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.
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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.
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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.
Last year you posed questions to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières Canada about their recruitment priorities and perspectives, and here are their answers! Thanks to the team at MSF for taking time to answer in-depth on this!
- How would you say that working for an organization like Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is first and foremost a medical organization, might be different than working for other relief agencies?
One of MSF’s distinguishing features is our funding structure. In 2015, 92 per cent of MSF’s income came from private sources. It took more than 5.7 million individual donors and private foundations worldwide to make this possible. Unlike other organizations, MSF’s financial independence allows it to respond quickly to medical needs without being beholden to large institutional loans. Furthermore, when we work in contexts where there are many parties to a conflict and humanitarian assistance is at risk of abuse, we rely solely on private donations to fund our activities. MSF’s financial independence not only allows us greater freedom in the management of our budget and in the choice of our projects, but also in our desire to bear witness to injustice.
MSF’s actions are first and foremost medical. MSF is known for going where the medical needs are and centralizing its programming around medical action. Consequently, the organization’s work sometimes occurs in settings of active conflict and internal instability, or in post-conflict environments, in which there are inherent risks and ongoing threats to safety and security. That often means MSF ends up going where other organizations do not and as such, where the needs of the population are that much greater. With over 45 years of experience, MSF does its utmost to mitigate and manage the risks it faces in the field, through strict and comprehensive security protocols. It is also important to recognize that, in 2015, 45% of MSF’s intervention were identified as being located in “stable” contexts.
MSF is an association. All current and former MSF employees or volunteers are invited to become part of an MSF Association in their home countries, through which they have the right and responsibility to voice their opinions and contribute to the definition and guidance of MSF’s social mission. The associations bring together individuals in formal and informal debates and activities — in the field, in associative gatherings at national and regional levels and in an annual international assembly. This associative set up allows our fieldworkers to get involved in a whole different way than is possible with other organizations. Although Médecins Sans Frontières is a huge international NGO, the associative model allows it to stay close to its founding charter. MSF has a non-hierarchical and decentralized structure and the associations ensure that each member has a voice where they can enrich and challenge their organization.
- It’s been my impression that medical staff more often take breaks from their regular career to do an occasional assignment. How typical is this and how easy is it to do?
Our experience has shown that Canadian medical staff often resort to one (or more) of the following options in order to combine their medical work in Canada with their work with MSF the field:
- They have a colleague, within their practice, take care of their patients while they leave on mission.
- They find an employer that is supportive of their work with MSF and flexible with their absences during field assignments.
- They complete locums between missions, which allows for more flexibility.
- They combine contracts for medical work in Canada’s north with MSF contracts (usually taking well-deserved pauses in between assignments).
- They are semi-retired or retired, and have decided to integrate field missions into their life schedule.
- They are foreign-trained doctors who are not licensed to practice in Canada, but who have been validated and are willing and motivated to work with MSF in the field.
Alternatively, some people also grow their careers within the organization into senior leadership and operational roles in headquarters in Canada, Europe or elsewhere.
- What types of employment do you offer and what do you look for in terms of experience when recruiting medical as well as non-medical staff?
Terms of employment:
All MSF fieldworkers are employees with contracts, salaries and benefits; we do not send unpaid volunteers to the field. Information on salary and benefits for Canadian fieldworkers are readily available on our website. MSF is transparent about what it offers its fieldworkers, as we look for people who know what to expect if they are successful in their recruitment process. We like to reassure interested candidates that you can indeed earn a living working with MSF, but that you should not join the organization with financial gain as a main objective. MSF salaries are set so as to reflect the humanitarian spirit of volunteerism, while recognizing the high level of professional expertise we require from our field staff. Volunteerism helps to maintain the vitality, flexibility and eagerness that drive the determination, willpower and creativity of the organization.
What we look for in candidates (both medical and non-medical):
MSF if equally transparent about what we look for in our applicants. Interested Canadian candidates should go through the “Work in the Field” part of our website, where they will find all the relevant information they need in order to evaluate their own profile and prepare their application. Particularly important sections are:
Who We Need: What kind of profiles we are looking for and what are the criteria to work with MSF for each of them.
Do You Have What It Takes: To help potential applicants reflect on things such as their levels of flexibility, ability to manage stress and willingness to live and work as a team with others.
Life in the Field: To learn more about living conditions, as well as security and safety considerations in the field.
Below you can find a summary of what we look for in general when we filter through the hundreds of Canadian applications we receive every year.
1) Professional experience is the first thing we look at.
It is important to realize that when applying to MSF, you are applying to join a team of professionals who work in remote, low-resource and sometimes insecure contexts. An MSF field assignment will expose you to an array of stressors that most individuals have never experienced before. This challenge is stimulating, and what draws many of us to the job. It also means that when we look at your professional path, we need to be convinced you have enough experience under your belt to be able to do your job well in such an unfamiliar environment.
