IR in Practice

“Be courageous, be brave, say what you think” – Interview on human rights work with Lanna Idriss

YJEA: We would like to start with your academic background. Could you give a short introduction of yourself?

Idriss: Yeah, I will, because I am not the typical person who would end up in the public sector. So, about my international background: My name is Lanna Idriss, I am 45 years old and my father comes from Syria, my mother is a German-Danish mixture and I identify myself as a third-culture-kid. This is an expression by an American professor, who said, that when you have two different cultures in your family, and you grow up in a third one that has an impact on you. She said there are about 650 million people in the world living that way who are not very bound to national ideas. That is very important to know about my personal background. I also have two children who originally come from Haiti, so my cultural identity is probably hybrid.

I have been in the financial industry for 20 years. I used to work for banks and only made the change to the public sector two years ago. My first master’s was political science, law and Islamic studies because I am also Muslim and I was very interested in learning more about that religion and also about the Middle East, being one part of my very differentiated background. For banks and Price Waterhouse Cooper I mainly worked in the field of economics, so I felt that I needed a second master’s. Obviously, that was economics, and I did that as an executive MBA at three universities in Germany, the US and China.

 

How have these studies prepared you for your current position?

I think that is a very interesting and good question because as a student we think that the choice of our subject is so important to our future career. I do think that is the case for natural science and medicine but in the whole area where I work, in management, it does not really matter. At the age of 29, I started to go for a management position. Interestingly, it does not actually make such a difference whether you work for a bank, for the capital-driven industry, or for Amnesty International. You manage people, that is the main thing. It is a people-driven business, not a technology-driven one, so you need to learn to listen and to lead. You need to learn to analyse subjects very fast and organise them.

I would say out of all that I studied, economics and law were most helpful. It was not political science in my case. The last thing I want to do is stop your ambition, but political science was…nice. I studied it in Bonn and Hamburg and there it was driven from a historical point of view. It is something which I have never used again. But when you do a paper and you only have two weeks time for the literature, for going through research, etc. it drives you to be fast. As a manager, you always need to be able to quickly analyse a situation that you maybe did not know before. You learn to read fast; you learn to analyse fast and you learn to ask the right questions. The study course does not matter too much for that in my personal view.

Law was actually the most important one. In my former positions before Amnesty, I had a lot of cases where you, first of all, need to understand ‘which lawyer do I ask?’ because there is so many of them out there in the world, and to get a certain feeling of how that system works.

 

During your studies, what did you expect to become afterwards? Or what were you dreaming of becoming at that point in time?

It was not during my studies, but at school when I chose political science, Islamic studies and international law because I wanted to make peace to the Near and Middle East all by myself. When I was sweet 18 or 19 years old, I thought that would be me with my personal background. And then I did an internship at the UN. I had the idea that the UN was a peace driven organisation. During three months in New York, I learned very fast that it is not and that my idea was completely wrong. So, I skipped that idea for myself, but that was the original idea. It was actually quite funny that I ended up at companies or banks. That was for personal reasons, to be honest. The first step into that industry I took because I was desperately in love with someone and I just wanted to follow him. There was no strategic plan behind it. And I’m just good at managing things, and that’s why I think I made a very steep career in that area. But I do think it could have been somewhere else.

 

How did you change from working at banks to then come to Amnesty International?

I did not change. I have been a left-wing liberal my whole life. My idea was, because you get completely overpaid when you’re working at a bank in comparison to what I earn now, to donate half of the money. And I did. Every year I donated 50% of my salary to organisations like Amnesty and others who support freedom and democracy, but also to many grassroots-organisations because I do not believe so much in the idea of super large NGOs. They lose a lot of efficiency and there is a lot of policymaking with, in my opinion, very little impact. I thought it was more efficient to give that money to people who I really believe in because they are better qualified than I am. I have not done it the whole time, but for the past 10 years of my career. Additionally, I have always engaged myself as an activist. I spent my free time after work volunteering, especially in the field of asylum, migration and women’s rights. I have not really changed much. It’s just that now I also have a job in that area. But it was always a very important component of my life.

 

What is the work that you do now? What are the main tasks you fulfill in your position?

I’m responsible for Amnesty International Germany as a managing director. That means I am running the NGO here in Germany which has a budget of 25 Million Euros a year. My tasks include collecting donations and membership fees and making the public aware of our work. I also work on several strategic projects. I interact with the international organization of Amnesty, which is a very big part of my work. So, I’m in calls nearly every day with other sections. I’m also responsible for Human Resources, for all our employees. In addition, I’m responsible for the basics like IT, which I like a lot. The little, hidden Nerd. Especially these days IT is so important. And then there are issues like a discrimination free organisation.

