Social Change Podcast: Diego Battistessa and International Cooperation - Episode 1

Social Change Podcast: Diego Battistessa and International Cooperation – Episode 1

From Episode 1 of Social Change Podcast, with Diego Battistessa, Advisory board member of the Social Change School.

Andrea Dasti: Welcome to our new episode of the Social Change Podcast to all our listeners. This podcast is created thanks to the collaboration between the Social Change School with Edu Way, a social business. Today we have the pleasure to talk about the work in international cooperation, we are going to go deep on how to get trained and which kind of skills are needed to be a professional in the sector and make an impact. The guest of today is going to be presented by Stefano.

Stefano Lepre: Diego Battistessa born in 1985 in Gordona, Sondrio, after years of work in the no profit sector he graduated in “Scienze per la pace, cooperazione internazionale e trasformazione dei conflitti” at Pisa’s university, and after completed a specialization in geopolitics at SIOI in Rome and one in the field of social sciences and law at Carlos III university in Madrid. He is part of the advisory board of the Social Change School and has been didactic coordinator for an international master and cultivated a vocation as internationalist and a vivid curiosity towards different cultures of the world. Has more than 12 years of experience in the field of international cooperation, and lived in Spain, India, Burkina Faso, Venezuela, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, United States of America, Perú, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Panama.

Consultant for international cooperation projects and humanitarian aid, Diego publishes and holds conferences in Italy and other countries about topics such as: migration and human rights. He is a teacher and researcher at the International institute of International and European Studies Francisco de Vitoria at the University Carlos III in Madrid.
From 2017 cooperates with ONG 2.0 for training courses for future professionals, from 2020 offers also a specialized mentorship service. In 2018 realized a guide for those who want to work in international cooperation with the Social Change School and ONG 2.0. The project is named “Vorrei fare il cooperante, come trasformare un sogno in una professione” (I would like to work in international cooperation, how to make a dream come true).

Next to the activities in international cooperation and in the academic field combines the editorial work, working with different media from all over the world in: Italy, Spain, Latin America and United States of America, with newspapers like: Le Iene, Rai News 24, Rai Radio 1, Il Fatto Quotidiano, La Repubblica, El Pais, EBC, Radio Caracas.
He also recently published  “America Latina Afrodiscendente: un storia di (R)esistenza”  to offer to the Italian public a glimpse of the situation in Latin America, that shows more than the simple Eurocentric, colonialism, and patriarchy stereotypes. Today’s host can be defined for sure an expert in NGOS and international cooperation but most of all a Civis Mundi.

Andrea: Good Morning and welcome to our podcast, Diego.

Diego Battistessa: Thank you for this opportunity. It is a pleasure to be here.

Andrea: Let’s start with some context questions. What is international cooperation? We often mix everything together; can you give us some guidelines to better understand the topic we are going to talk about?

Diego Battistessa: International cooperation is a smoky sector, of which everyone feels the right to talk about thinking to understand the structure that in reality stays intelligible to most of the people that do not work inside it.

For sure when talking about international cooperation we need to talk about cooperation for development that is a mainstream field in the sector that was born right after second world war and the Marshall plan, that sees the OCSE, now composed of 38 countries, as the main part of the development’s policies implemented in the world. For this reason, when we talk about international cooperation one of the main macro-areas is for sure cooperation for development. Then in international cooperation we can also find humanitarian action, that is the emergency intervention that happens when there are natural crises caused by man or nature, such as conflicts, tsunami, tornados, earthquakes, and many things that we are also seeing in 2021, because of climate change.

As part of international cooperation, we also have other sectors like migration and shelter, for which a special background is needed, more focused on the legal part and the knowledge of international/regional treaties and local regulations for labour with people in vulnerability so that migrants and refugees and stateless people might then take part in the social inclusion that might be transversal to other macro areas, but with a specific training.

To sum up, international cooperation is composed of at least 4 macro areas: cooperation for development, humanitarian aid, migration and shelter and social inclusion. These macro areas involve different stakeholders, institutional and from civil society, like foundations, universities, regions, cities… we have a huge variety of actors and every macro area identifies itself for specific details, such as length of projects and type of approach when intervening, also thinking about the skills people that work in that specific macro area of cooperation need to develop.

Andrea: You talked about the stakeholders of international cooperation, and we might often think that the sector is made only by NGOs, so now I ask you to give us a more detailed description of the real stakeholders of the sector.

