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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. 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.


Cameras for aid workers and Peace Corps (update)

February 3, 2019

TD;DR? The Olympus TG5 is still my pick for best Peace Corps camera for 2019!


So a while ago I recommended the Olympus TG4 as my pick for a rugged, pretty good quality, waterproof camera that you can keep in your pocket and that doesn’t draw attention like a DSLR. I was conflicted about it, because the camera definitely had its drawbacks, but it seemed the best of the toughened compact cameras.

Well, last week I killed it (not in a good way). After using it on a whitewater rafting trip, it was still in my life jacket front pocket – I tossed the jacket onto the ground with a bunch of other wet boating gear, and later found I had managed to smash the front element that protects the lens. So much for being shock proof to 7 foot drops!

I was pretty upset to have thousands of very sharp pieces of glass in my life jacket pocket, and annoyed at the camera failing me, but also kind of excited to look at a replacement! Well, after doing my own research, and asking in a couple of forums, I did what I thought I wasn’t going to do, and bought another Olympus!

Having used it for a week, I can tell you that the Olympus TG5 is the camera that I wanted the TG4 to be! I’m glad I got over my anger about the TG4, because Olympus has fixed nearly everything that irritated me about it:

  • It no longer spontaneously changes shooting mode if you put it in your pocket switched on – which is awesome! The new selector dial on the top makes changing settings a lot easier and less random.
  • It now shoots burst mode in RAW – if you don’t know what that is or why you might want to that’s ok, but for people coming from DSLRs it’s nice! Likewise you can focus stack in camera in the very fun super macro mode, and it has a pro-capture mode which completely eliminates shutter lag.
  • It now shoots 4k video.
  • Olympus has switched to micro USB for their charging / sync cable, rather than the infuriating proprietary USB connector they used to use. Thank you.
  • They have dropped the res from 16 to 12mp, keeping the same sensor size, which means better low-light performance.
  • I got the optional lens adaptor that gives a lens cap. It irritates me that this is an optional extra!

OK, so, the downsides – battery life shooting 4k is mediocre, the lens will not win any sharpness awards, especially at its widest, and zoomed in it is noticeably soft even in the center, pretty fluffy on the edges. RAW files look soft – and make you realize how aggressively the camera applies sharpening to its JPEGS. But, these are all things that if this type of camera at this price point are par for the course.

I still miss my Nikon when I’m using it, but I can’t fit my D700 in my life jacket pocket, and the best camera is the one you have with you! I no longer have much confidence in the toughness of this one, and if you don’t need the waterproofing there are better options, but I recommend this to anyone who needs a small waterproof compact.

Light Relief. Episode One.

January 9, 2019

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 of 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.

I pull the handset from my belt, holding my thumb to the push-to-talk button.
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 fact-checker from the New York Times asking whether 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 people who are sheltering in a ramshackle collection of buildings including an Orthodox Church, an old seminary, and a monastery.

All of them are guarded 24 hours a day by NATO soldiers who protect them from being burned out by Kosovo Albanians bent on reprisals for years of Serb oppression. 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, deodorant, toothpaste, and sanitary towels. And cigarettes.


‘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. Over.
“OK 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.



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.


October 11, 2018

The rain begins to fall, Hurricane Rita, New Orleans 2005.

So, there was that time when it seemed like a good idea to stay for Hurricane Rita… Yes, it was a questionable decision, driven by bravado and pride. We were down in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, and interrupting work for three days to evacuate to Texas seemed like a lot of trouble for a bit of wind and rain. Well, anyway, I learned something about what hurricanes are all about, and we got lucky – it ended up in the ‘funny story’ category, rather than the ‘unfortunate headline’ one.

I wanted to both send good wishes and serious sympathy to everyone who has suffered losses in the recent hurricanes, and especially to my good friend Susan who is heading down to lead Mercy Corps’ recovery efforts. Looks like Hurricane Michael is officially more powerful than Katrina was, so she’s off the hook for looking after our kids on Friday!

