This site is about getting your first job as a humanitarian aid worker. Whether you want to run refugee camps, micro credit programs or health programs, this is my personal opinion (not my employer’s) about ways to make the transition to international relief and development work.
If you find this site at least as useful as a coffee and a bagel, and wonder how you can possibly thank me, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development.
My take on getting a job as a humanitarian aid worker is organized by chapters (on the right-hand side under the heading Book chapters) – and is supposed to be read top-to-bottom more or less like a book. Book reviews and other pieces are posted below. Find out more about this blog here.
Please read the disclaimer, and understand that this line of work is not risk free. You need to do your own research, make your own decisions, and take responsibility for them.
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So the debate on whether volunteers are appropriate in a development context continues to rumble on, and I wanted to draw your attention to a recent Guardian article entitled ‘15 ways to make your mark as a volunteer – volunteers, recruiters and NGOs give advice on turning a placement or internship into a development career‘. It came to my attention via a tweet from AidSource at AidSpeak.
The only thing I would say about this is that ‘J’s article at AidSpeak does seem to conflate ‘volunteer’ with ‘unqualified volunteer’.
Getting field experience when you don’t have any is hard. That’s why I’m always surprised when I suggest Peace Corps as a great start how few people are excited by it. I honestly don’t know why – it’s a great structured way to get two years of overseas work experience, you can often defer debt you may have, they pay your insurance, living costs and resettlement, not to mention health and evacuation insurance, and it’s a great opportunity to network in the region.
Did I mention that you should network while you’re there? I’m horrified that people come back from Peace Corps without an extensive list of contacts in the development industry who they have studiously got to know over the last two years. The other major advantage is, of course, the Peace Corps alumni network – or ‘mafia’ as its often called. Don’t discount the value of this in getting your foot in the door with a recruiter who also did Peace Corps.
So – the Washington Post reported this week on some significant changes to the program – most notably that you can now choose your priority countries, and that this will be taken seriously, and that the wait will be cut from 1 year to 6 months for applications. Both of these are huge and overdue improvements that should make Peace Corps even more appealing.
I wanted to share some choice elements of travel advice that I received this morning from a travel agent who is helping me on a trip to the Middle East. I’m transiting through the UK, and was pleased to hear that there is “Low risk from food”, and risk from rabies only “from bat bites or scratches”. I was a little skeptical based on my experience that the “transport system is … reliable“, and when told that “lack of cultural awareness unlikely to cause major offense” began to suspect that the person who had put together this briefing had never been to Glasgow. That said I do think that in general the standard of preparedness and support for aid workers traveling has got better over the years, at least for the most part.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that the buck stops with you when travel anywhere. Regardless of the advice you do or don’t get, you need to do your own research, and gauge security and safety issues for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask any agency you are traveling with how their advice is put together, when it was last reviewed, and the credentials of the people or agency that wrote it. Don’t be afraid of sounding rude – these are common sense questions that no agency should be put off by.
If you don’t like the answers you’re getting, be prepared to walk away from the assignment. While it can be tempting, especially when your first job is on the line, to take risks you might not be comfortable with in the cold light of day, it’s really not worth placing your safety in the hands of someone in whom you don’t have confidence.
I have a BSC in civil engineering and but have a heart to serve and help people, I have excellent interpersonal skills, I even won an international reward. I have done mission works for years and would love to get a job in humanitarian aid, how do I go about getting my first job, please advice.“
So – this is another ‘intractable question’ – the poster is asking for individual career advice without giving anything like enough specific information. What kind of job are you looking for? Do you have any other qualifications? What exactly is the ‘mission work’ you’ve done? Where was it? That said, let’s take a swing:
As Neil Gaiman said, “You’ve a good heart. Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it’s not.” Luckily you have an engineering degree, excellent interpersonal skills and an international award too! It is actually on my schedule to post an interview with a humanitarian engineer, but for the moment I would say that I don’t think getting your first job as an engineer in this line of work is very different to any other first job. You need the qualifications that the job requires, you need experience living and working in the kinds of places the job requires you to be, and it doesn’t hurt to have good contacts in the aid world.
I do think in the meantime there are a couple of good resources for the engineering inclined:
1. REDR – the Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief is a great organization.
2. Engineering in Emergencies : A Practical Guide for Relief Workers is exactly what it says on the tin.
3. Thirdly I think my book Getting your first job in relief and development is packed with good advice on this issue! While we’re on that topic, I have 11 reviews on the book, and hundreds of posts and questions on this site – I’d love it if you felt like buying the book, but if not reviewing and rating it helps me a lot! Thanks!
So – some of the questions I get on this site are ones I feel able to answer, and some of them are not really ‘questions’, but requests for extensive work developing a career plan. I raise this distinction to explain a little my rationale in starting to offer personal career counseling services. I’m happy to answer questions – if there is an answer to the question – but I simply cannot help this poster without a set of conversations and quite a lot more information.
