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!
It’s been a bad year so far in terms of aid workers killed by combatant forces. While every death is equally tragic, we call out attacks on aid workers as being particularly deplorable because they are simultaneously an attack on the rights of civilians to receive needed assistance.
When contemplating their sacrifice I was reminded of Cecil Day-Lewis’s poem ‘The Volunteer‘ – the poem is about an English volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, but seems appropriate:
“Tell them in England, if they ask
What brought us to these wars,
To this plateau beneath the night’s
Grave manifold of stars –
It was not fraud or foolishness,
Glory, revenge, or pay:
We came because our open eyes
Could see no other way.“
Q. How do you get field experience without getting an entry-level position somewhere? You need the entry-level job to get experience, but can’t get the entry-level job without experience. That just doesn’t add up.
A. Hi there – it’s a good question, and it’s really the central problem that most people face when trying to get into this line of work. The problem is that aid agencies don’t want to hire people with no field experience – they don’t want to risk finding out whether or not they are able to do the job, and they don’t want to spend time training them.
Agencies prefer to hire people with a track record of work overseas, and the fact is that there are (usually) enough of those folks to fill open positions. Without the critical 2-3 years of experience living and working overseas it’s very tough to land a field job with an aid agency.
So – how do people get past the catch-22? A lot of them go into the Peace Corps, or do other voluntary or low-paid programs that give them a first step on the ladder, some find (or make) their own opportunities to volunteer or work for local organizations.
For some they happen to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, for example a friend of mine was a Fulbright scholar in Sri Lanka at the time of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and was hired for her knowledge of local civil society.
I don’t recommend getting on a place to volunteer in the next crisis, but being present in areas where international organizations have field offices can be a huge advantage in terms of looking for jobs. The opportunities to network and volunteer are much better. Just make sure that if you go that way you look for places that have regular tourist infrastructure so that you are not putting yourself at undue risk.
Hope that helps somewhat – unfortunately there’s no simple answer – most people have some sort of story about persistence, creativity, and luck.
Q. Hey Nick,
Your site was very helpful! I’m actually a grade ten student, at fifteen years old, and humanitarian aid is the closest I’ve come to my dream job thus far. As of right now, it might as well be my dream job. However, if it is my dream job “for certain”, I’m not so sure. I need to make a decision fast about what I want to persue for the rest of my years at high school, but how do I know that humanitarian work is for me if I have no experience in the field whatsoever, as I am only fifteen?
Although I am attending a Me to We Youth Volunteer Trip to Ecuador this summer. I realize that the conditions will be quite luxurious compared to the conditions of an aid worker, and the stuff I will be doing (building a school, learning a language, volunteering with community members) is a lot different than the work of an aid worker, but is it a good start? This will be the first time I have left Canada, and I’m quite excited. I know that I want to travel (see the world – in it’s beauty AND in it’s destruction), and I have a passion for volunteering and helping people that is probably unnatural, so a career that contains both is exciting for me.
I’m doing all of the research I can surrounding humanitarian work, and I loved your site – it has helped me very much in discovering what humanitarian/international aid is all about.
A. Hi Hannah,
First off, thanks for the kind words about the site – I’m glad it’s helpful.
Second – I want to let you know that you’re doing everything right in terms of figuring out what you want to do with your life. While you do need to make decisions about what you take in school, those decisions won’t be that important in terms of jobs in relief and development. If you think you might want to go to medical school, become an architect, or a professional musician, taking the right classes in school might be really important, but in the aid world it doesn’t matter that much (unless you want to work as a medical professional or an accountant, for example).
You should definitely carry on getting experience overseas whenever those opportunities present, learning a language is always an advantage, and start to get work experience either overseas, or in related experiences in Canada. The main thing is to get your feet wet and figure out whether this is really something that you’re going to love, or something you love the idea of.
What I would say is that, more than ever, people are having several careers in their lifetimes, so while the decisions you’re making now are important, you will have opportunities to make changes later in life, so take them seriously, but don’t worry too much about them.
This article by ‘J’ from the Guardian might interest you, good luck, and let us know how you get on!
Q. Gday Nick.
My name is Chris. I am 28 and an established Carpenter of 12 years experience in the building and construction industry in QLD Australia. I am looking for a way to put my skills to better use. The industry in my area is very crowded and finding and securing work is becoming more and more difficult. I want to combine my love of travel, my desire to help or at least be involved and the skills I possess to help in areas such as; developing and third world countries remote and disaster areas.
