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 I got this question a little while ago, and I it’s a long way outside my area of expertise. Not to worry, because fortunately Michael Herrman of band Buoy LaRue was able to field this one!
You can see one of his music videos, made collaboratively with local musicians and shot in Kabul called “Comes & Goes”.
Do you have any ideas about how a musician might get into humanitarian aid work in Southern Africa? Or how a musician living in the US might prepare himself to become a good candidate for this kind of work? There is a good chance that I will be moving to South Africa in a couple of years to pursue an advanced degree and my partner, a successful musician with no college degree, will be coming with me. He isinterested in getting into aid work, but a degree is a prerequisite for most organizations we have researched thus far. He has other skills in addition to music, including building and remodeling work, and he would like to work with children–he has been especially inspired by UNICEF’s projects. Should he think about finishing school (as he has a couple of years worth of community college credits under his belt), at the very least, or can he bulk up his experience with extensive volunteer work prior to our departure? Thank you! Sabennaba“
Nick: So first off Michael, why don’t you tell us a little about your story, and why you’re the right person to advise on this one.
Michael: My wife works for an INGO in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I was living in the States, and we were apart for a number of months. I finally decided that I wanted to go and not only see what her world is like, but it turned out that there was a school there teaching Afghan kids how to play rock and roll. I felt there was a niche for me to fill there – I was teaching music before I left, but when I went out there I just fell in love with what the school was doing, realized that they had all of this potential to make a difference in this community, but no resources at all. I just felt that I was in the right place at the right time – what I could offer to this school just felt like my calling, and gave me a sense of purpose. Since then I’ve been doing benefit concerts for the school, raising money for instruments, and I’m planning on going back in the next month or two. My particular experience was as an artist with a partner in the humanitarian aid world who was based in a place where there just happened to be a music school. I just took a leap, and closed down my life in Portland, and just went out there to be with her and to use what I do to help people.
I was teaching – bass, guitar, drums, whatever people wanted to learn. The co-founder of the school is an accomplished cellist and pianist – together, we split up the lessons and lead groups of students in ensemble rehearsals every week. We wanted to show them what it was like to play music with other people too. Allowing them space to develop new ways of communicating with each other in order to play the song. I was teaching in Portland for 10 years, and my experience in Kabul was unlike anything else. These kids, many of them are young adults, but they’re having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to play music, and there’s a lot of inspiration there. Being able to be a part of that, helping to foster a lot of young bands that are popping up there, it’s great.
Nick: So lets get to the question:
Michael: Well, I have no idea about Southern Africa in particular, but In general my advice to any musician who wants to work abroad or volunteer would be to figure out who is doing what it is that you’re passionate about and just reach out to them. In my case what I’m particularly fond of is working with youth – using music as therapy for traumatized youth. For me it was hanging out at music venues, finding places where they are working with youth and music. At the very least, just get yourself there – that’s usually the hardest part!
One of the things that I realized being there, that I think is true across the board really, is just getting yourself there. You’ll find a way to be useful, and there’ll be something that you’re needed for. Just buying your plane ticket is the hardest part. Once you get there I’m almost positive that it will work out. I mean, you should do your research, and make sure that there is something there for you, but I think just getting there is the hardest part!
NOTE: Michael is married to an aid worker who works for a major international agency. Because of that he gets key benefits like health insurance, evacuation insurance, inclusion in security plans and other important things. I DO NOT recommend that anyone travel to a place like Afghanistan without these key things. It’s clearly very different in places with established tourist infrastructure, but please, please be careful out there – make sure you do your research about safety and security before you book a plane ticket.
You can find more about Michael and Buoy LaRue at www.buoylarue.com/, and learn about the Kabul School of Rock at Sound Studio Projects. Follow Buoy LaRue on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/buoy.larue), and buy CDs and merch here!
I got this question in the comments recently, and wanted to give a more lengthy reply than usual.
“I am passionate about three things in life : international relations, humanitarian working, and travelling. I hold a political sciences bachelor with an option in “humanitarian field”. I had the chance of studying quite deeply the Bosnian conflict.
I have now been travelling for the last 7 months, from France to Dubai by land, and I am now in Israel. I want to accomplish a master’s degree in humanitarian gestion and coordination in Paris (I am French) when I go back home.
My question is : I really would like to work in places like Afghanistan, Mali and such, but I am pretty sure I don’t want to do this only. I know how to travel without almost any money so this is not a problem; so my ideal life would be working for NGOs 50% of the time, and travelling 50% of the time, without any jobs and duties, and take time to learn languages and things like that.
