Categorized | Career

A Lesson in Diplomacy

Posted on 18 September 2008

Think that a career in international relations is a breeze? Dealing with heads of state and diplomats only requires knowing which dinner fork is proper for artichoke salad? If so, then let Grigor Hovhannisyan set you straight.

Hovhannisyan serves as a humanitarian affairs officer for the United Nations in Congo. According to him, international relations demands the skills of a resourceful policy player–and a healthy sense of humor when rebels shoot outside your window. Fluent in five languages, Hovhannisyan has devoted a lifetime to global affairs, starting out in the U.S. with the Save the Children Federation. From there, he joined the U.N. “I plunged into the humanitarian world,” he remembers, “and since then I am an international civil servant.”

The “Real” World
Hovhannisyan has willingly given up on what most of us consider the real world: stock options, Sunday barbecues, and happy hours. But he doesn’t harbor any second thoughts. “I am not entirely convinced,” he says, “whether my world is not more real.”

For starters, his somewhat intangible rewards have lasting impact. “You do not get emotional rewards like a nurse gets after having healed a malnourished child,” he says. “What you get as a reward is at a macro level: political and military decisions taken; global fund-raising; policy development; advocacy for human rights; and humanitarian principles. I personally take a great deal of pride in seeing a concept, position paper, or speech for which I took a direct participation articulated at the U.N. Security Council level. All of this costs you 16- to 18-hour hectic days and extensive travel, both in first class and in shabby, stinky, dreadful cargo planes.”

It’s a career where politics, the New Economy, and diplomacy intersect. Despite his seasoning, Hovhannisyan still gets “classroom” training back here, thanks to an online graduate program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. There are 30 professionals enrolled in the Global Master of Arts Program, ranging from a London-based corporate leader to a relief worker in the Congo. There are also United Nations officials in numerous countries; an economic adviser to Estonia’s president; an investment banker in Germany; a Cambodian government minister; a financial adviser to the British Royal Family; an aid worker in Nepal; and a Nigerian diplomat in South Korea.

The program is limited to 35 students with a minimum of eight years of professional experience in a wide variety of international affairs professions. Hovhannisyan, of course, qualifies.

Shots in the Night
After all, he’s prepared for such a career all of his life. By the time he was just 24, he had already compiled a good track record at the U.N.’s office in Armenia and was promoted to a higher-level position with a U.N. Secretariat Agency. “Some said I had shaved [off] five to six years of slow growth,” Hovhannisyan says. “Shortly upon my arrival I was supposed to chair large meetings and negotiate with important or unimportant, but influential, people. I had to make policy recommendations for some ‘real big cheese’ people. I managed to learn, though.”

The often gritty circumstances of Hovhannisyan’s real world hit home in April 1997. He arrived at his first duty station in a jungle town named Goma, in what was then eastern Zaire. “I immediately found a wonderful luxurious house by the lake Kivu. The very same night at around 2 a.m., heavy fighting broke in the town and spread literally into my backyard. I experienced a very strange sensation, perhaps the typical reaction of someone who had never heard gunfire and explosions before. When I unfroze, the fighting was a bit away from my house but still going on. I went to look for the security guard whom I had hired. After more than half an hour of searching, I located the guy in the underground storage room behind an old refrigerator.” He was essentially providing security by hiding out.

This was an inauspicious beginning for the guard, but he ended up in another line of work. “Two years later I saw my ex-security person on an international news chain,” Hovhannisyan recalls, “interviewed by a well-known journalist. It turned out that he had become a prominent rebel leader currently in control of a huge area, 50 times as large as Armenia.”

Despite everything, Hovhannisyan is able to maintain a wry sense of irony. On the rare occasions when he does come home, Hovhannisyan goes through a bit of sensory detox. “I am just back from a home leave,” he says. “Complete estrangement!” he calls it, wishing in some ways that he was back abroad, helping those less fortunate.

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