We have a Secretary General which is Markus Beeko. We are running Amnesty International Germany together. I’m responsible for internal affairs, he is for foreign affairs. So, he is the face to the world, he does the interviews. I’m doing lots of stuff that is more internally based, apart from my international work. I also organise processes. So, it’s a very typical management job.

 

“There are these moments when somebody is released from prison and when writing a hundred thousand letters did actually help. That is worth it!”

 

Is there a focus of your work, a matter of the heart that you are interested in?

When it comes to human rights, I definitely have a focus on women’s rights, and I work against sexism and sexual violence. On top of that, I’m very interested in cultural and social rights, especially the idea of cultural participation. This is Article 27 of the Human Rights Declaration, which is very often overlooked, and I do think it is so important. Furthermore, I focus on the right to work in Article 23. Everything which comes at the very end of the Human Rights Declaration is, apart from women’s rights, my main field.

 

What would you say is the most rewarding thing to you when doing your work? Is there something that inspires you to do it?

There are many points. I start at the beginning: Not directly connected to human rights, but what is always rewarding for me is working together with great people. There is nothing more important than the co-workers, employees and partners you have. I love working really intensively in smaller teams and when you can have that kind of working and cooperating with people. That is something I’m taking home at the end of the day. I’m very much a person who thinks from a collaborative leadership point of view. I love it when the people working for me are more intelligent than me because then you have a lifetime of learning.

I think that the most rewarding thing for me is when I go home happy after we had a day where we were able to find a good solution to any kind of problem with all the levels of hierarchy and intelligence. That’s the best. You can probably have this in any industry with the right point of view. But with Amnesty, I strongly believe in the idea of basic human rights and I think it did get harder in the last couple of years. The movement from the right is getting stronger and stronger. There are fewer organisations in the civil society that try to respond to that: New fascism and the entire populism situation in Europe and especially what we have just experienced in the US. Therefore, it is important to support young people in building strong defense mechanisms.

And sharing as much as you can is rewarding to me. I love teaching as well as I love learning and I think it’s the most important thing you can do. You can wait for the demographic change, that is also possible. Things will sort of solve themselves in 20 years, but by then you already have a lot of victims. Every time I have the feeling, I’m making a contribution to keep freedom and democracy, it is about defending what is normal to a lot of people, but that is not normal. The other side is giving high speed and we are still in our intellectual left-wing bubble thinking ‘oh the world is pretty’. Well, it is not.

 

Would you consider that the main important task of Amnesty in Germany to make people aware of these political struggles?

Well, that is a very political question you are asking now. Amnesty had a very interesting point of view, which I believe was very true when it was founded in 1961. It was the principle of being neutral, so not getting into politics. And that is how it still is today. Amnesty is fighting for freedom and democracy but very randomly in their own country. That is the idea and I think it was a good idea, but when the world outside changes you need to rethink it. But I’m not the only person in this organisation, so we need to compromise.

At the moment we hardly work in Germany except when it comes to police violence and human rights education. The main focus of Amnesty’s work is outside Germany. We have many groups for certain countries all over the world and certain subjects but of course, we are fighting for human rights and democratisation everywhere. The backbone of Amnesty still is research and documentation of human rights violations and making them public.

 

When working for Amnesty International you probably learn a lot about the human rights violations that take place all around the world. Isn’t it sometimes frustrating to keep on working in that field?

Yes absolutely. It sometimes is devastating how many places there are where violations take place, especially for me in the Middle East. But then, there are these moments when somebody is released from prison and when writing a hundred thousand letters did actually help. That is worth it when it comes to individuals at risk. But it is something that is not easy to cope with, that you should stop thinking about when you go home to your family. But I’m not a very good example of that because I’m not very good at doing it.

 

Then what keeps you motivated to do your work when it is so frustrating?

Was it Bob Marley who said, “the evil does not sleep so how can I”? I think that is pretty much it.

 

 

Let’s move on to how it is to work for an NGO. Sometimes people imagine low salaries and more work. Is it really like that?

Let’s say somebody is interested and makes the decision on where to work in the middle of their 20s. My current salary is nearly the same as it was in the private sector when I started. I wanted to have the next 20 years when money does not matter. And I took preparations for that, so I am free in my decisions. It is definitely okay paid when you compare it to other places where political scientists can start working. But it is not overwhelmingly good. In comparison to the private sector, it is much, much lower. I really do think that is something everyone needs to be aware of.