“Hi I am a medical graduate and … have done my MBA and have been working with a food and beverages company for almost a year now as a finance manager. I have always realized that I want work which is meaningful and more than money which gives me the satisfaction of having helped someone improve their life. Also to be completely honest which affords me the opportunity to travel to exotic locations.
How can I go about applying for a job with the UN,WHO or doctors without borders. My qualifications are mismatching with low levels of work experience, I have been educated in elite colleges, both medical and MBA in India but want to start in the humanitarian field, Kindly suggest how can I go about it.“
That said, there might be some value in laying out the process I use with career counseling clients.
1. We’re going to want to nail down some specific short to medium term career goals here – ‘a job with the UN, WHO or doctors without borders’ is not specific enough. I would want this person to do some research on specific examples of jobs that they would like to get in the next 12-18 months, with specific organizations, and save the postings and job descriptions. We’re going to use them to analyze the resume and cover letter.
2. Once we’ve got 5-10 of these target job postings (hopefully they are somewhat similar – if they are not then we’re going to have to repeat this process for each ‘type’) we’re going to go through them an pull out the main things that the posting is asking for in terms of experience, skills, qualifications etc. We’ll end up with a list of 5-20 requirements.
3. We’re going to compare the resume and cover letter with this list. Objectively, does the applicant have what the agency is asking for? If so, then we can jump to the point of polishing the resume and cover letter, and beginning a networking plan. If not, then we’re going to need to look for ways to get those things, be it education, internships, Peace Corps or the like, or stepping-stone jobs.
4. Assuming we have a close enough match between the applicant and the skills required, then we can work on making sure that the resume and cv communicate that match effectively.
5. Finally, we’re going to want to identify a group of people who either have the types of jobs that the candidate is looking for, or hire for them. The candidate is going to make it their business to get to know these people through professional networking.
So, in brief – there’s the answer to the question “Kindly suggest how can I go about it.” It’s a process, and its different for everyone.
I’m happy to work with people to craft an individual plan, but I do have to charge for that service. In the meantime, if you want to know whether it’s a good idea to take your pet with you, or what kinds of tropical diseases you might reasonably expect to contract, please do send your questions my way!
I have been thinking of this kind of job but I have a dog I’m very fond of and would hate to get rid of are there ways to take a pet with you? – James
Hi James – thanks for your question!
First off – I don’t have any definitive numbers on the number of expatriate aid workers with pets, but there are certainly some. Some adopt (usually) cats or dogs on assignment, others bring the animals with them from home. It’s certainly possible to take your dog with you, but let me give you my rather personal take on this.
When I worked as a desk officer for a major relief and development agency one of the things that I was responsible for was making sure that everything landed in the right place when we were moving expats, their families, and possessions around the world. In the region I worked on we had a handful of expats who had pets, and from time to time I would have to defrag issue related to shipping, handling, and even medical care for their dogs. I have a friend who once even coordinated an evacuation in which he had to get a dog on the manifest of a UN flight. In general the people who do this tend to have a level of seniority that gives them a certain amount of leeway to get the support from their organization that they usually need, but that’s not always the case.
Now understand that I’m not a dog or a cat person, and that my attitudes to this are shaped by the fact that I’ve worked a lot in cultural environments where dogs are not kept as pets, but I have to wonder sometimes at the implicit ethical messages we’re sending when some of our staff spend more on their pets than a typical family spends on food. I think I’m especially uncomfortable with the situations where I’ve seen staff draw-downs where expats and their pets are flown to safety but national staff members are left behind. There are good reasons for this, but the perception of it makes me uncomfortable.
So – the short answer to your question is “yes – it’s possible” – the longer answer is that I don’t think it will increase your chances of getting your first job in this line of work. One of the strategies I advocate is to be as easy to hire as possible, and introducing the idea of shipping animals around the world makes you a more complicated proposition. When you’re a little more senior it’s easier to get away with, but for entry level positions it could put people off. I’d also ask you to really think through whether you want your animal with you in this kind of environment, and how that will look to the local population.
Thanks for the question,
Let us know how you do,
I always get this question a lot, but currently I’m getting it about three times a week. No matter how many times I feel like I keep answering it, it comes back again and again. Unfortunately I think the problem is that I don’t have the answer people want to hear – but here we go again.
There’s a new page on the topic here, but the short story is ‘some professions (engineering, health, finance etc) require specific (usually graduate) qualifications to practice. If your chosen route does, then you need to get the related degree or qualification. If not, then I don’t think it much matters what you study.‘ Obviously, something that signals an interest in development issues might be better than something that doesn’t, but in reality field experience is much, much more important than degree in non-technical positions. Study what you like, but make sure you use your studies to get as much experience in the kinds of environments where you want to work as you can!