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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. It also helps me to recover some of the costs of hosting this site when people review the e-book – thanks!

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 $7.99, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here.

If you have questions please do send them either by email or in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them or find someone who can. I also offer individual coaching services for people who have in-depth questions about their particular situation, want feedback and support with resumes and cover letters, or want interview coaching and critique. To learn more about that see my career coaching page.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.


Safety and security in the field

May 30, 2018

CNN ran an interesting article highlighting a study that shows one third of US military injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan were non-combat related. Falls, motor vehicle crashes, equipment accidents, blunt objects, non-combat gunshot wounds, and sports injuries were the most significant categories.

It’s a pattern we see in the aid world too. While deliberate violence against aid workers is on the rise in some areas, and we need to take that seriously, a huge part of the equation is old fashioned safety, with car crashes one of the biggest risks for aid workers.

See also:

Staying safe part one and;

Staying safe part two.

‘Shithole’ countries and humanitarian aid workers

April 19, 2018

Of course, Trump’s comments on ‘shithole’ countries are, indeed, a new low.

That said, the incident made me think a little about how we talk about the places where we work, and whether we always live up to the values we aspire to in this respect. Anyone who has hung out with aid workers for any length of time will have heard ‘so-there-I-was’ stories. These are used either to emphasize the implicit hierarchy of people based on how long they have spent in very tough places, or simply to entertain, and they have a pretty predictable formula, either:

  1. Straightforward accounts about how tough the place where the person was posted was (e.g. ‘of course, that was back in 1999, when security was really bad’, or ‘this was up-country, not in the capital where you could still get a cold beer’), or:
  2. An anecdote, the punchline to which has something to do with how bad the food was or how corrupt the local government was.

The aid world is rife with the same kind of gallows humor that medical professionals, police, and social workers are often guilty of, and it comes from the same place. It permeates our culture and our language. It diffuses tension and is a way for people under stress to let off steam. But when it’s overheard by outsiders, particularly by the people who live in the places we work and talk about, it can be deeply offensive.

Our fundraising language is also infused with the idea that these are not great places – a major agency recently adjusted their language to talk about working “on the world’s toughest problems” rather than in “the world’s toughest places”. Of course, it’s naive to pretend that Syria or South Sudan are not some of the world’s ‘toughest places’, but it’s important to remember not to let descriptions of conditions spill over into disrespect for people’s homes and histories.

Guidelines for doctors visiting developing countries

April 9, 2018

So the American College of Physicians put out a position paper in March 2018 entitled “Ethical Obligations Regarding Short-Term Global Health Clinical Experiences: An American College of Physicians Position Paper” aimed at ‘informing ethical decision making surrounding participation in short-term global health clinical care experiences.” It’s an interesting read, and I think even non physicians should consider taking a look at the issues it raises.

It’s also stoked controversy because, apparently, when putting together their guidelines for working in developing countries no people from developing countries were consulted.

Oops. Yes, and it’s not that unusual. We all need to remember when we write about countries or people without their involvement we both disrespect them, and also exclude the hugely valuable perspective they offer. This NPR article has the story.

Which websites post aid jobs?

April 4, 2018

I thought you would never ask! Here’s a good list to get started! I would definitely also use the agency websites themselves as well (like this one, and this one), since some things don’t get cross-posted.

Good luck!


Graphic design in humanitarian aid

April 4, 2018

mercy_corps_01The aid industry employs all of the same jobs as the rest of the world, as I was reminded the other day when I stumbled across this blog post from a graphic designer who worked on Mercy ways in which the visual identity has been deployed outside the strict brand guidelines that marketing folks usually want to see, he sounds like he made his peace with the way in which the realities of remote field locations insist on improvisation and adaptation!

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.21.10 AMThis is one of the rebrands that I actually like (three generations of Mercy Corps’ logo – top is the oldest one, very relief focussed, with a problematic cross front and center).

There have been a bunch in the last decade, some that I like, and some that I’m really not excited about. In no particular order, here is CRS’s before and after:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.32.20 AM


I’m actually more into the old one, partly because of its simplicity of the old one, and the fact that the new one uses the acronym and the name (which seems redundent), but a little bit because the ambiguous shape on the left side – that’s a motif we’ll start to see a lot…

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.48.09 AM

Here’s CARE – their old (blue) logo above, the new one below. I don’t know, I really liked the gritty simplicity of the stenciled logo. I get how the visual of lots of different hands appeals, but it doesn’t do it for me…

IRC thankfully seems to have gone the other way, trading their pretty horrible old flame/foot logo for a graphically simple and positive one:Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 1.23.25 PMI only wish they had kept the acronym – it’s much more recognizable at a distance.

