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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.

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!

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.

Crass consumerism!

November 24, 2015

So here’s my list of top five things to buy for the aid worker, Peace Corps volunteer, or global traveller in your life this holiday season. Buying through these links helps me pay the cost of maintaining this site, even if you end up buying something else! Thank you!

  1. A copy of my ebook “Getting your first job in relief and development” is a great present for anyone contemplating a career in this line of work!
  2. My number two choice is my favorite all purpose compact-water-proof-drop-proof camera, the Olympus TG-4. I’ve reviewed this before, so I won’t go into details, but suffice to say I don’t think this can be beat for a relatively flexible high quality camera that can take astounding abuse and still come up fighting!
  3. I’ve slept in some pretty scary beds in my day, and I really love the Cocoon Silk MummyLiner. It’s a silk sleeping bag liner that will keep you warm, cool, and clean whatever the state of the bed you’re in!
  4. A decent First Aid Kit. You’ll end up using it more than you expect, and it’s always good to be able to help out colleagues when they invariably don’t have what they need. You’ll want to add a bunch of things that don’t regularly come in the kits, but that’s for another post.
  5. A handful of small, cheap flashlights that take readily available AA batteries. I like these. They are cheap enough that you can give them away and not worry about loosing them. For a flashlight that you want to hang on to get an old-school incandescent MagLite Mini.

IT work in development?

November 23, 2015

Q. Hi Nick,

You are amazing at responding to everyone!

I work as an IT consultant, and have a first class maths degree. My work has always been in the financial sector, and finally, after 15 years, I’ve realised I need to work for an organisation that I care about, in order to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile for not just myself, but putting my education to its best use.

I live an hour from London, and have two very young children, so my ability to travel is very limited. Do you think I’d be able to find work with any NGOs? Or am I best waiting until my children are older? I’m only interested in applying my IT skills to back office ops now I have a family,

Many thanks,


A. Good grief Philippa,

I feel terrible at having let this question languish in the files for so long! I hope your family is doing well! In essence, there are two main ‘tracks’ in development – the most obvious and high profile is the development professional track – folks who specialize in the programmatic side of the work. Of course, behind the scenes are all of the back office types of jobs that every organizations needs – finance, recruiting, HR, facilities, and of course, IT. Absolutely you should be able to find work in this area without travel, all of the larger organizations have IT departments, and hiring for these functions doesn’t usually require any development experience.

Good luck!


Transitioning from logistics to humanitarian work.

October 26, 2015

Q. Hi Nick, Thanks so much for the info on this website.

I’m interested in working in logistics for an international refugee agency. My background isn’t one in Humanitarian work, but it is in logistics and operations management.

I graduated from a top business school with a degree in Supply Chain Management and Spanish and have worked 2 years as a operations consultant and 2 years as a logistics officer for a global car manufacturer. I specialize in rebuilding supply chains after disruptions due to political instability and natural disasters.

My concern is I wouldn’t be considered due to lack of professional experience in humanitarian work (although I have years of volunteer experience). Do you have any advice for someone in my position?


A. Hi Austin,

Thanks for your question, it sounds like you have some really relevant experience and skills. For any career transition there are a couple of things that are really important. First of all, I think you will need to spend some time looking at how you communicate your transferable skills in terms of the language that humanitarian aid organizations are using in their job postings. You’ll want to re-write your resume to reflect the priorities and language that they use.

Secondly, I think networking is really important for career transitions. You’ll want to build professional networks with people who do the kinds of jobs you’re looking for.

Good luck, and let us know how you do,


Best camera for aid workers (and Peace Corps)?

October 13, 2015

Separating me from my Nikon DSLR is a tough sell. I love the fact that I can shoot in very low light, use off-camera flashes, and have a range of lenses for all occasions. It finally got to the point where my camera gear was crowding out the rest of my hand luggage though, and for an upcoming overseas trip I decided to get a compact tough camera to take instead of my full gear-bag. My criteria were that it had to:

  1. Be small and light enough to fit into a pocket.
  2. Be unobtrusive enough not to draw attention.
  3. Be tough enough to withstand knocks and drops.
  4. Be able to withstand dust, cold, heat, and humidity (last time I had my long-suffering SLR cleaned the tech said he had never seen a camera so dirty – I didn’t like to tell him what I put it though…)
  5. Take great photos, preferably have manual controls.
  6. Be waterproof enough to use on the beach and snorkeling (and to withstand a water bottle breaking in the same bag and flooding it…)

Olympus TG-4To be honest, the list was a little bit of self-sabotage. I didn’t really think there was anything out there that would match up, and part of me was looking forward to sighing with resignation and packing my full camera bag again. Not true however, and I want to recommend to you the Olympus TG-4. It’s tiny, ultra-compact, rated shockproof for up to 7 foot drops and 220 pounds of pressure, waterproof to 50 feet, and takes GREAT photos. It even shoots RAW files at 16MP (if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry, you don’t need it – if you do, you know how exciting that is!).

Is it as good as my DSLR? No. Of course not. It has a tiny sensor, and even though it has manual aperture control and a widest aperture of 2, it doesn’t match my 50mm 1.8. What’s amazing though is that the Olympus will give the DSLR a run for its money, plus, did I mention it’s fully waterproof? ;)

So – if you’re a photo enthusiast, and have ever felt like your full camera gear is too bulky and heavy, and not tough enough take a look at this. I think you’re going to fall in love with it.




