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Welcome!

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.

Education and languages for NGO workers

August 16, 2016
Q. Hello Nick
Thank you for your great article, I have recently graduated from high school and I am very interested in working in the ngo section (certainly with the UN) , I am wondering about two questions, would be very grateful if you are able to give me your opinion.
1- do you think it makes sense to take a volunteer trip abroad before starting my bachelor degree to have more insight into the ngo and humanitarian sector?
2- how many languages are enough to get you a competitive candidate? I speak fluent English and Arabic and currently learning German and French ( hopefully I will be fluent before finishing my university degree)
Thanks,
Elhassan
A. Hi Elhassan,
Thanks for the questions. With regard to the first, ‘yes’. The second is more complicated. The UN has six official languages – you speak two of them, and are learning a third. That’s definitely an advantage for UN recruitment, although you will want to read my article on getting a job with the UN, and check out the massive resources available on this daunting topic.
When we’re talking about organizations other than the UN, it really only matters whether you speak a language that is relevant to the country you’re going to. Arabic is great, but no use if you’re in Honduras.
Good luck!
Nick

Help starving families in the Marine Corps?

June 25, 2016

Q. Dear Nick,
I’m going into the Marine Corps after my senior year ends. I’m looking into becoming a medic. My goal is to make care packages with food, medicine and clothes, have them sent out to wherever I’m deployed come next year and go to local villages with starving families. Provide some help even if it means changing people’s live one at a time. Is their anything in the military such as programs or relief groups that would allow me to do this. If not then how can I serve this movement while still being in the military? Thank you and have a good day.

Axel

A. Dear Axel,

First off, thanks for your question. You sound like a serious and compassionate young man, and I wish you well in what ever you do next. I’m going to give you some frank advice on this though.😉

Your question makes me wonder whether you have any idea what the Marine Corps is. Even as a medic, you will not be making care packages for starving people. The mission of the infantry is to close with and destroy the enemy, hearts and minds campaigns notwithstanding. I suggest you take a look at the movies Restrepo and Korengal for some relatively sobering depictions of what infantry deployments are like these days.

There’s nothing wrong with joining the Marine Corps – there is a need for smart, thoughtful and compassionate people on the frontlines of America’s military engagements, and I have been very grateful at times to be on the right side of US military intervention, but it’s not the Peace Corps.

That said, there are parts of the military that work very closely with the State  Department and other organizations to carry out aid programs, largely in the service of counter-insurgency programs. You might be able to find your way into this kind of unit, but I’m not optimistic. I guess my advice is, if you go into the Marines, go because you want to join the Marines, not because you want to make the Marine Corps the Peace Corps.

Good luck!

Nick

PS. The Marines are not my area of expertise – I’d love anyone with more relevant experience on this to weigh in on opportunities for this kind of service within the armed forces – thanks!


Thanks to Alex for this comment “Would also note that the US Marine Corps does not even have its own medics—the medical personnel who serve with Marines are actually from the US Navy. I would encourage this young man to do a lot more research overall.


If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

Light Relief. Episode One.

June 24, 2016

So here’s an experiment. This is the first of a series of posts containing some writing a did a while back about my experiences in various relief and development situations. Some of the details have been changed to protect organizations or individuals, and events have sometimes been moved around for dramatic or comic effect, but I can assure you that all this happened, more or less.😉

This is just a very small slice of the range of situations out there, but I hope it might give some colour to descriptions of what some jobs in this business are like.

—-

It’s the winter of 1999 in Kosovo, and I’m at the non-food warehouse of a large international NGO that I won’t name. I’m arguing with our fleet manager about how much water there is in the diesel fuel, and how the bitter temperatures are causing it to freeze in the fuel filters of the Land Rovers.

There’s a fuel shortage in the province, and we truck in all of our diesel from Macedonia, storing it in a tank in the warehouse car park. The problem is that the suppliers keep cutting it with all kinds of crap. This means that every couple of days the fuel filters in the cars need cleaning out, or else they turn into a solid block of ice, sometimes leaving our teams stranded in the middle of nowhere.

A humanitarian aid convoy in Kosovo, Winter 1999. Note the snow on the ground, and the armored Jeep convoy escort.

