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!
I get a lot of questions about what degrees people should pursue, and anyone who has read this site knows my stock answer to this question, but I thought I’d pass on a resource from Monthly Developments (a worthwhile read in its own right) that came out a couple of months ago. Their September 2013 issue contains a career and education special feature that includes practical tips for getting started, mentoring in international relief, and a some of the university programs which focus on development and humanitarian issues.
You can download the issue here (although you may need a free registration), and while you’re at it read my recent article on retaining the best staff in hardship posts here, and an article that you might find interesting on ‘disaster tourism’ and how to avoid causing harm here.
As always, it helps me to maintain this site if you buy my ebook (or anything else through the affiliate link below) on Amazon!
Getting your first job in relief and development
I get a lot of questions about how to get your first break in humanitarian aid. It’s a topic that’s close to my heart, because I dealt with the ‘field experience’ catch 22 myself. I must have been turned down by pretty much every aid agency in the UK because I didn’t have any field experience.
The route I took isn’t something I would necessarily recommend to anyone, but as I was going through some old photos I thought I would tell the story of how I got my first job in this field (over a series of posts). This photo was taken in the winter of 1996 – its me, in downtown Sarajevo, about a year after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After graduating from college, I was on the path to further academia, about to enroll in a PhD program. Stopping by at a friend’s house one morning I met a friend of theirs who had just returned from working as a logistician for MSF, and heard his stories of working on the Rwanda emergency. The conversation stuck with me, and ultimately derailed my academic career aspirations. I declined the PhD offer I had, and began to apply for jobs with international aid agencies. Depressingly, all of them declined me, the polite ones writing back to inform me that I didn’t have any field experience. Somewhat discouraged, that winter I decided to travel to Bosnia on my own to take a look around, and see whether this was something I was serious about.
In retrospect I was woefully ill prepared, I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I spoke no real Serbo-Croat, and had no institutional support if anything had gone wrong. But, there we are – I’m smiling in this photo because I’d made it – I was in the place I’d been watching on the news for so many years, surrounded by the circus of international assistance agencies and NATO soldiers.
For people who have questions that go beyond the general kind that I answer on the site, I offer personalized career counseling. I wanted to share a recommendation from a client that I worked with recently:
“I am a development officer from Eastern Europe with the focus on working mainly with vulnerable populations. For a while I have been thinking about finding a new job and started sending my resumes to employers. It didn’t seem to work. I addressed Nick for help and the advice he provided to me was really useful. First of all, we discussed the big picture and he helped me to get a direction and be more specific with my search. Second, he helped me to fix my cover letter and my resume. Now I am much more confident about my chances of landing a new job.
Nick also charged me a very reasonable fee, which is an important thing for all of us development folks living in the real world. At the same time I believe this was one of the most strategic investments I have ever made. :) Thanks a lot, Nick!“
If this is something that you might find helpful do drop me an email and we can discuss how you can best position yourself to advance your career aspirations,
I’m getting a lot of questions asking whether its a good idea to get on a plane to the Philippines right now. People wonder whether this is a good opportunity to get a start in humanitarian aid – after all – this is a huge emergency and the needs are immense, right?
The short answer is ‘no’. You should not get on a plane to the Philippines right now. The initial days and weeks of an emergency are chaotic and you will likely make things worse by being a burden on already stretched systems.
The longer answer is that many people do get their entry into this line of work by being on the ground when a disaster like this strikes. That’s a bit of a paradox, I know, but there is a difference between happening to be studying in the area and helping out, and going there after the fact.
What I would say is that after the initial humanitarian response calms down and the urgent need is dealt with, the region is certainly going to see an influx of money and jobs, and for people who have done the research, bring a compelling value proposition, and do it responsibly, there will be great job opportunities.
In the meantime Slate has a good article on how to help! http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/11/how_to_help_typhoon_haiyan_survivors_in_the_philippines_the_only_donation.html
School is back in, and I’m teaching two classes at the University of Oregon this fall – Humanitarian Aid & Development, Peace & Conflict, and Careers in International Relief and Development. One thing that I’ve noticed over the past few years of teaching these courses (that is echoed in the patterns of hiring of aid agencies) is that people seeking (and getting) jobs in this sector are significantly more nationally and, ethnically diverse. For example, about a quarter of my Careers class is now non-American. I’m also getting a lot more questions from non-American and non-Western job-seekers.
All this is just to say that I will be putting some more effort into a significant push for more content aimed at people looking to break into this line of work from outside the traditional countries!
I hesitate to add to the tsunami of snark that surrounds Mindy Budgor’s book about the time this Californian woman spent saving the Maasai from themselves, but I have to. Please, please, observe this phenomenon, and understand it as the totem of everything that can go wrong when our urge to feel better about ourselves by helping others (combined with a little narcissism and a short attention span) gets the better of our common sense and human decency.
Africa Is A Country is always a fun blog, by the way.
In an intriguing collaboration between Save the Children, Deakin University, and AusAID, with participation from World Vision, Oxfam, PLAN, CARE and ADRRN, Save is offering a Graduate Certificate in Humanitarian Leadership. The 8 month program is open to senior managers working in the humanitarian and development sectors with INGOs, UN organizations or similar bodies.
Already piloted with 100 students from some 30 countries in 2011 / 12, the program me is sponsored by AusAID, Save the Children, and a fee waiver from Deakin university, making the program free for qualifying students.
While this clearly isn’t an opportunity for people seeking their first job in the field, its part of a long trend towards formalization of the kinds of skills that humanitarian agencies seek, and a welcome break from the usual reluctance to invest in training and staff development!
For more information on the program check out: humanitarianleaders.org