Another reason why significant, relevant and transferable professional experience is so important is because, by definition, international fieldworkers are recruited into management roles. It is crucial to highlight that 90 per cent of MSF’s 36,000 staff around the world are locally hired — so if you are hired by MSF to work in Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, 90 per cent of your colleagues will be Congolese. Referred to as “national staff,” they do most of the hands-on work. In relative terms, we recruit very few international fieldworkers — usually known as “expats” — from countries such as Canada. Expats are recruited into manager roles and often end up supervising entire teams of national staff. What is important to remember is that when we look at an applicant’s profile, we do not just consider whether he or she has enough experience to do a good job independently (be it as a nurse, an engineer or an accountant), we consider whether he or she has enough experience to be a supervisor to a team of national staff colleagues who likely know the job, the organization and the context better. This is why, for all profiles, we look specifically for experience managing, supervising or training others, in past roles you might have held.
These are some of the reasons why we insist as much as we do on a solid level of professional experience prior to applying with us. For most profiles, the minimum is two years, but in all cases, additional professional experience will always make your profile stand out more among our large number of applications.
Finally, for non-medical profiles, MSF values professional experience that is relevant and transferable to our fieldwork more than we do your academic background. As an example, for technical logisticians, we look for engineers with formal backgrounds in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering to name a few. However, we also look for “jack-of-all-trades” types of applicants who have years of experience in construction, vehicle mechanics, plumbing, electricity and other work, even if they have never formally “studied” them. We have technical validations and testing in place to evaluate candidates who apply with us and present interesting backgrounds. For profiles such as these, the first requirement is that you can demonstrate you can do the job well, not that you have studied it in books.
2) We also look beyond your professional experience.
Once you have ticked the “professional experience” box off the list, it is just as important to look at some of the other criteria we consider:
Travel: MSF generally asks for at least two to three months of independent travel or work experience in developing countries in regions such as Latin America, Asia or Africa. This is important because it helps build cross-cultural sensitivity, and reflects some of the realities of living/working conditions in the field.
Language: French is considered particularly important since 60 per cent of our projects are located in French-speaking countries in Africa. For most profiles, we require a level of French that will allow you to work and live in a French-speaking environment. The more fluent you are, the stronger your application profile will be. (English is mandatory, and Arabic is highly valued, especially if in addition to English and French.)
Availability: For most generalist profiles (administrators, nurses, GPs, logisticians, etc.) MSF usually asks for nine to 12 consecutive months of commitment for your first assignment. It is therefore important to ensure that your professional and personal commitments will allow you to be available for such a period before you apply to work with MSF. In some cases, these requirements vary by profile — for instance, surgeons, anesthesiologists, obstetricians and sometimes epidemiologists can be assigned to much shorter contracts, starting at six weeks in duration.
Openness to contexts: While a candidate’s “regional” preferences will be considered, MSF field missions are driven by medical needs and candidates must be open to working anywhere where the needs are highest. While recruits always have the possibility to refuse certain projects for legitimate security concerns, the reality is that over 50 per cent of MSF’s programs are in contexts where there is some level of internal instability. While there are varying degrees of conflict, when applying with MSF you need to be open to working in contexts that present some level of insecurity. Of course, MSF places the highest possible priority on the security of all of its staff and, as such, the most unstable projects are usually not assigned to first-time fieldworkers.
3) Do you have what it takes?
Finally, aside from the requirements listed above, which are easier to highlight in an online application and CV, we also look for other things that indicate to us whether you are the right “fit” for the organization.
Motivation: What motivates you to work in the humanitarian field? For a medical organization? For MSF in particular? How committed are you to MSF’s principles? When did you start thinking about doing this type of work? Why? How would you like MSF to fit into your long-term career path and your personal life? What have you done in the past that demonstrates your motivation to work for MSF?
Soft skills: This is where we reflect with you on past experiences that demonstrate your level of flexibility to change, your ability to manage stress, to live and work with others as a member of a team, to comply with procedures and so on.
MSF fieldworkers do remarkable work, and our recruitment process is built in a way that enables us to find remarkable people.
- Lack of relevant field experience is often a barrier to recruitment – what advice would you have for people interested in working for MSF in terms of gaining relevant experience?