How would the NGOs’s employers would feel about a guy who keeps working for 6 months or 1 year and then ‘disappear’ from the carreer path for the same amount of time ? Is it perceived as a very bad thing or they don’t care ?“
So – the quick answer is ‘yes – there are certainly ways to do this‘. Most of the people I know who do this work in the humanitarian side of the business, not in the longer term development, where turnover is very high and its not uncommon to have 3-6 month assignments. Organizations like MSF, ACF, ICRC, IRC, and a host of others will hire emergency project managers, engineers, medical staff etc on short term assignments to go set up or run refugee services, conflict programs, disaster response programs etc. I know people who work six month a year as rafting guides or some such, then six months as refugee camp managers, and I know a couple who does three year rotations – in their words, they “work one year with the UN to fund their lifestyle, one year with an organization they respect for the good of their souls, and then take a year sailing because they really love that!“
It’s more difficult in the development side, but still pretty normal for people to do a 1 or 2 year stint then take six months off to go travel or sit on a beach, the industry is very used to this, and in fact kind of likes it because there isn’t always an immediate follow-on program for someone to work on, and managing burnout by taking time off is a really good thing in the long term.
As long as you’re up-front about what you’re doing, honor commitments that you make, and don’t put people in difficult positions by disappearing at key times, you’ll be fine doing that.
Good luck, let us know how you do,
OK – so I’m hoping you had a great Christmas / holiday season – over the break I got this question from Seth, and while I usually answer questions in the comment sections, I wanted to pull this one out because there’s such a lot that I want to say about it.
“This might sound rude, but I’m very irritated. I want to go to the worst of the worst places and do humanitarian work. I don’t care about hours, conditions, type of work or the danger. I can’t find one organization that brings volunteers on board without thousands of dollars in their pocket for “safe home bases” or whatever they spend it on. I care less about a home base, I’ll sleep in a damn tent! I’m sorry, I just need help. I truly just want to go and help people, but I can’t save up that amount of money. Can you direct me to anybody looking for volunteer humanitarian workers where you don’t have to spend 4,000$ to help people. Thanks“
It’s not an uncommon sentiment, and it’s one that I identify with, so I don’t want anyone to interpret my response as being unsympathetic. That said, I’m going to address this question by explaining the reason why there are not a lot of organizations that take volunteers without some element of ‘pay-to-play’.
1. So the background to this question is that there are a bunch of organizations that offer ‘humanitarian volunteer’ or ‘working vacation’ type experiences, and as Seth points out, they usually cost thousands of dollars. The reason for this is that deploying foreigners to developing countries is expensive. Flights, insurance, visas, amenities, in-country travel, accommodation, supervision, all add up, and that money has to come from somewhere. Major international donors are unwilling to pay these costs, so the volunteer is left holding the can. Of course, the other reason these things exist is that there is a market for them – some people are willing to pay to do this.
2. So why isn’t there a demand from organizations for unskilled international volunteers? Seth doesn’t attach his resume, or mention whether he has any particular background or experience that would make him a valuable asset to an aid organization, but the fact that he doesn’t care what work he is assigned suggests to me that this isn’t an area he’s thought through a whole lot. The fact is that the developing world is packed with bright, enthusiastic, hard-working people who live locally, speak the local language, and don’t require international relocation. Between 90 and 99% of staff in any emergency or development program will be hired from the country the program is in. The only reason expatriates (volunteer or paid) are brought in is a) they have a skill-set that can’t be sourced locally, or b) a major donor insists on a expatriate in a certain key management position. Frankly it doesn’t look like Seth fits the bill on either of these categories.
3. Seth says that “I want to go to the worst of the worst places and do humanitarian work. I don’t care about hours, conditions, type of work or the danger.” Well frankly, as a hiring manager, that rings alarm bells for me. Imagine the look you would get if you showed up in an Emergency Room and said “I just want to do trauma surgery – why won’t anyone take me as a volunteer?” A lot of the work in ‘the worst places’ takes place in fragile and potentially violent environments. The reason agencies want experienced trained staff is that people do get kidnapped, hurt or killed doing this, and most of them are not expatriates, but locals. Agencies care very much about the safety of their staff, not simply because they are human beings, but because having a staff member killed can close down a program and put staff and beneficiaries at risk. Agencies don’t want to hire Indiana Jones, they want cautious, professional managers who realize the importance of maintaining safe, secure, and sustainable operating conditions for their teams.
So. What to do? It comes back to:
a) Develop a skill that is useful in the field. This can be anything from project management, finance, nursing, logistics, you name it.
b) Get experience living and working in the kinds of environments where you want to work. No responsible agency is going to throw you into the ‘worst places in the world’ without starting you out somewhere more stable. Peace Corps is a great place to start, but there are lots of alternatives.
Sorry to rant, Seth – I hope that helps a little! Happy New Year, and good luck!
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,