Diego Battistessa: We have: NGOs, that are the ones of massive communication, that attract more attention from media; civil society, that is an important part. In international cooperation there is also a really important part that is the official cooperation done by states, like treaties, or the one happening because of multilateral organizations like the United Nations that are made by (other than the six big assemblies, created in 1945) other 74 special agencies and funds. The UN case, a huge multilateral institution, like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, another very important actor in international cooperation.

We then have the AGENDA 2030, with the 17 Sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 goals to achieve within 2030, and the arrival of private enterprises, both small and medium, but most of all the big ones, other than just foundations for the funds for projects.
We can then also talk about the decentered cooperation that is done by regions and provinces.

You can understand then that there is a huge differentiation in the panorama of stakeholders of the sector, where each one can carry out different responsibilities and actions based on the macro areas we talked about before.

Andrea: So, since you talked about macro areas and this many stakeholders we can now focus on the impact, What can be the impact of international cooperation?

Diego Battistessa: When we talk about impact, we need to consider that we are talking about something new in international cooperation.
This does not mean that the sector was not looking for an impact or was not having one before, but that until some years ago it was not important and easy to measure. So, international cooperation at the time was: receiving funds and implementing projects that would have touched specific beneficiaries in situations of vulnerability and/or emergency, without actually measuring the impact. But we could see an impact also at the time, because it was also considered but not as a focal point of projects, while today we have at least 3 approaches to impact and how to measure it for short-, medium- and long-term projects.

These approaches are human rights, gender mainstream, environment protection.

For these many reasons, today international cooperation has an important social impact on society, especially for the communities of beneficiaries, but has a transversal impact that needs to take care of the 3 elements mentioned above; especially now the sector is looking for people with the skills to evaluate and managed impact projects in cooperation, because the big donors like the “European Union or “l’Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione e lo Sviluppo” (Italian Agency), do accept any more reports with a simple list of expenses that matches the amounts donated; they now want a detailed evaluation of the impact of the projects, that will then become  propaedeutic to the continuation of the collaboration between the two entities.

Impact is then a really important keyword for the cooperation and all the trainings going towards impact management and impact evaluation, will for sure be new horizons for the operators of the sector.

Andrea: You recently wrote a book “I would like to work in international cooperation, how to make a dream come true“, can you then tell us a bit more what it is to work in this sector

Diego Battistessa: This book comes from the life I talk about in my blog CIVIS MUNDI, created in 2014 when I was in Amazonia, that became a reference for those willing to do the same in Italy, and needed to understand dynamics and realities of the job.

In 2018, I wrote this eBook, which became a paper book in 2021, and is a correspondence of the most important questions we ask ourselves when entering the sector. Questions about the training, the job but also the personal life, that is also something to consider when thinking about doing this kind of job.

To work in international cooperation is not the same in each of the macro areas we talked about before: Someone specialized in project management might have to move less than someone specialized in humanitarian aid, where missions are really short and might go from 3 weeks to 3 months. In cooperation for development projects are financed to last even 36 months, this means that when moving you might need to be in a place for 3 years, implementing a project and eradicating the problem not dealing with an emergency situation

To work in this sector a huge professionalization is needed, a certain open mindedness and the knowledge of many languages, and at least two of the official languages of the UN (that are 6 in total: English , French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese). It also requires the ability to adapt and to host people, or as I always say the ability to be comfortable and find a house everywhere in the world, and not everyone can do it. It requires hard skills that are comprehended in all the things we said before, but also in the soft skills. For this reason, I believe that we can start adapting to this lifestyle even before starting to work in the sector, with local volunteering, that gives us the opportunity to train and discover our cities before going abroad.

The people working in international cooperation are not robots, I do not want people to think we are, there is a really important human component in what we do, and as Alda Merini, a really famous Italian poet used to say: “l’avere la a mia carne a contatto con la carne del mondo” (the flesh in contact with the world) is something that distinguishes the people working in international cooperation, that feel at home wherever that can make an impact.

It is a job that comes with many risks and puts us in dangerous situations sometimes, both physically and psychologically. The number one risk is the burnout, caused by stress coming from the contexts we work in, where life conditions are sometimes at the limit of decency, with no warm water or no water at all.

Also, the food differentiation we are used to does not exist, and the internet access is limited. In some of the lasts mission I have participated to both water and electricity are away sometimes every two days. There are also particular situations in the places where we implement projects, so the risks are of course higher.

When we talk about security, we need to say that the international press gives a lot of space to kidnappings and killings of those working in the sector, while the most common incidents while working are the ones connected to road safety, and happen when moving to do simple activities, nothing special or particularly dangerous. Being a job with many risks it is important to be properly trained to work in the sector and the DIY training is for sure not enough.