I’m basically looking for some sort of a contact or a point in the right direction.
Would appreciate your feedback.
A. G’day, Chris.
So – you’re a carpenter, and it’s hard to find work, and you’d love to travel and help other people. So – I think that we need to deal with a couple of different issues here, and I’m going to be frank and honest, rather than tactful and sensitive. I hope that’s ok.
First – I don’t think carpentry is a skill that is in particularly high demand in the developing world. It’s rare that any society lacks the skills to construct basic shelters and structures. Most of the time there is plenty of semi-skilled and skilled labor available locally in these areas. What is often in demand is the ability to manage construction contracts on a large scale.
I would suggest that you don’t think of aid work as a way to find less competitive carpentry jobs – if anything the aid world is more competitive than a lot of careers. If there is a skill-set that is in high demand it is construction management, contracting, and the associated jobs of bidding and supervising sub-contracts.
Sorry if that isn’t what you wanted to hear,
Q. Hi Nick I found your blog whilst looking at international aid work. At the end of my education I will be a fully qualified physician associate. My question is can I do aid work with a chronic condition, I have a long-term neuralgic condition which requires medication but not much in the way of hospital treatment? I would love to get in to this field and use my skills where they are most needed. Any insight would be helpful.
A. Hi there – first of all, congratulations on your graduation!
So – the issue of long-term medical conditions. The broader question that I get quite a lot is whether particular disabilities or health conditions disqualify you for particular jobs. Unfortunately the answer can vary depending on where you are, and what country the organization hiring you is based but, in my experience there are a couple of things to consider:
1. Are you able to carry out the tasks in the job with or without reasonable accommodation on the part of your employer? Now, if the job description required you to drive, but your condition meant you couldn’t, that would not be a good fit, but if your condition is largely managed by medication then you should be fine.
2. The second issue is whether the location you are going to has adequate healthcare facilities. If you need regular treatment or availability of treatment in an emergency, and it is not present in the country you are going to that might be a deal breaker.
Basically you need to look at what the job requires, and what you need, and figure out whether there is a good match. In the main well treated chronic conditions don’t disqualify you for work. You might want to check out my interview with Tiana Tozer, which touches on this issue.
A couple of articles piqued my interest in the last couple of weeks, and I thought I’d share them:
This one ‘If not us, then who?’ from CNN takes its title from a comment from Michael Bowers, Mercy Corps’ senior director for strategic response and emergencies. It looks at some of the realities of operating in extremely insecure environments.
This NPR article called ‘The Truth About Humanitarian Work: High Ideals Vs Hard Realities‘, a short piece that looks at some of the motivations for people to work in dangerous environments like Syria.
A commentary from the Guardian on the state of LGBT rights in international NGO human resource departments, focussing on how straight aid work still is, at least in some parts of the industry. I’m lucky to work for one of the organizations that was a quiet leader in adopting equal opportunity policies with regard to sexual orientation – for a less progressive example see this Philanthropy.com article.
Lastly, something a little lighter – Frame Changers, a daily cartoon from Khanjan Mehta (Director, Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Pennsylvania State).
One of the core difficulties in getting your first job in relief and development is the question of how to get field experience. You can’t get hired without experience, and you can’t get experience without getting hired. It can be tempting to just show up somewhere where there is need and volunteer until you get hired. I want to highlight another tragic example of why I don’t think this is something you should do, at least not in active conflict areas.
In early 2015 IS released a statement saying that Kayla Muelle, an American woman they were holding hostage in Syria was killed in a Jordanian bombing raid. While the details are sparse, it appears that Kayla travelled to Aleppo in 2013 with another person who was working for an organization contracted by MSF. The two of them stayed overnight in Aleppo, and were kidnapped the next morning. The specifics of the case don’t really concern us, you can read more here, but I wanted to draw out a couple of important things to take away from this incident:
1. Foreigners in war-zones are not safe. They never have been, and they certainly are not now.
2. Kayla was apparently not employed by an aid agency at the time of her capture. No responsible agency would have sent her to Aleppo at the time, and she apparently lacked the kind of sound security analysis and advice that major international agencies provide to their staff.
3. You need to be very cautious about traveling to areas afflicted with conflict or strife. If you are volunteering on your own, or networking on the ground, make sure you stick to areas that have existing tourist infrastructure, a reputation for stability, and a regular flow of foreigners. This won’t guarantee your safety, of course, but it will make you no more likely to be targeted than regular tourists.
Let’s be careful out there,