A humanitarian aid convoy in Kosovo, Winter 1999. Note the snow on the ground, and the armored Jeep convoy escort.

The fleet manager is explaining that he’s doing his best to persuade the vendors to steal from us in less inconvenient ways when I get a call on the radio.
One One Mike, this is One Two Foxtrot.
Foxtrot – send.
Mike – I have Zero One Kilo on the phone, she has someone from HQ who is wanting to know why there is a report in the New York Times that says we are distributing cigarettes to refugees, over.” Kilo is the call sign of the Mission Director for our organization. She’s kind of a big deal.

Tell Kilo we don’t distribute cigarettes – tell her they cause cancer, over.
OK Mike, but give me something, is there any way a reporter might have gotten the idea that we are distributing cigarettes over?
I pause for a burst of static on the radio. “I don’t think so. Can I get back to you Foxtrot? I’ll look into it, over.
Sure thing, see you shortly, out.

We don’t distribute cigarettes. I’m pretty sure of it, but I want to check with one of the other project managers before I talk to the Mission Director. I leave my argument about fuel, walk inside and, with a terrible sinking feeling of realization, pull my radio from its belt clip and push the talk button.
Nine Lima, Nine Lima, One One Mike.
A couple of seconds later there is a burst of static. “Charlie One One Mike, this is Charlie Nine Lima, send your message, over.
Lima, are you at the warehouse? Over.
Affirmative Charlie One One Mike, over.
I’ll come right up.

Can I see the distribution schedule for the Lucky Ducks?” One of this guy’s responsibilities is to oversee a bunch of special distributions, mostly Serb enclaves that don’t have any market access or income. These are nearly all groups of elderly and sick that are sheltering in a ramshackle collection of buildings including an Orthodox Church, a seminary and a monastery.

All of them are guarded 24 hours per day by NATO soldiers who protect them from being burned out out Kosovo Albanians. He christened them the ‘Lucky Ducks’ because, while most people get the standard World Food Program ration of rice, flour, oil and beans, they get a comprehensive assistance package in recognition of the fact that it’s not safe for them to leave their collective centers to buy anything, and they don’t have any money even if they could. We’re providing them absolutely everything. They quickly got re-christened the ‘Sitting Ducks’ by the rest of the team, for all the same reasons.

Yep – here it is”. He hands me the paper, and I sit down to read it. Sure enough, it’s a ‘comprehensive food and non-food package’. This month’s distribution includes flour, rice, beans, vegetables, oil, tinned meat, tinned fish, soap, toothpaste, and sanitary towels. And cigarettes.

Shit.

‘Comprehensive food and non-food package’. In the Balkans. Of course it includes cigarettes. I asked him to put together a package of everything the Sitting Ducks would need, and he did.

I push the talk button on my radio again – “Foxtrot, Mike”. There’s a crackle, and then “Mike, Foxtrot?
Foxtrot, there are some issues, I don’t think Kilo is going to be very happy.
Mike, Kilo is with me – she’s going to need to see you about it re damage control over.
Understood Foxtrot, I’ll be over in an hour. Out.

Shit.


If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

Volunteer in a refugee camp for a few days?

June 24, 2016

Q. Hello there!

I am delighted with your blog! Awesome work!!! Congrats. I am having trouble to find an answer and maybe you can help me. I would like to volunteer some days in October in a refugee camp but I am having trouble finding an ngo that takes volunteers for some days. Most of them only take donations. And the only one I found is charging a lot of money for me to go there. Do you know any ngos that I could get in touch with? Thanks!!!

Antonella

A. Hi Antonella,

First off, thanks for the kind words about the blog! Please do consider buying my ebook on Amazon – it’s a great way to help offset the costs of running the site.

Secondly – I want to salute your good intentions – its a noble thing to want to help, so please don’t take what I have to say about this personally!