Andrea:  Talking about formation, can you give us more hints about it, which are in your opinion the options to become a worker in this sector?

Diego Battistessa: As I was saying before, working in international cooperation requires a 360 degrees knowledge of the geopolitical context and local culture of the place where we are going to implement projects but also a technical and practical knowledge that are both really important.

In Italy we can now find many bachelor’s and master’s degrees that include the word “cooperation”, but, as for many other sectors sadly, the university trainings are not professional, because they lack the principal characteristics needed such as: transmission of practical knowledge and methodologies… We often talk about this for every university degree, saying that the institutional training is completely disconnected with the job market, that needs everyday more people with actual hard skills and skills in general to gain with practical experience.

This means that in the majority of cases, training after a university degree is the only possibility to have the chance to acquire the needed knowledge and practical tools to have access to a professional internship or try to work in the sector. 

The learning by doing method is also really famous, and there are different trainings that give the opportunity to do some experience on the field without doing a formal education period in a specialized master, but, after years of mentoring people of all ages in this sector, I can say that a professional educational training period is needed because when not present is clearly missing and can cause people to have the impostor syndrome, for example.

There are many ways to work in the sector, but in any case professionalization is needed, even if there is not only one way to start entering in the world of international cooperation, in this sector there is no official path that makes you gain a special badge, but different paths… Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, civil service, master of specialization after university, or even a public call for applicants, or diplomacy. IT is important not to look at formation in any of these cases sas a burden or limit that we need to overcome to work in the sector but as something necessary to offer the best service both for ourselves and the beneficiaries.

Andrea: You mentioned hard and soft skills, can you talk to me about key competences needed to work in this sector? We might even like to hear from you some episodes that you lived through in your long experience on the field.

Diego Battistessa: As I already said before the competences needed are not opposite but complementary.
If you want to work in international cooperation you need to know, project cycle management, the theory of change, what is a logical framework, know how to do a budget, how to write a concept note, and all the other things that are necessary to evaluate and understand the implementation of projects.

If you want to work in the emergency area, so humanitarian aid, you clearly need to know how to implement a cluster approach, or to know the code of conduct and the four principles of humanitarian action. In these areas there are specializations too, logistics, protection, and it is the same for cooperation for development, where people can specialize in specific areas and sectors like women entrepreneurship or indigenous population, access to education… Etc. etc.

Talking about hard skills, for sure speaking languages is needed, in most cases official certificates are not required, but questions in the needed languages are asked during interviews to prove the practical use of them.
If we start looking into something more transversal to consider as hard skills, a good knowledge of ICT (Information Communication Technologies) is relevant.

For the soft skills, as I already said before, there is for sure the ability to put ourselves to the service of the group, to do teamwork, because the sector is not looking for heroes but professionals able to work in a team, able to ask for help when necessary or to do one step behind and with empathy.

The anecdotes to tell are many… I will tell you two of them, one about soft and one about hard skills.

One specific thing I can say is that you learn them with experience in most cases.
One of the first experiences on the field I participated in as a student at Pisa University, was a monitoring and evaluation project in Burkina Faso. I remember that it was a local organization, and I did not know any cultural norms, and without looking into the manuals given to us by the local partners I went to do a visit in the orphanage of the project, and I started to ask immediate questions to the person responsible for the structure. She was really annoyed by my attitude, and I could not understand why. In my mind I was doing what possible to be efficient, but I was actually bypassing all the cultural unwritten rules, she was supposed to show us the structure, offer us some food, and then we would have talked about work.

In that case my inexperience and lack of empathy created a problem and made me realize the importance of humility and the ability to ask for guidance when in a new cultural context, learning a new communicative approach and social behavior is sometimes fundamental.

The second example is about my time in Ecuador, and it is about ICT…I consider myself an elder-millennial, because I was born in 1985, I became 18 after the year 2000 when technologies were already fundamental, and I have always been fascinated by them. When I arrived in Ecuador, I invented a new way to proceed to do a census activities with EXCEL, creating a matrix during an internship. This did not only allow me to successfully complete my internship but also find a job later, because partners and people in the region heard about the model I developed and were impressed by it.

Proactivity and technical training allow us to be on track and propose innovative solutions.

Andrea: Thank you for the anecdotes. I would like to focus now on the period of fatigue that we are all living as world citizens. What happened in international cooperation during covid? Which are the repercussions on the sector coming for one year and a half of pandemic?