So – after using this in the field for a week or so, I have an update. I still love the camera, and wholeheartedly recommend it, but there are a couple small issues that I do want to raise.

  1. It uses a proprietary USB cable. This would be a deal-breaker for me if the rest of the camera wasn’t so good…
  2. While it is waterproof, and resistant to a whole lot of abuse, it is possible to get so much grit and sand into a couple of the moving dials and controls that they stop working. A quick wash off under running water can fix this.

Is ESL work a good gateway to humanitarian work?

October 12, 2015

Q. Hi Nick,

Do you think that working overseas as an ESL teacher has any potential as a gateway to humanitarian work? I know that many people take assignments in populous cities and well-developed countries due to more attractive pay, but I am interested in less populous destinations that are faced with greater challenges. I am a registered nurse, but to be entirely honest, I loathe the medical profession, and I don’t think using something I detest as a potential in for a new career is a very good way to start things off. However, do you think it possible that my knowledge could have applications in the humanitarian world outside of primary care provision?

I would like to make it clear that I am not specifically interested in starting a career in relief and development, which appears to be your area of expertise, so I apologize if my question falls outside the scope of your experience. I think that a non-profit or NGO organization with any humanitarian agenda would be a satisfactory starting point for me, and I am especially concerned about social and economic justice and challenges facing women and children. Do you think any of the above could be useful toward this end?

I appreciate any input you may have! Thank you for maintaining this informative site!


A. Hi Diana,

Glad you liked he site – by the way – buying (or rating and reviewing) my ebook on Amazon
is a great way to support this blog! First off – it’s a real shame that you are not interested in medical work, since experienced nurses are in demand for humanitarian postings. But, the heart wants what it wants I suppose – the only thing that I would say is that once you have some field experience under your belt it’s not that hard to switch streams into general project management. You might want to think about whether you could tolerate working as a nurse for a year or so to kick-start your career.

If not, then frankly, I don’t think that working as an ESL teacher is a good way to get experience. In general this is looked on by humanitarian agencies as being a little too mainstream for their tastes, and rarely gives them the comfort that you can navigate the kinds of challenges that you will confront in aid work contexts.

Sorry to be a downer!

Best of luck, Nick


Great new book on changing the world as a career!

October 6, 2015

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.


What is a normal day in the life of a relief worker?

September 28, 2015
Q. I am 15 years old and would love to be an aid worker. I want to get degrees in Social work and engineering, and also learn Spanish. I’ve researched a ton about this career, learned all of the pros and cons, and it still appeals to me more than anything else. But, I wonder what a normal day would actually be like as an aid worker in another country. Does the organization provide food? What’s the food like? How often do you take showers and where? Do you get to explore the country in your free time? Do you get free time, if so, how much? I know a lot about what you do on the job but, not a lot about how you live in these countries. – Vanessa
A. Thanks for the question Vanessa, social work and engineering sounds like quite the combination! One of the things I love about this line of work is that there is no such thing as a normal day. I can answer some of those questions directly, and I can tell you about a few different postings that I have had, and give you a little bit of insight into what it’s like, but every posting really is different.
So: First off – usually aid agencies don’t provide food. Most of the time your accommodation will have a kitchen or there will be restaurants you can eat at. Occasionally you might be posted somewhere where there are not functional local markets, and there are no local restaurants. In those cases (I can think of a couple of examples in Tajikistan during and after the war and in remote areas of Sudan) the organization will run a kitchen for its staff.
Secondly. Usually it’s ok. It’s highly dependent on what’s available locally.
Third. Showers – usually you’ll have a house or apartment where you have normal bathroom facilities. Occasionally if you are in an emergency or very remote area you might face a situation where you’re living in irregular accommodation (a tent perhaps). In these cases you might have to improvise or use a shared shower facility. This is pretty rare though.
Fourth – free time. Most agencies have regular work weeks, weekends, holidays, vacation, and home leave. Depending on the agency you might get 4-6 weeks of vacation, public holidays, and then perhaps 2 weeks of extra home leave per year. Now, the catch is that, especially the more urgent the situation, the less there is a culture of taking this leave. You might find that you are in an office where people regularly work weekends, or tend not to take vacation. This is a huge industry wide issue, and speaks to issues of self care and organizational staff care.
So – here are three examples of typical days that I have had in different places in the world – they are quite different, and you have a choice about what jobs you take!
1. Kyrgyzstan – I was acting Country Director for a major agency in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. The office was in a modern high-rise in the down-town business district. I took a taxi from the rather nice house to the office, worked a 9-5 day, and then went home. I had plenty of time to explore the city and country on the weekends. I cooked in the kitchen in the house or ate in restaurants.
2. Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. I was one of the first responders to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and arrived in Colombo, the capital city. I stayed in a really nice hotel there, because it was all that was available, and then went to the west coast, where there was a real housing shortage. I got one of the last hotel rooms available, and shared it with another guy for a week. There was no running water for some time. We ate in restaurants because we were working 12-16 hour days, and didn’t take weekends off.
I did tack a weekend on to the end of the deployment to go visit some of the tourist sites before heading home.
3. I was posted to a remote island in Indonesia for a year – we had running water, but it was cold. We had cooking facilities, and there were local markets and restaurants, but it was hard to get familiar food. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, although I probably didn’t shower as often as I should have!
To sum up – when you’re talking with recruiters about positions, make sure you ask explicitly about living conditions, time off, and other benefits, and if possible talk to people who already live there!
Good luck!

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