Although prior professional experience is required as mentioned above, prior field experience is not. Similarly, although independent travel experience in developing countries is compulsory, having worked for another development or humanitarian organization abroad is not. The distinction is important. We obviously highly value candidates who have prior field experience, but it depends on the type of experience involved. The best way to think about it is by asking yourself how similar your experience was to the work you would be doing with MSF. The more comparable it is, the more likely we are to value it. As an example, having volunteered for two weeks to teach English somewhere while backpacking as a tourist through Southeast Asia as a student one summer is interesting, but would be counted more in the “independent travel” category. Having worked for two months as a nurse in a rural clinic in Guinea after completing a Tropical Nursing course would be counted more in the “relevant professional experience” category. In sum, if you fill the “professional experience” requirements (even if you have only done HR management in an office in Canada for instance) but also have interesting independent travel experience in developing countries (where you pushed yourself well outside your comfort zone), it is not obligatory to have previous experience in humanitarian or development contexts to apply with MSF.
- Are there opportunities for mental health specialists with MSF?
Yes, there are definitely opportunities to work with MSF as a mental health specialist. Within MSF we often refer to this position as Mental Health Officers or MHOs. Over the last 20 years, mental health has become an integral (and growing) part of our programming and more information can be found on our activities at: http://www.msf.ca/en/mental-health
In general, this is what Canadian mental health specialists interested in working with us should keep in mind:
- For Mental Health Officer positions, MSF only considers psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, therapists & social workers who have a master’s degree at minimum.
- Additionally, MSF looks for mental health workers who have solid clinical knowledge as well as experience in emergency and trauma counseling both in individual or group therapy settings. Experience working with migrants, refugees, children, survivors of sexual violence, northern communities as well as people living with HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis are all of interest to us as well.
- At the same time, we also look for candidates who have excellent leadership and management skills, experience with community-based programs, and especially the ability to train staff in providing basic mental care and psycho-pedagogical activities.
- For Canadians, more information can be found on the Mental Health Officer profile at: http://www.msf.ca/en/mental-health-specialists
- Are there opportunities for registered practical nurses? What are the requirements to apply as a registered nurse?
The wording used to identify categories of nurses in Canada can be a bit confusing. Essentially, MSF Canada recruits Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners. We do not recruit License Practical Nurses and Registered Practical Nurses as international staff for our projects. Our experience in the field is that we have been able to find this type of expertise with locally hired staff in the countries where we work.
Additionally, and in general, applying as a field worker with MSF is highly competitive, and MSF Canada is just one of the many international sections also recruiting for the organization. For nurses in particular, the competition is even stronger. Historically, there have been few positions available for nurses proportionally to the number of applications we receive. As such, it is that much more important that the nursing profiles we select stand out.
Considering the competitive nature of the recruitment process, we look for nurses with relevant work experiences in fields such as ER, maternity/obstetrics and pediatrics. In Canada, working in northern/remote communities is also very relevant since we know that healthcare workers in those contexts are placed in positions with more responsibilities. A tropical nursing course and a certain level of fluency in French are also great ways to differentiate oneself from other applicants. Experiences as charge nurse and as a preceptor, or even triage training, can equally be quite useful, because while in the field with MSF most of a nurse’s responsibilities are to coordinate and supervise locally hired staff.
For Canadians, more information can be found on the nurse profile at: http://www.msf.ca/en/nurses
Answers provided by MSF Canada Recruitment team, January 2017
Q. Hi Nick, I recently purchased your book on Amazon and as someone who is looking to get into international development and humanitarian aid, I found it very helpful. Thank you, for sharing all of your advice and wisdom!
Q. Hello Nick,
I found your blog while doing some extensive research on career options as an international development aid worker (or anything of the sort). Its helping me narrow down my options and I would like to thank you.
My name is Angela and I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Namibia (South- West Africa). My tour ends in about 9 months and I need some advice on how to obtain a job working in the humanitarian field; I have a ton of interests ranging from Foreign Service to non-profit work to the United Nations, however, I am certain that I would like my concentration to be focused on Africa.
Do you have any ideas on how I can go about looking for grad schools (domestic and international) and careers paths I could look into to get my dream job?
Thanks in advance!
P.S. I also like to blog about my time in Namibia thus far and I would be extremely grateful if you checked it out! Its http://www.sabblahsblog.weebly.com.
A. Hi Angela,
Thanks for the comments and the question – your blog looks great! So – let’s cut to the chase – if you’ve read my blog then you know my opinion on grad-school! There’s a proper post on this, but the TL:DR is: Don’t go to grad school until you have a couple of years of experience under your belt. Especially don’t go to grad school until you know whether you want to work in the FS, the UN, or a nonprofit, or what you want to do in ‘Africa’.
Grad-school is expensive, time consuming, and won’t help you get your first job. It might give you some great skills and contacts down the road that will help you mid-career.
My advice? First: While you’re in Namibia, network like a thing possessed. Work out what NGOs and UN agencies are in the country (or the region if you’re really dedicated), and use every opportunity you can to make yourself useful and known to them. You should be using LinkedIn and in-person connections, and building a network of people who can vouch for your work and consider hiring you when you leave.