But to the question, if it includes more working hours, that actually is not the case. The professional pressure is different. For example, banks hire the best candidates with the best exams. That is not what NGOs do, so you have a very high theoretical intelligence rate at banks, and you have people who are highly educated which in my opinion is not the case with NGOs. They could do a lot better in recruitment. That is one of my goals because we do not always get the best people and we do not have a budget for education because we work on donations. When we give ourselves training with the money someone donated, we feel like then we do not get someone out of prison anywhere in the world which is tricky. I did change that now because it does not make sense that our employees do not get any training. They need education just as the others do and it is a good investment. But it tends to be that that is not the case very often.

When I started working in the banks it was usually 50 hours, 6 days a week and it is not like that at an NGO. We have five days. Sometimes there is weekend work because we do voluntary work at demonstrations and they are very often on the weekends, the same as with conferences. But it is a very socially based, union-based and very responsible work environment. So actually, I work less.

And I often do not have cases that are so complicated. I do not want to sound arrogant but my intelligence or my capability was challenged much more in my former jobs. For me, this is much easier and when I’m looking around at other NGOs or political foundations it seems to be the case everywhere. The public sector is actually a little bit smoother than the private economic sector. I do not want to say easy going, but sometimes it does feel like that.

 

As we are already talking about the competencies that are needed, what would you consider to be the necessary skills somebody needs for working in an NGO?

Communication, communication, excellent communication skills. I could not emphasize it more because these jobs rely on communicating. And you need empathy. It is a people’s business. Whether it is a victim or it is just your co-workers. Looking at the digitisation, the World Economic Forum in Davos said that in the next 25 years of digitisation the skills will change drastically. And they already do. So, what do I do all day? Communicate. That is very important, especially when you go, not on the state, but on the civil society side.

A lot of young people do not want to hear that, especially when they study things like politics, but IT is important. Everybody needs to understand data because we are working in the field of human rights in digital times and you are dealing with other people who collect data, who analyse data.

Policymaking is definitely very important – to understand the principles of policymaking. It does not really matter for which subject, but that is a skill you need.

So, communication, communication, technological skills and policymaking are probably the three most important ones. And when you want to go into a management position it is also behavioral studies, psychology and empathy.

 

Talking about management positions, how did you manage to attain the position as managing director at Amnesty International Germany?

I applied. No, actually there was a headhunter, but I did need to write an application which I had not done for 10 years so that was quite an interesting experience. First of all, NGOs have a problem. They do not pay well so they do not get the best educated people. This kind of general management jobs are particularly difficult to recruit because you want a person who can do HR, finance, economics, IT, law and processes and on top of that everything that has to do with communication. It is very difficult to find that person because now all the big companies have one for each. So how do you find a person who can do it all? Because they cannot afford to pay seven people, they want it all in one person.

They did write out the job like you need to be Superwoman, you need to know it all. I remember reading through the document and calling the headhunter back, and I said ‘There are three pages long of skills. That person does not exist on this planet’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you are actually kind of right’ and I said, ‘You are lucky because in my career I have actually done 80% of that’. And that is how I qualified for the job. I think I was nearly the only one who was head of HR, head of finance and head of operations before. So that is how I got that, but I do not think it was my university studies at all. At my age, nobody is interested in that anymore. It is just the work experience. I knew I did not have the networks even as I was engaged in cultural and migration work as I told you before. It is not that easy, especially in Germany, because German people often still believe you need to follow one career path all your life. It is still very traditional and old-school and so I had to convince Amnesty that I am the right person for the job. Obviously, I did. It is a question of courage, and just trying it.

 

For students that are going in that direction, could you maybe give some advice on how to go into an interview situation at an NGO?

I mean, I can give a general one. But first of all, my advice is to women: Do not avoid talking about the salary. 99% of the women I interview do not talk about money or just very little, and they do not negotiate. There are a lot of studies about that. I mean, do not mention it as the first thing in the first fifteen minutes but do it. Ask for it, ask for your compensation. You want to know it exactly, it is very important. All men do it. That is where the gender pay gap comes from. I’m not blaming women but if you do not ask that they are not going to answer.

When you go for a content job in an NGO you need to be prepared well. You need to know what is happening in the world and you need to convince the interviewer that you are really into the subject because we are getting a lot of applications from very capable people. For example, we just had an opening for human rights education and so there needs to be a lot of conceptional ideas.

