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,
This website has been very helpful and I am going to buy your book to get even more insight. I am new to the international development world and am trying to get my foot in the door. My biggest struggle right now is that I cannot relocate. I live in Dallas, Texas. I have been looking for a career position that is based in TX but where I could still travel internationally for aid relief throughout the year. It seems that all organizations that have a home office in the United States are based in Washington DC. I am looking for something like project management where I could work on clean water projects, food aid, etc in the developing countries but work mostly out of Texas. Do you know any organizations like this in Texas? Any advice for me on how to get my foot in the door? Thank you!
A. Hi Jenni,
Thank you – glad you liked the site!
First off – you are right that many aid organizations in the US have their headquarters in Washington DC, but there are also lots that don’t. IRC, CRS, CARE, Mercy Corps, IMC, and World Vision spring to mind immediately (although it’s certainly true that they have representational offices in DC as well). The reason for the DC thing is ease of access to the US federal government, where most of the money for international aid comes from.
Second – Unfortunately you don’t mention what kind of skills, and experience you have, so I don’t know how realistic your goal of working on water and food aid projects are. Most of the people who are technical advisors or evaluators based in the US with travel are people with years of experience who can go and give advice to those based in field locations. That kind of consulting arrangement is rare for people without impressive resumes.
My advice would be, honestly, that if you don’t want to live and work overseas for years at a time, you should seriously consider whether this is the career for you. In most organizations its very hard to get promoted without those years of field experience.
There are a lot of ways to have impact on important issues in Texas – one thing that springs to mind is that the IRC has a substantial program helping refugees arriving in the US to settle and integrate. If I were working with you as a career counsellor I would ask you to unpack what about the situation that you describe really inspires you, and think about ways to get that outside of international relief. Trying to square the circle of living in Texas and getting your foot in the door may not be a good idea.
Good luck, and let us know how you do,
Q. Hi Nick,
I want to volunteer in aid work. I’m a 16 year old Canadian with no skills, just an able body. Is this possible?
A. Hi Peter,
First off – I want to recognize your desire to help, and salute that as a noble thing. I don’t want to sound negative, but as you know, when someone says that they don’t want to sound a certain way, it’s because they are about to do just that!
There are two main issues here – the first is that you are a young man with ‘no skills’ – I’m afraid the developing world is not short of that particular commodity. In fact, you probably lack the basic skills of getting by in culture and speaking the local language that your counterparts in other countries do have, plus nobody will have to pay to ship them overseas and support them there. So my short answer is that this isn’t much demand for unskilled volunteers.
Secondly though, the question presupposes that there is a lot of unskilled work to be undertaken, which I don’t really think is the case. Development and relief work is a sophisticated and skilled undertaking, with potential serious downside risks. In few other professions would someone say that while they have no skills they want to have a go.
So – my advice is this – go to college, get some skills, travel and work a little overseas and see if you’re serious about a career in this line of work.
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.