Second: Don’t take your ticket home. Stay in Namibia, or somewhere else that you think has organizations that might hire you. Your chances of getting hired there are much greater than if you’re applying from the US!
Good luck, let us know how you do!
Q. Hi Nick,
I don’t know if this is the right place but I would be very much interested in humanitarian aid in all aspects of it. I have a variety of skills I’ve picked up in my life and can pretty much be suited anywhere. My main goal is to help the less fortunate people. I am 25 Years old male and would do anything, even be sanctioned where no one wants to go. Put me in the worst of the worst situations, I can help. Not really into the whole salary/ wages thing.
A. Hi! Unfortunately you don’t leave a name, but thanks for writing. I get quite a lot of these kinds of questions, and don’t usually get a chance to respond, but this one is sort of the platonic ideal of this enquiry.
Firstly, a significant number of readers seem to think that I am a recruiter for aid agencies – to be clear, I’m not. I can’t put you anywhere I’m afraid.
Secondly, to the issue of skills. It’s a shame that you don’t mention what the variety of skills you have are, as that’s kind of critical. Skills like project management, engineering, nursing, financial management, staff development, negotiation, logistics etc are in demand in these lines of work, but recruiters will want to know what particular skills you bring to the table.
I know why you mention that you will ‘do anything’, but strangely that’s not an attitude most recruiters appreciate. I would encourage you to cultivate a pitch that show recruiters that you understand the environment and job that you are applying for, and know what kinds of roles you will be most suited to. That kind of self-awareness will encourage recruiters to believe that you know what you’re letting yourself in for. The same goes for the places ‘no one wants to go’.
On the face of it you would think that most organizations would appreciate you not being ‘into the whole salary/wages thing’, but I think putting it like that might be another red-flag to a recruiter. It indicates either that you are independently wealthy (which is fine, but perhaps not the assumption that they will make) or that you lack judgment.
I would really encourage you at this point to look for opportunities to spend some time living and working overseas in the kinds of environments that you’re interested in getting a job, perhaps volunteering or interning, and honing your ideas about what, specifically, you’re like to be doing.
Humanitarian Programme Manager (INT3011)
Shaping a stronger Oxfam for people living in poverty.
Oxfam is a leading, global development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty. Oxfam works directly with communities and we seek to influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them and to work with others to overcome poverty and suffering.
Oxfam is currently working in the following district: Lilongwe, Mulanje, Balaka, Phalombe, Kasungu and Mzimba South. We are engaging in direct and indirect service provision through our local partners, consortium with International NGO’s in Development programming and humanitarian activities.
The Humanitarian Program Manager will be expected to lead Oxfam’s humanitarian response, monitoring, evaluation and contextual analysis of the EFSVL, WASH and Protection/Gender situation in Malawi and to design and manage the implementation humanitarian projects in response to emerging needs.
Contract Length: 6 Months fixed term, December 1st 2016 to June 30th 2017.
Location: Lilongwe, Malawi.
Bear with me – it’s rare indeed that I use this platform to plug something unrelated to relief and development jobs, but this is something I’ve been doing in my ‘other’ career! It would help me out if you were able to take a look at this video I shot for a local magazine and ‘like’ it on their YouTube channel!
Hey – you might even like it! Thanks!
So, I was questioning some life-choices this month as I pulled out my books relating to security in violent environments. I thought I’d give you a run-down (in no particular order) on my favorite guides to not getting murdered, kidnapped, or have your day ruined in some other way.
Operational Security Management in Violent Environments – Humanitarian Practice Network
The revised (2010) edition of the classic ‘GPR 8’ is the standard manual for INGO security in the field. It’s heavily policy focussed, but should give you a good idea of how organizations manage safety and security strategies, and what to expect from an organization that you might be working for. It does contain some useful tips on personal security as well. You can download the PDF free from the HPN website – I couldn’t find any print copies at reasonable prices, although there are always tons of them kicking around INGO offices.
Stay safe – The International Federation’s guide to a safer mission – IFRC
Another classic work, this time from the IFRC, who have a slightly different take to most agencies. This is a pretty good mix of theory and personal safety tips, again a free download.
How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places – Rosie Garthwaite
While it focusses on some of the most extreme cases, this is a very practical book, with a lot of advice for independent travelers and people wanting more information on personal security. It’s an interesting read that I would recommend to anyone regardless of their travel plans.
Come Back Alive – Robert Young Pelton
While some of the content in this one is hyperbolic, some of it inaccurate, and some of it not relevant to prospective aid workers, it has enough useful tips to make it onto my recommendation list.
I’ll leave you with a nice BBC article that is focussed more on journalists here, and please let me know if there are other books or resources that should be on the list, and stay safe out there!