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!
Q. Hi Nick,
I run a small business designing, engineering and building low cost, environmentally friendly houses. In the past, I have worked alongside my father to assist in the development of remote communities in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and remote Aboriginal communities in Australia. We have developed several innovative systems of building and water storage which are simple, cost effective, can be easily made cyclone or earthquake proof,and can be easily flat packed into shipping containers.
The buildings and subfloors are designed to be assembled in a day using basic tools, and will remain permanent (but can be easily disassembled and moved). I feel this would suit the purpose of disaster relief perfectly, and help disaster stricken communities rebuild immediately, rather than providing them with inadequate, or temporary shelter (quite often with little improvement to preexisting structures).
We have a small, hard working team of builders, engineers and architects, who would all love the opportunity to work alongside local communities to develop or rebuild. The aid work we have done in the past has proven to be very successful, and has helped to educate locals with practical knowledge as well as many life skills. However, previous funding has only allowed for small scale developments.
How would you recommend I get involved with some larger humanitarian organizations?
A. Hi Alex – thanks for the question. First off I want to point out that I am completely unable to speak to the merits of your particular technology, but this is a question I get a lot – not on this blog, but in my day job at a humanitarian organization. Every time there is a disaster in the news I reliably get 4-5 emails from people and companies with some kind of product or service to help humanitarian responders. The vast majority of them get ignored, for a couple of major reasons:
- International humanitarian organizations are very conservative about adopting new technologies. They worry that, while your shelter solution might be better, there might also be some hidden flaw that will end up causing unintended grief to them and others. Under pressure and with tight time constraints, procurement managers tend to play it safe and go with tried and tested solutions.
- Procurement for disasters is typically managed regionally, with requests for bids from suppliers published in the relevant region. If you don’t see those, it can be very hard to compete.
- Finding the right person in a humanitarian organization to champion your idea can be really hard.
That isn’t to say that humanitarian organizations are uninterested in innovation and new solutions though – most of the major ones conduct regular field trials of new approaches and products. So here are a couple of tips that I have for connecting and getting on the inside track:
- Don’t contact organizations in the weeks after a major disaster. Everyone is busy, and is not interested in testing something new.
- Understand the structure of the organization you’re targeting. In your case you need to figure out who is responsible for shelter, site planning, refugee or displacement issues, or infrastructure. Figuring out exactly who it is you want to talk to is an art, not a science.
- Understand what solution the organization is currently using, and be able to talk about the two side-by-side.
- Look for ways to get a demonstration unit to the organization at no cost to them. Even if the cost is modest, this can be a big impediment for organizations whose major revenue is linked to specific donor budgets. Either front the cost yourself, or look to see if a foundation or private donor might fund a public trial of the technology.
- You might want to approach a local university to see if they would be interested in conducting a side-by-side trial of your solution – an independent endorsement can go a long way.
Hope that helps!
On April 25th 2015 Nepal was hit by an a devastating earthquake that killed thousands. For those wishing to help I would recommend a generous donation to Mercy Corps, an organization I have personal experience with that has existing programs and staff in Nepal. For other options take a look at the New York Times’ recommendations.
I feel conflicted about even posting on this issue, but I have already had questions asking whether it’s a good idea to get on a plane and go volunteer or look for jobs in Nepal. Well – the short answer is “no – don’t do this“. The slightly longer answer is that this isn’t a good idea – you risk making things worse by traveling to an area you don’t know, getting in the way, getting hurt, and / or putting more strain on relief efforts at a critical time.
That said. This is a difficult issue. While on the one hand it seems tasteless even to be talking about looking for work while the dust has literally yet to settle in Nepal, the fact is that aid workers are employed where there are disasters, just as doctors are employed only because there are sick people. The aid community does not have an unlimited number of people to deploy to new disasters. While existing staff in country will mount the initial international response, and national efforts will make up the bulk of assistance, many people, local and international, will be hired into the aid business for the first time as a result of the Nepal earthquake.
People who are on the ground with skills that are needed by aid groups, be they national or expatriate, can and should be hired to fill vital roles, and this is one of the ways that new people get their first opportunities, especially since the aid world tends not to hire people without prior field experience. Certainly earthquakes and other natural disasters are a much more forgiving recruiting channel than wars and civil unrest.
So – for someone who is serious about making a career of international relief and development (not simply wanting to go help for a few weeks), and ready to get their first field job, my answer to the question “should I get on a plane to Nepal” would be pretty similar to my usual advice on this issue:
“No. Not yet, at least. Wait until search and rescue operations are complete, and the danger of getting in the way of life-saving activities is past. Then, if you’re serious, do your research (there’s much more advice elsewhere on this blog about that) and then get on a plane to the nearest unaffected city.
As of three days after the quake in Nepal it is being reported that taxis are not functioning in Katmandu, there are no hotel rooms available, the single runway is overcrowded with relief flights, and food and water are in short supply. DON’T show up in a place with these conditions – wait until things normalize at least to the point where regular infrastructure functions.
Figure out where the major aid agencies are basing their operations, make sure that there is functioning tourist infrastructure (hotels, taxis etc) so that you are not being a burden, and then go knock on doors and volunteer. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, introduce yourself without getting in the way, explain what you’re good at, and ask if there is anything that you can do to help. Chances are if you are gracefully persistent, someone will be able to put you to work.”
- The Guardian has a useful article on this.
- Bustle has a nice piece on ways to volunteer from home.
- CityLab talks about OpenStreetMap, which is using remote volunteers to create high quality maps of Nepal to aid humanitarian operations.
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.