Diego Battistessa: For a long time, international cooperation was synonymous with mobility. When COVID arrived, many dynamics internal to the sector had to change and the first thing that got eliminated, for obvious reasons, is mobility. Since March 2020, we have experienced what we can call the Zoom fatigue, given by meetings and conferences done via video call, that lead international cooperation also to understand that some things can also be held remotely. It is possible to do things online now that before were tough as impossible to do not in person.

For this reason, I can say that COVID, on one side suspended projects, because funds got suspended to be then reactivated when possible, we are now witnessing a restart of the sector with new job openings and vacancies.

On the other side the pandemic made some really needed changes move faster, for all the macro areas we talked about before for example, the use of technology was far behind the real needs of the sector, and a huge part of the human resources now present I the sector entered when technology was not as developed as now and couldn’t properly use it in an appropriate way, and needed to have a fast training.

We also had really fast technologization, and the problem of treating expats when abroad came back. Expats are those who moved from the north of the world to the south in order to work in missions. In the last years the expats in projects abroad for international have decreased for many reasons, they have bigger salaries but most importantly there is a new idea of bringing empowerment to the local organizations and human resources, in terms of knowledge, trainings and responsibilities, that operate in different context: in Africa, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and Latin America.

For these reasons during the pandemic, the number of expats abroad decreased even more, for international cooperation missions.

I think this pandemic started a new era for the sector in general, as new technologies did, showing us new ways to develop projects in an hybrid way, in ways that a decade ago we would have never imagined.

Last but not less important is that I could be a witness in these months of another phenomenon of people aged more than 30 coming from the for-profit willing to work in the no-profit because the pandemic made them realize their professional goals and decided to use their professional competences and their background to create the have the impact hey want to have on the world to become actor of social change.

It is important to always remember that international cooperation does not have a certain specific age to start working in the sector, all the stakeholders are different, and the roles might be covered by people having different ages. The biggest example is the UN volunteer program that goes from 25 to 60 years old.

Often in Italy we believe that after 30 years old nothing can be started, this idea is supported by the fact that there are many national and international programs that are only for those aged within 28/30 years old. With the covid pandemic many people reconsidered their professional path and decided to get training that are necessary to use their skills and talents for international cooperation.

Andrea: So, these people decided to put their expertise at the service of society and the third sector. Since you have been exhaustive for the informative part and the skills needed to work in the sector, I am here to ask you for some practical advice for those willing to start a career in international cooperation.

Diego Battistessa:  Those willing to start a career in the sector can be from different backgrounds, because we can definitely say that no background or degree are discriminating to work into international cooperation.

The most important part is to ask ourselves the right questions. In which area do I want to work? Development? Humanitarian aid? Do I feel comfortable working with a vulnerable group or situation, like refugees, or do I prefer to deepen my knowledge of human rights and international treaties? Where in the world do I feel comfortable?

It is necessary to do a career plan for ¾ years that also include the study of one or more languages, if willing to do a master it’s important to have the chance to be in contact with the coordinator of such master in order to ask specific questions:  Which NGOs or international institutions are linked to this master, who can I do an internship with? Do you have a career development service? Is there someone in the master that can support me in looking for a job after the master?  If I want to work in Latin American, and the master is in Italian, do I need to already know Spanish well or this master is not going to be useful to put me in the job market for the area?

It is fundamental to ask ourselves the right questions to get closer to educational training, that need to be chosen with strategy, not randomly, also to have an idea of where we are going.

A chapter of my book, of which we already talked about before “Vorrei fare il cooperante, come trasformare un sogno in una professione” (I would like to work in international cooperation, how to make a dream come true), where I talk about the people not in their 20s anymore, that want to get closer to international cooperation. They have competences that can be called portable or transferable skills, that already developed important competencies and characteristics in other fields and only need some small adjustments, like a specialized master, to be able to get to work in a national or international NGO.

In the last years, I coordinated different masters, and the one of Social Change School is the one where I saw many seniors, the ones I was talking about above, managing pretty easily and fast to adjust and reallocate into international cooperation, thanks to their transferable and portable skills.

Andrea: We are now closing the episode, so I ask you for some last words, a wish for international cooperation and the future.

Diego Battistessa:  As I already said in many other situations, I am really happy that more and more young people want to be part of international cooperation, because it’s a service job, that has a vocation, that needs to be done with security standards and professionally. This job is a challenge and helps us to be the better version of ourselves every day, for this reason I would never change it for nothing in the world!

Andrea: Thank you so much for your contribution, we wish you the best for your website and your career with the future projects!

Diego Battistessa: See you soon!

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