OK – third – let’s get down to the question. You want to volunteer for a couple of days in a refugee camp, but can’t find an organization that will take you. The fact is that no one wants volunteers in camps for several reasons.

a) There is plenty of labor, skilled and unskilled in refugee camps. There’s no shortage of people to do the work that needs to be done to keep things moving along, and no reason to bring people in for a few days to help out. Even highly skilled staff like engineers and medical staff aren’t wanted for a few days at a time. By the time they get oriented and understand the situation it’s time to leave.

b) Refugee camps are not always safe or comfortable places to be. People are usually pretty unhappy to be there, and at a low point in their lives. They’re often not particularly satisfied with the level of assistance they are receiving, and it’s easy to become a lightening rod for that dissatisfaction if you don’t know what you’re doing. Having people come in for a few days at a time would be a major liability for an organization.

c) There are some groups that charge money for what are essentially tourist trips. This can be an enriching experience for everyone if it’s done right, but it can be a disaster. I would be very careful of any group offering this.

So – sorry to be a downer, but there just aren’t opportunities to go help out in this way. If you want to help, money is a great way to do it, and I would suggest that there are a lot of ways to get involved practically closer to home. Homeless shelters, food banks, Big Brothers / Big Sisters etc all need practical help.

Good luck!

Nick


If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

Jobs for chefs in humanitarian aid?

June 20, 2016

Q. Salutations Nick,

So I’m an 18 year old young man who wants to connect and aid people through food. I really do want to help people, but I don’t want to give up my passion for cooking. So I decided to make helping and bettering others lives the cause for why I cook. So this leaves me with two questions. One: In your years of experience can you gauge on how well I will do in this industry with an associates in Culinary and a bachelors in humanitarian? And two: How willing are corporations, organizations, and etc. willing to hire a chef/cook?

Christopher S.

A. Hi Christopher,

First off, I assume since you’re writing to me, and all I ever talk about is international humanitarian aid, that that is the line of work you’re interested in. If so, then the quick answers to your questions are 1. I don’t think the degree you have matters at all in getting your first job (unless you are an engineer, a medic, etc). and 2. Not very.

The unfortunate fact is that to the extent that international humanitarian organizations ever hire chefs or cooks, they hire them locally. People who can cook are always readily available, they understand cultural issues around food, and are much, much cheaper than shipping international staff around the world. Sorry. ;( What I would say is that the ability to cook well will certainly endear you to your colleagues, and you will never lack company in group housing!

On the off-chance that you are talking about domestic work, there is much more going on. I know several organizations that take chefs as volunteers to teach homeless youth jobs skills, and restaurants are always in demand for fund raisers.

Sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted to hear – good luck!

Nick

Careers in development with a family

June 2, 2016

Q. Hi Nick,
I am wondering if it is possible to have a career in development if you have a family. I have two Yong kids and my husband is a pastor, but humanitarian work is my passion. It seems however, that most jobs are suited for singles, and definitely not safe for kids. Do you know anyone who has successfully made a career in development with a family?
Thank you!
Rachelle

A. Hi Rachelle,

Thanks for the question – the short answer is ‘yes’ it is possible to have a career in humanitarian or development work with a family. I want to do an interview with someone in this situation for the site soon, so watch out for that!

The longer answer is, as you’d expect, complicated. First, the good news. There are lots of (particularly development) positions that are ‘accompanied’, that is to say that spouses and families can come too, kids can go to school locally (either in local schools or in private international schools), and world class health care facilities are available. Many agencies have good family packages that cover relocation, health insurance, accommodation, and everything else that you would need to move your family around the world.

The bad news is that few of these kinds of positions are entry level. Most ‘humanitarian’ positions that deal with conflict or disasters are not accompanied, and many ‘development’ positions lower down the food chain are not either. It’s tough to get a first job that is accompanied.

My wife and I spent about five years following one another around the world looking for positions in the same place before we started getting ‘accompanied’ posts, and that’s hard if you have young kids.

You mention that your husband is a pastor – I wonder whether you might have an easier time approaching a religiously affiliated organization like World Vision (if that fits your faith tradition), since those orgs are sometimes more enthusiastic about family accommodations.

You don’t mention what your skill set is, but it’s going to be very important for you to build networks in humanitarian organizations, perhaps seeking jobs with organizations in the country you live right now as a stepping stone.

Good luck,

Nick


If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

Psychology degree for career in aid work?

June 1, 2016

Q. Hi Nick!

Why didn’t I find this site earlier?!! It’s such an amazing feeling to meet other people sharing the same heart. Feel like an alien sometimes when I share what I’d love doing. Lol
So I’m just in a little bit of a dilemma and could really use some advice. I graduated with honours degree in psychology in the UK about 5 years ago then was full on traveling to Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, rural and urban South Africa where I did work in a whole range of areas from community development, education, a lot of work among rural villages as well as was smack in the middle within the gang culture in Cape Town.

