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!
Khanjan Mehta (Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program and Assistant Professor of Engineering Design at Penn State University) has just published a new book called “Solving Problems that Matter and Getting Paid for It!” It’s about the overlap between STEM careers, social innovation, and global sustainable development, and I have a chapter in it!
You can buy it on Amazon here, or find it at your local independent bookstore. My chapter aside, the book contains chapters from 54 experts from USAID, Peace Corps, MIT, Engineers Without Borders, FHI360, and others who offer practical insights into the options available for people who want to make a career out of making the world a better place.
Q. Hi. I am a 40 year old worker in software development working in the financial industry in the UK. I have been considering this type of work for a number of years now mainly due to the reason that I’m looking for work that aligns more to my beliefs and motivations. I have worked in IT in a variety of different roles, but I have never felt satisfied with my work nor have I felt that I’m actually making a difference to peoples lives. I volunteer as a Scout Leader on a weekly basis and the satisfaction that something you have organised has made a difference to peoples lives. I want to move into this role as a career. My question would be would my age be a barrier to moving into a career of this sort? My ideal role would be to work out in the field as this sort of work is more suited to me.
A. Hi David, thanks for your question. There’s good news and bad news unfortunately David – first off the good news is that 40 is not too old to be an aid worker. In general the age of people in front-line jobs in the most unstable places tends to skew younger. I think there are a few reasons for this – people in their 20s and 30s have fewer responsibilities, are less likely to have stable relationships and families, and tend to have a higher tolerance for risk. That said, agencies crave people with a little more experience and gravitas in these areas, and welcome people with a few grey hairs. In a lot of the cultures where we work having a few wrinkles is an advantage – community leaders and elders often find it hard to relate to 20 year olds as representatives of agencies.
The down-side is that when you have those entanglements it can be more difficult to get the essential field experience you need to get hired. I think you will want to focus on building your professional network and perhaps leveraging your IT skills to do some work or training in that area and build a reputation.
Q. Hi Nick, What a fantastic website. Thank you for making it available to people like me.
I have a question for you. I’ve long been in the NGO world — I’ve lived in third world countries, including some very remote areas and one high-conflict zone, for 9 years, working for a faith-based organization. For personal reasons I’ve transitioned out of that NGO and am currently teaching ESL in the U.S. But I find my heart still longing to be out on the field. Unfortunately, my background is in linguistics (I have an M.A. and I worked in literacy / language development), but I have no desire to continue working as an ESL teacher; nor am I interested in more schooling at this point (I’m 40). Anyone looking at my resume will immediately pigeonhole me as an educator. I’m interested in humanitarian aid, refugee work, gender issues, advocacy, and community development. When I look at job listings, however, they all seem to require some sort of degree in social work or something else.
Do you have any specific advice for someone like me beyond what’s on your website? Would an NGO give me a chance in a new type of role, seeing my field background?
A. Thanks for the question Sandra,
With a solid background in the field (9 years of field work on your resume is plenty), I don’t think most hiring managers are going to ding you too badly for your degree. I have a masters degree in a development related field and I can honestly say that no one has ever asked me about it at interview.
The only thing that I think might be an issue is that your resume could get screened out either automatically, or by a recruiting assistant who might circular-file you without reading your resume for not having a degree that the posting asks for. I think the best way to address this (if you think it is happening) is either to deal with it head on in your cover letter, or to develop your professional network sufficiently that you can get on the interview short-list without getting screened out.
Frankly, with your level of experience, I would expect that your network is pretty good at this point. If you think you’re actually having this problem drop me an email and we can talk.
Q. Dear Nick,
Thank you for all of the information you have provided. I am a recent college graduate who is looking to work in refugee camps, specially in legal protection. I am a recent refugee to the US and have work in international development in East Africa. I know that I need a law degree to obtain a job in refugee legal protection, however, I would like to gain some experience now in that area. I have applied for internship/job positions at the IRC and U.S. Committee for Refugee and Immigrants. I speak two languages and I have lived in developing countries for the majority of my life.
The problem is that I have not heard back from any of the organizations I have applied to. What do you suggest I do? Do you have any suggestion on where else I should apply?
Thank you, Tiba
A. Hi Tiba,
First off, congratulations on graduating, and good luck in your new home. Without knowing specifically what jobs you’re applying for, and what your resume looks like, I can’t say why you’re not getting interviews. My advice would be to make sure that you are actually qualified for the jobs, and that your resume really highlights that. Those are the two biggest things I see people doing wrong. It’s a very competitive industry, and you need to make sure your resume is really selling your experience. You should also make sure that you are building your professional network.
Kristin’s article appears on Ramen IR, and is an interesting take on the trials of getting a foot in the international development door. Read the article here.
Q. Hi Nick,
Thanks for your website and very straight up answers to questions. I’ve found a lot of the advice you give to be hugely helpful.
I had a question about ‘field based roles.’
I’m beginning to think that I took some bad advice a few years back and did an MA in Development Studies. After an office based internship with a big NGO I quickly realised that I was heading for an ill-fated career bolted to a desk with a label stuck to my forehead saying ‘generalist.’ To make matters worse the carrot that this NGO dangled in front of me under the guise of a job ‘in the field’ was in fact another in office role just this time in the target country. A cruel play on words as I found out, although I can laugh at my naivety now.
For someone who has always wanted to work directly in the field (in the literal sense) I’m having the realisation that I probably should have studied something more inline with humanitarian and disaster relief work or got myself a specific skill.
I’ve been having a lot of difficulty identifying genuine field work roles that someone such as myself with generalist training could be working towards.
I’ve a couple of years volunteering under my belt in Africa and Latin America but largely quite informal stuff with small NGOs like construction, food distribution and helping with community medical camps but none of this has lead on unfortunately.
I was hoping you might have some suggestions about possible roles that might be out there?
Thanks for your time mate, its most appreciated, Jim
A. Hi Jim – thanks for the question.
There are a couple of issues going on here. First off, while I think graduate development studies are a good thing, I agree with your assessment that they are a mistake too early in your career – don’t worry about that though, I think you’ll be glad you did it in the end.
Secondly – the ‘generalist’ label. You know, the grass is always greener… Public Health specialists and engineers complain about being pigeon-holed as well – there’s nothing wrong with being a generalist, although you may want to look at how you market that as a skill set. Most ‘generalists’ are project managers, team leaders, and problem solvers – skill sets that are in high demand in the field.
Thirdly – office jobs in ‘the field’. We use the term (and I’m coming to believe that we probably shouldn’t) to mean ‘countries where we undertake development projects’, and, as you point out, jobs in these places may or may not meet your need to be in a literal field. I don’t know what kinds of jobs or organizations you were working with, but my sense is that you are more at the development end of the relief/development spectrum. More so than the emergency response side, front-line jobs are usually done by national team members, with expatriates doing technical or senior management roles that rarely cause them to get dirty. You’re just too expensive to deploy on less senior roles. Where you will find more expatriates in more active and practical jobs are disasters and conflicts. You might want to look into the response in the Syria region right now if you want a job that gives you more contact with the more tangible aspects of the work.
Making that transition isn’t always easy, but the major INGOs have pipelines for training and deploying people from more developmental contexts to more emergency focussed programs. If you are employed in one of them I think it’s a question of talking with your supervisor or the emergency team leaders to get on those rosters.
A lot of the kinds of jobs that I think you’re looking for are recruited for internally or from informal networks, and it may take you a couple of years to move into them. That said I don’t think it should be too hard given what you mention about your resume.
Good luck – let us know how you do!