In general, internships really help. I know it is an unfortunate situation, but they can be paid. We have a long waiting list, but I always try to get as many people as possible in for three months before they apply because then they have a better understanding of how it works. It is the internships – ideally two or three in the same field – that NGOs are looking for because with a beginner from university you always need to invest a lot. In the private sector, we know that. But in the NGOs, they do not understand that you need to invest in the first couple of years and then you get the payback – not just money-wise. They are still very hesitant on taking in beginners, unfortunately. I’m changing that at the moment.

The other option is to have experience from working part time voluntarily in any kind of organisation like Human Rights Watch, or even at Amnesty. In that case, you do have a sense of what we are doing.

Personally, I like it when people are not shy, ask me questions and really want to know what they are applying for. But I promise you there are some people who would not like that too much. And here we come back to communication and empathy as it is important to get a feeling of the person that sits opposite to you.

 

“Be courageous, be brave, say what you think.”

 

As we’re coming to an end, is there any advice you have for students or something you would have liked to know at the beginning of your career or during your studies?

There is probably a lot and I need to think about it. I repeat myself: Be courageous, be brave, say what you think. I do think that our school and university systems put in place a certain hierarchy. Very often I get the feeling that people look at me like I’m somewhere up here and then they do not show who they are and what they want because of that.

I can just say that all interviewees I kept in mind had that. Because keep in mind I’m getting 100 or 200 applications for a job and I take one or two minutes per application. That is already 200 minutes and I’m having a cigarette in between or a coffee, so half my day is gone just for one job. I would not have imagined how that works in real life when I was at university. That is why the application needs to be perfect from a graphic point of view because people remember more by visuals. I never read through it. It is the first two sentences, the CV and the overall look I’m looking at and then I already sort out. I remember myself making applications and I know I never imagined it to be like that. When you gather rejections, it can be a complete mistake; I mean I’m not perfect, of course, I make mistakes. It very often does not have anything to do with ‘oh they did not like me’. There is such a huge amount of luck and the performance of the person who reads the application on that day. That is why they need to look perfect. The ones that do not look properly or have spelling mistakes, I’m immediately putting on the rejection pile because it shows that person did not really want the job, and they did not make an effort.

Afterwards, I go into the content. That is the part that you cannot influence too much. But when you are invited for an interview, my advice would be to be confident, be open-minded and just say what you think. Again, it’s a question of memory. When I do 10 to 20 job interviews every week and you afterwards think ‘who was that person?’, you just cannot remember. I think that is something that is underestimated.

I would also recommend doing an internship or something like that straight away. When you are good you immediately get offered a job. Before writing 300 applications rather go for a three-month internship, and then maybe something works out internally. Putting everything in the newspaper and on the online platforms is a lot of work for us. If we find somebody who we already know in a shorter way of course that is good. I also underestimated that.

One last thing, just to give you a laugh. Now we do a lot of job interviews via video conferences. I would not recommend wearing pyjamas or a jogging suit and having wet hair. I mean I’m not particularly looking at the looks, but that is a bit too much of easy going. And I had that happening. I was like okay, you really do not need to wear a suit anymore, but it just shows me that this person is not really interested. If walking into the bathroom for 5 minutes is too much to ask for, how can they work? It does not give a good impression.

When starting to work, I think the networking factor is also something younger people do not do enough. They do their job; they do what they are told and then they go home. But networking from the first day onwards, inside and outside, is very important. Most of the things I have got offered in my life I got because of people that knew me or heard about me.

 

What advice would you give to somebody who wants to promote human rights in their life without working in an NGO or being a member of it. Is there something everybody could do in their everyday lives?

Definitely. At Amnesty, we have a very good tool which is called “Urgent Action”. It is on our website and it is also an app. It takes you about three to five minutes a day to support it. It is single cases everywhere in the world with a petition principle. It is absolutely about the idea that quantity matters. When the numbers are getting too high, everybody gets nervous. Just go on your mobile device and support a case, for example, that somebody should be freed. It really is something everybody can do every day.

On top of that, I think it is very important to bring human rights education everywhere you can. I do think that human rights should be a part of the curriculum everywhere, but they are not. And then we are surprised that the next generation takes it for granted and is not showing good defense mechanisms when human rights are under attack. I do think speaking with professors and teachers and asking them why they do not include human rights is important. If I remember it correctly only one state in Germany (North Rhine-Westphalia) has it in their school plan. Always asking questions in universities and schools is very important. I think that when the Corona pandemic is over, going on demonstrations is also important. Again, quantity matters. These are things everybody can do, especially when they live in Munich or Berlin.