Now I’m living in Australia just starting my first semester masters in social work. But I’m losing my Mind!!! I feel like I might have made the wrong choice in my course. Social work is so different from what I thought I would be learning. There’s so much focus on case management, referrals and Australian policy but not really on actual front line working with helping people through a crisis, disaster or community development. I’m going to be heading to Fiji for a month in July to help with a cyclone disaster relief team. And I feel myself coming alive again just thinking of it. That’s where my passion is and I feel like I’m dying on the inside at uni and struggling to see the link between social work and where I’d want to be…

I’m just in a dilemma if I should just stay and finish it, ends end of next year.. as I get an opportunity next year to do an international placement which would help me stay sane in the course… Or completely switch to something else. But Im not sure what that something else could be ;/
I just am doing my masters because I couldn’t carry on just being a volunteer and having amazing family and friends support me… I couldn’t get a job with just a degree in psychology… and I don’t see myself being a psychologist… Really want to be more in the front line and hands on working with people right at where the crisis and disaster is… I don’t have a specific country in mind but refugee camps, disaster relief and human trafficking and some of the core areas I feel really led to… Just confused how I can there as a paid job instead of only carrying on as a full time volunteer. I know it probably wouldn’t be much money … But I don’t care even just some basic income to sustain myself..

Would me carrying on in my masters in social work help me get there?? Do you feel that’s considered a skill I can bring with my psychology honours background and social work?

Or would carrying on the path in clinical psychology or counseling be a better more recognised option to get that skill and work with people in trauma /community development internationally?

Or should I change and look into a specific course on international aid, but I’m not sure what course that would be..

I know this was long, but hope to hear from you soon! Need to decide whether or not to say at my course or go within the next week :s

Thank you Soo much!! Hope to hear from you soon.

Stephanie

A. Hi Stephanie,

Oh boy – this one is huge. For what it’s worth, I, too, have a bachelors degree in psychology. While not directly relevant to what I do now, I do feel that it gave me a good grounding in social science research, stats, experimental method, behavioral science etc.

As I’m sure you’re aware, I can’t tell you whether to keep going in your social work degree, but it does sound like you’re looking for someone to give you permission to ditch that career path. If that’s what you need, then sure – you totally have my permission to ditch it. As bad as it may seem now, and as much time and money as you may have sunk in it now, it’s nothing compared to coming to the same conclusion in five years time. For what it’s worth, I ditched from a neurology PhD program before I had started to go join the humanitarian circus too.

It sounds like you’ve had a great few years, and are lucky to have a supportive family and network. That’s awesome. I wonder whether, in your time traveling, you managed to build any connections in the aid world? If you’d managed to drop in on some of the major aid agencies while you were in those countries and take the Country Director, Director of Operations, or even some of the project managers out for coffee those would be awesome connections to work at this point.

If you’ve read my blog, you know what I think about courses in humanitarian aid. TLDR? They are great for making you a better practitioner, but they won’t help you get your first job. You need field experience. TLDR? Given what you’ve told me about your recent travels, and assuming that you can presume on your friends and family for a few months more, perhaps a trip to Turkey is in your future?

Now, I don’t usually recommend this to random people, but it just so happens that the world’s largest humanitarian response is happening right now in a country with an established tourist industry and a relatively good safety record. If you have your head screwed on right, and are prepared to make yourself useful, it’s not going to be too hard to find a job there. You need to network like crazy, without making a nuisance of yourself, and be prepared to pitch in with anything to help. Once you make a name for yourself as someone who leaves situations in better shape than they found them I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble getting hired.

Good luck, let us know how you do,

Nick

PS. I’m going to get criticised for this advice. To be clear, I am not recommending that people show up in war zones, disaster areas, or unstable environments. I am recommending that, if you are serious and prepared, a trip to a country with stable tourist infrastructure (hotels, taxis etc) and a good safety and security situation, can help you network and find a job. Please, please, please, don’t show up in the aftermath of a disaster, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, CAR, etc, etc.


If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

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