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March 13, 2012

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.

If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my new Kindle eBook, which contains much of the content from this site, thoughtfully formatted for off-line reading on a Kindle, iPad, laptop, or other e-reader. It’s $6, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here

One more thing – I would love anyone who likes this site to go to Amazon and review the e-book – it really helps me to recover some of the costs of hosting this site – thanks!

We answer phones at a relief org, and we direct almost all of our requests for informational interviews to this resource. It's an honest, clear summary of what you need in order to work in international relief. Thanks for this great reference.

Rules and regulations training for USAID and others

August 25, 2014

One of the huge issues for INGOs that take government money face is the bewildering array of rules and regulations that are in place. As Inside NGO puts it – “The plethora of rules and regulations associated with the management of government grants and cooperative agreements by US NGOs is a source of regular and continuing frustration to those on the receiving end. Sorting out what is required, by whom, and when, is made even more complicated by the fact that the rules seem to be constantly changing and/or subject to differing interpretation. The situation usually means that authoritative answers are hard to find.

I want to draw your attention to Inside NGO, which, amongst other things, maintains a good list of trainings related to, amongst other things, donor regulations. One current example of this is the USAID/Federal Rules & Regulations: Grants & Cooperative Agreements, which addresses such questions as “What is an allowable cost? What procedures do I need to follow when purchasing equipment with USAID money? How much can I revise my budget without having to go to USAID for approval? How long should I retain records? What are the most common audit findings and how can I avoid being written up by my auditors?

If you’re new to this world, or even if you’ve been around the block, refreshing your memory on these issues can be worthwhile.

Live Q&A: international development career advice for students

August 19, 2014

The Guardian Development Professionals Network is hosting a live Q&A on international development career advice for students. It’s a topic that I get a lot of questions about, and I would encourage anyone interested to follow the chat and post questions on 21 August, 1-3pm BST (that’s British Summer Time).

The link is here, and I will be part of the panel.

Carpenter wanting to help people get on their feet.

August 12, 2014
Q. G’day mate, how are you? I’m a carpenter and would love to help people get on their feet with shelters and rebuilds and what not, can you point me in the direction of a group that could take me on? It becomes unaffordable to always leave a paying job,
A. Hi Thomas – I’m well, thanks. 
So – as I understand your question, you’re a carpenter, in Australia, who would like to carpent internationally, helping people who need support building a home. The bad news is that I don’t think that there are a lot of opportunities to work as a carpenter internationally. I’ve never come across community that was afflicted by shelter needs who lacked the skills to assemble or build shelters. Construction (unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled) is a fundamental activity that pretty much every society has figured out. Shipping foreigners who don’t understand the local language, cultural, colloquial building practices, procurement norms, and traditional construction scams is not usually a good idea technically or from a financial perspective.
That said, a solid understanding of construction, contracting, and construction management is a great skill-set that a lot of international agencies need. International NGOs often get money to build thousands of shelters, and need to issue bids, analyze them, issue and monitor contracts etc, and people who can do that efficiently and effectively are in demand in most large INGOs.
Hope that helps!

Volunteers – point / counterpoint

July 28, 2014

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’.

Peace Corps – a good option just got better!

July 16, 2014

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.

Washington Post article.

Travel warnings and safety

May 5, 2014

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.

Engineering careers and intractable questions!

April 25, 2014

Hi Nick
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!



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