Governance Alumnus Martin Searle Discusses Work with Médecins sans Frontières

Martin SearleGPIA alumnus Martin Searle graduated in January 2012 with a concentration in Governance and Rights. He currently works for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) where he does internal communications work.



interview conducted by Benjamin Ace

What were you doing before you came to TNS and what were the events that led to you applying to the GPIA program?  

Before I can to the New School I was in the UK working on a European Parliamentary Election Campaign. I had been looking at a number of schools in New York City since I knew I wanted to pursue graduate studies in international affairs, and NYC is clearly an ideal place to do so. The GPIA programme specifically came to my attention during a US graduate school presentation done at Kings College London. From talking to representatives from Columbia, NYU, City College and others it quickly became obvious that all sought to portray their international affairs programmes as amalgamating theory and practice. What made the New School stand out for me was the clear focus on critical thinking. My impression of other programmes presented was that they focused on the technocratic angle of how the world works, why it works that way, and then how to function within those givens. The New School’s more critical approach came through even in those short presentations, and that is what prompted me to apply. I think that initial perception has been born out in the long run.


What is your current job title and role at MSF?

My official job title is “Portal Editor.” In way of short explanation, The Portal is a web-magazine that is internal to MSF, accessible over the Internet but secured behind a password. It’s purpose is to provide space for all individuals working for MSF to reflect upon the movement’s actions, public positioning and experience working in the humanitarian sector around the world, and discuss these things critically. In theory, these discussions inform decision-making within the movement. I am the editor of this website, producing content in the form of interviews, articles and so forth to feed discussion.


How did you come to work for MSF?

As a foreign citizen, my route to finding work in the US required a little strategising. While at GPIA, I researched a list of ten organisations in my field with a history of sponsoring foreign citizens for work visas. I have been aware of MSF since secondary school, and long considered it one possible organization for which I would be interested in working, so was happy to discover that they regularly sponsor work visas in the US and put them on my list. I spent much of my second year at GPIA dreaming up excuses to meet with people working for these ten organisations, often emailing people working on topics relevant to my thesis and asking to meet to talk about their projects, and thus networking a little. This approach worked more often than not; I guess people enjoy talking about themselves (case in point, look a me doing it right now).

MSF posted the role I currently hold on their website, and I submitted a CV and covering letter. I was called for an interview, and at that point was able to contact one or two people I had previously met at the organisation to ask for some tips on what the interviewers might be looking for. A friend, co-GPIAer and former MSF intern was also able to put me in touch with people there. Armed with this extra insight, and thanks to a bit of luck, the interview process went extremely well and I was offered the job. 


How has the Typhoon in the Philippines affected your work at MSF in the communications department?

MSF’s response to Typhoon Haiyan has raised a number of internal questions, and this is how my work has primarily been affected. MSF has a relatively long history of responding to natural disasters, and so quite a rich experience informing its current response. While much of this institutional memory is already available to those in the upper echelons directing MSF’s operations, part of my work has been to make these reflections available around the movement so that this ongoing movement-wide internal dialogue can be as informed as possible.

As an example, one question that has arisen is how to achieve an appropriate level of public communication around MSF’s activities. The Typhoon response has received sizeable media coverage, but the intervention there is relatively small compared to other places where MSF works that are outside the media spotlight, for example the Central African Republic (CAR). How can MSF work to ensure that media coverage of the Typhoon and the situation in CAR are proportionate, considering the seriousness of the CAR situation and the much larger role that MSF has taken there? Getting this right is important in itself, but it also plays a role in ensuring CAR does not slip even further off the global agenda.


What is one challenge you have faced or are currently facing in your job at MSF?

In headquarters we are occasionally called upon to fill certain roles in the field temporarily until someone is found to take over on a more permanent basis. This summer I was asked to go to South Sudan for three months to fill in as Field Communications Officer.  There I was responsible for managing MSF’s presence in local media, as well as collaborating with colleagues in headquarters to manage international media coverage. When it comes to local media, challenges in a context such as this are extremely interesting. One of the main goals of national level communications strategy is to promote acceptance of our organisation among the general population, explaining what we are doing as transparently as possible, and what our goals and principles are, in the hope that this will reduce the likelihood that our projects will be targeted by armed actors.  In a context like South Sudan, communicating any message is complicated by the fact that there is arguably no mass media. There are a small handful of radio stations that broadcast over most of country, but a combination of relatively low literacy rates, infrastructure that was deliberately left underdeveloped during the time of Khartoum’s rule, and a tapestry of local languages produces a situation where no one medium can be relied on to reach much of the population. As a result, media surveys done by the UN suggest that significant numbers of South Sudanese still primarily get their news via word-of-mouth, and that this is their most trusted source of information. In this sort of media environment, how can MSF get its messages out?

In response, we complimented more conventional activities such as radio interviews with efforts to leverage the approximately 3,000 South Sudanese members of staff MSF employs. I was responsible for putting together issues of an internal staff newsletter designed with the aim that staff would talk about what was in there within their own communities. In this way, we hoped to start to cover this word-of-mouth media dynamic. As I was leaving, there were also plans to set up a travelling photo exhibition that could tour the country providing opportunity to talk about MSF with numerous communities in a way that again could subsequently be transmitted word-of-mouth.


Do you feel the GPIA program prepared you well for the work you do now?

While I have one or two criticisms of the programme (would I be a true New School critical thinker if I didn’t?), overall I certainly think it helped prepare me for the work I do now. The underlying critical approach that characterises GPIA fits very well within MSF’s culture of debate and discussion. I do regularly find myself drawing on arguments developed during course seminars and applying them to dilemmas MSF is facing at a given moment, as well as using the rival analytical frameworks taught to me at GPIA to understand where the arguments of others might be stemming from, and what assumptions their points of view (and indeed my own) may be based upon.

But I would stress that this preparation was a collaboration between myself and GPIA, and this is probably how it should be. Through asking myself what I sought to gain out of courses, I made sure my studies had a good level of cohesion and coherence, and was then well placed to compliment that with relevant activities outside the classroom. This is not to suggest I crafted a detailed master plan and followed it to the letter; I think a little more flexibility than that is necessary. But I at least had a skeletal strategy to refer to whenever career-relevant decisions came up inside or outside school that I could modify if and when necessary in light of extraneous factors.


What advice would you give to students who will be looking for jobs or internships soon?

As hinted to earlier, I would suggest making particular effort to have your GPIA work compliment your internship/job search, and vice versa. In this way, you both build a repository of projects and papers to draw upon as you work to expand your contacts at organisations that interest you, and meet people who are well versed in the issues you are studying. I believe this both makes networking easier, and provides additional opportunity to gain further insight into the topics you have chosen to focus on at GPIA. If you’ll forgive the use of an awful corporate buzzword, it’s a synergistic approach to these challenges.

There are also straightforward practical benefits to this approach. Going into an informational meeting at an organisation that interests you with the simple goal of swelling your network with people you hope to be useful encourages a stilted and awkward conversation that is likely to prove counter-productive to your ends. If, however, you go in with the mindset of expanding your own knowledge on issues you are already studying, this frames the conversation in an easy and comfortable way, and provides ample opportunity for you both to demonstrate the knowledge you already possess, and your motivation to learn more. It also gives a simple pretext to ask for follow-up meetings as the papers you work on progress, which is crucial in cementing new contacts.

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