’s case, an average of 70 people, including new applicants and current employees of the OSCE who are in the same dilemma as her, applied for her job. She can only hope that by the time she comes back from her holiday, that she will still be able to pay her rent. After living several years in Vienna, the worst case scenario would be to have to go back to her home country and begin the long process of rebuilding her life all over again from the bottom up.

Other articles from this issue