By Milda Urban, Summersalt yoga founder
Martina is one of these women who radiate confidence. She knows what she wants and she goes for it – her positive energy was felt straight away when she has joined us on our Vis island for a week of yoga and so needed relaxation.
The Austrian raised and based in Vienna she has a background in political science, with a focus on international relations and international humanitarian law which she uses in her work as humanitarian for an Austrian NGO. She’s responsible for most of the South Asia programmes of the organisation – Nepal,India, Bangladesh and partly Pakistan. Talk about inspiring!
How long have you been doing this work?
I have been working for the NGO for more than 10 years now. More specifically, I work in the international humanitarian- and development sector now for almost 4 years. After spending 1 ½ years living and working in the Philippines, I returned to our Vienna office to work as programme manager in our international department within the Asia programmes.
How and why did you get to this career? Was it planned or did it just happen?
In fact most of it rather happened since I am not a big planner when it comes to my life. However – as the saying goes – nothing just happens out of the blue.. you always play an active part, even if it is not consciously or specifically planned out as such..
In 2004 I started to work for my organisation in the office for asylum and migration issues in Vienna. Somehow I always felt drawn to this kind of work and find it hard to imagine to work in any other sector or enter the corporate world just for the sake of making money. However during and also after my time at University I worked as a waitress or related jobs in some restaurant and event businesses. I also worked at the University of Vienna to assist my professor at the time in International Relations Studies.
Also the work I am doing right now somehow rather happened. After some years as an executive assistant to the CEOs of my organisation, I was offered to go to the Philippines to join our team in the implementation of the humanitarian aid programme in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Haiyan (which hit the Philippines in November 2013).
I decided to face the challenge and finally left Vienna in the beginning of 2014 and for me – being 42 at the time – it was quite a change to my life and quite a jump at the deep end as well. But I can definitely say: no regrets for having taken this step.
It sounds very interesting, but what does your job entail? I know it takes a lot of traveling!
Currently I am responsible for most of the South Asia programmes of my organisation; mainly in Nepal, but also India, Bangladesh and partly Pakistan. Although I am based in Austria, the work also includes frequent travelling. My recent travels have mainly been to Nepal, but also briefly to Thailand, Myanmar and India.
My every day work entails mainly management at programme and project levels. More specifically, this means planning, financial- and content monitoring, working with local partner organisations when going on project visits, planning and facilitation of planning workshops with my Asian partners and colleagues, communication about the contents of our programmes, looking for funds, etc.
What are the most rewarding parts of the job and what are the difficult ones?
For me the most rewarding parts of the job are in fact connected to travelling. I consider myself quite lucky to get to see all these places, meet wonderful people and make new experience in the countries we work in.
Going to sometimes quite remote project areas and actually meeting the people we work for can be very rewarding and a bit challenging at the same time. It often means leaving your personal comfort zone and sometimes seeing things that are not only beautiful and nice. What sometimes can be hard about the travelling is the fact that you are responsible, on duty and representing your organisation at all times. But still within this scheme I find spaces to relax and enjoy.
Quite honestly I would say that for me the normal office work is harder; to stick to a 9-5 schedule and get things done off my desk is certainly a necessity but if it was only for that part I would like my job probably a lot less..
What projects are you most proud of?
Thats a hard one.. I am always very critical about my own work. I and I might be quite a good example for the notorious impostor syndrome… But just as an example, I remember that it made me very happy back in the Philippines when we actually realised that even small things like reconstructing basic houses or some livelihood assets (livestock, agriculture, etc.) made a big difference to people who had lost everything during disaster and empowered them to get on with their lives even after we had left.
What have you learned working in various countries and cultures?
There are many new experiences related to travelling and living in countries that are quite different from what you are normally used to. It also changes you in ways you have maybe not anticipated. Sometimes that can make it a bit challenging to get back into everyday life in Austria/Europe.
Thinking about it I would say that the most basic lesson is: people around the world have the same wants. Besides basic needs like sufficient food and a safe shelter people want to live a decent life, have a safe and peaceful place to call their home and experience the love of relationships, family and friends. There is not much more to that, wherever you go.
I’m curious, have you faced some difficulties during your career just because you were a woman and how did you overcome them?
In our international work we are mainly in cooperation with local NGO partners. Maybe it is because I am representing an organisation from Europe – but in that context I never really faced any severe difficulties and have always been met with appreciation and respect. In the Philippines I was in fact impressed by a number of very strong women who were leading some of the local and national NGOs we worked with.
Of course the South Asia context is rather male dominated – but again I did not face major problems as foreigner and representing an European NGO. I am aware that this might have been in some ways different if I were a local woman.
What does it take to work in a social organisation? Is it different from the corporate world? What would your advice for someone who’s interested in getting into that line of work be?
The main things I usually hear from people who are part of the corporate world are some remarks about my work following some higher “purpose” or “meaning” – which they might feel is missing in their work. (This is usually paired with expressions of pity when they learn about common levels of NGO salaries…)
For part of our work, this might be true, as it is for all social services or any work that aims at improving lives for less fortunate people. Serving some “purpose” can make the work more rewarding for many people. However this can also be tricky, since it can make it more challenging for some people to find their necessary work – life balance. (This might be one of the reasons why aid workers and any other professionals in the social sector are known to be specifically prone to burn out..)
My advise would be to first of all look at yourself as a professional – as you would do in any other job – and enjoy the rewards and experience that come along with this kind of work.
It is definitely a rewarding work, but how do you balance it with your personal life?
Having said all this, this is probably the toughest thing for me. The more responsibility comes with the work the harder you can let go.
When I was living and working in Asia, the separation between personal and work life became even less distinct, which was a bit difficult and also good at the same time. This also had to do with being new to a foreign place and finding and defining your life there.
How do you unwind? Do you still do yoga?
I am still trying to include yoga in my everyday life, but that has been a bit of a challenge and I only started recently. I still enjoy yoga very much whenever I am doing it – although I find it easier to have guided practice in a group rather than practice by myself.
During work travel there can be those small and very rewarding moments, just to pass a misty rice field in the early morning or suddenly getting a close look at the peaks of the Himalayas while travelling on long road trips. Also, unwinding and relaxing in the evenings with your travel companions is a nice way of stress relief during travels.
During my work life in Austria I try to get away every now and then and take a break. Croatia by the way is still my favourite destination when it comes to unwinding..