Oxfam on the other hand are going in the other direction. Here is their original ‘Oxford Committee for Famine Relief’ logo, a bad rendering (which was all I could find – they seem to have scrubbed it pretty effectively from the internet!) of their old logo, and their newest ‘toilet seat’ logo (once you see it you can’t stop seeing it… ;(Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 1.32.46 PM

Anyway, I got a little sidetracked here, but what I was trying to say is, the aid world needs graphic designers… 😉



Too poor and debt-ridden to be an aid-worker?

March 29, 2018

Q. What happens when you are too poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…? How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free? It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.


A. So, Mia, I feel your pain…

I really do, but your fight isn’t with me, or even with the aid world, but with Capitalism. But let me back up for a minute. This isn’t a blog about how things should be, or how I think the aid world should work, it’s a blog about how to get your first job in the relief and development world. So I’m going to take your question seriously, and answer it as best I can. Apologies in advance though, because I don’t think you’re going to like the answer – I don’t like it either, for what it’s worth.

  1. What happens if you are poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…?

Well, you look for a job that pays well. I don’t mean this facetiously, you get the same complaint from law students, doctors, and pretty much everyone. Suppose you go to law school, wanting to fight for Greenpeace, but graduate with a lot of debt and find that enviro-anarchists don’t pay as well as Exon? It’s a real problem in a lot of industries. Want to cure the sick in low income people without health insurance, but graduate medical school with a lot of debt? Sorry!

2. How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free?

It’s hard. Areas of work where there is greater supply of unskilled inexperienced talent than demand (like acting, stand-up comedy, publishing, podcasting, etc) tend to have low starting wages. Sometimes these are even negative. This isn’t fair, it’s just a quirk of market economics. There are more people who want to be aid workers than there are jobs for them, so agencies are able to pay very little as starting wages, or even require people to pay for internships. That sucks, I wish it were different, but it isn’t. You might well ask how medical schools are able to ask students to pay money for 8 years, only to have to work for less than minimum wage until they become doctors – because there is a long line of people willing to. The ugly reality is a lot of aid workers have families or situations that allow them the luxury of spending extended amounts of time doing things that don’t make a lot of money.

3. It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

I would avoid the word ‘slave’, because I don’t think that anyone is forcing you to do this against your will, and I do think that plenty of other fields require that people put in a lot of time and effort to ‘make it’. That said, aid work is perhaps uniquely bad because of the national / expat issue. I assume that you are an aspiring expatriate, and part of the problem is that all of the entry level jobs in the aid world are already taken by people who live and work in the developing world. There are no real ‘entry level’ jobs for expats. The aid world really only needs technical experts and top level managers as foreigners.

So what are you supposed to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, except to suggest that the Peace Corps is still a great opportunity – you can get your health care paid, your debt deferred, two years of overseas experience, and a great networking opportunity – so that’s number one. A huge number of aid workers start off in the Peace Corps and never go home.

The other thing I would suggest is that you don’t wrack up huge debts. Get a degree, but what it is doesn’t really matter, and don’t go to grad school until you know exactly why you need to.

Sorry – I wish the world were fairer, but it isn’t yet. Good luck, let us know how you do,


Psychology or social work degree for humanitarian work?

March 21, 2018

Q. Hi Nick,
I just came across your webpage and read every bit of it! Thanks very much for sharing your experiences and setting up this page it’s a massive inspiration. I’m also very passionate about humanitarian work and would love to gain some experience. I’m nearly done with my undergraduate degree in psychology and was wondering whether there are any chances to use my degree for helping others in developing countries.

So far I‘ve looked at organizations that mainly look for medical staff but have you got any tips where I could apply to? Or as for an internship? Sometimes I feel a background in social work would have been far better. If you have any advice this would be highly appreciated!


A. Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the kind words Sarah, sorry to take a while to respond to this! I actually have a degree in psychology, for what it’s worth, and I have a couple of observations about it. First of all, no one has ever asked me about it in a professional context. I have never had an interviewer ask about my degree, and while I don’t know for sure that I have not been declined for jobs over it, no one has ever told me that. So I’m going to give you my usual advice – unless your work requires it (finance, medicine, engineering, HR etc) I don’t think your degree matters much. (I’m assuming that you are not wanting to work as a clinical psychologist).

That said, I actually do use many of the skills I learned through psychology on a daily basis. Understanding the scientific method and statistics as they are applied in the social sciences is tremendously useful in monitoring and evaluation, and a lot of the concepts that come up in psychology are useful in understanding human behavior.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out internships, and as much volunteer experience as you can.

Good luck!


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