The aftermath of Katrina and Rita, New Orleans, 2005.

Mental health and aid work?

June 29, 2018

Hi Nick,

I read your blog and need your help with some career advice:

I am interested to work in the humanitarian field but mainly have experience providing education and community services in a stable environment. I am now going on 37 and am thinking of taking up a related Master’s programme to break into the humanitarian field.

The thing is that now I am diagnosed with early schizophrenia. Considering my experiences, age and medical history, I am concerned that even with the Master’s, I may not get a job in the sector.

Greatly appreciate your advice,

Thank you.


Dear SJ,

Thanks for your question. There are a couple of things in there, and I will deal with them one by one.

I don’t think being 37 is a big deal. The reason that aid workers in field jobs skew younger is largely self-selection. If agencies could get people with more experience and judgement under their belt they would. One of the best emergency finance officers I ever worked with was 76 at the time. I wouldn’t worry about that.

Health issues. So – my experience is largely with US and EU based organizations, which have similar approaches to this question, but it is possible that this varies by country, so check specifics since you don’t mention where you live. In general, agencies look at whether the person they are hiring can do the job in question. In the US it is illegal for them to discriminate based on medical condition unless the medical condition prevents the person from being able to do the job. If your health condition is controlled by medication or whatever other means, and is not going to prevent you from being able to conduct the duties, I would say don’t worry about it. I’ve worked with colleagues with serious heart conditions, people who are confined to wheelchairs, and folks with other serious but managed health conditions. For most people it’s not a big deal.

That said – you should examine whether you think your condition is compatible with a particular posting. What do you need? Regular access to psychiatric care? A regular supply of medication? Whatever it is – just check that it is available in the location you’re looking at, and make sure you continue to manage your health.

The Master’s degree won’t hurt for sure, but the thing that worries me about your question is your lack of field experience – that’s the potential deal breaker for an employer that you’re going to have to work on.

Good luck!


Safety and security in the field

May 30, 2018

CNN ran an interesting article highlighting a study that shows one third of US military injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan were non-combat related. Falls, motor vehicle crashes, equipment accidents, blunt objects, non-combat gunshot wounds, and sports injuries were the most significant categories.

It’s a pattern we see in the aid world too. While deliberate violence against aid workers is on the rise in some areas, and we need to take that seriously, a huge part of the equation is old fashioned safety, with car crashes one of the biggest risks for aid workers.

See also:

Staying safe part one and;

Staying safe part two.

‘Shithole’ countries and humanitarian aid workers

April 19, 2018

Of course, Trump’s comments on ‘shithole’ countries are, indeed, a new low.

That said, the incident made me think a little about how we talk about the places where we work, and whether we always live up to the values we aspire to in this respect. Anyone who has hung out with aid workers for any length of time will have heard ‘so-there-I-was’ stories. These are used either to emphasize the implicit hierarchy of people based on how long they have spent in very tough places, or simply to entertain, and they have a pretty predictable formula, either:

  1. Straightforward accounts about how tough the place where the person was posted was (e.g. ‘of course, that was back in 1999, when security was really bad’, or ‘this was up-country, not in the capital where you could still get a cold beer’), or:
  2. An anecdote, the punchline to which has something to do with how bad the food was or how corrupt the local government was.

The aid world is rife with the same kind of gallows humor that medical professionals, police, and social workers are often guilty of, and it comes from the same place. It permeates our culture and our language. It diffuses tension and is a way for people under stress to let off steam. But when it’s overheard by outsiders, particularly by the people who live in the places we work in and talk about, it can be deeply offensive.

Our fundraising language is also infused with the idea that these are not great places – a major agency recently adjusted their language to talk about working “on the world’s toughest problems” rather than in “the world’s toughest places”. Of course, it’s naive to pretend that Syria or South Sudan are not some of the world’s ‘toughest places’, but it’s important to remember not to let descriptions of conditions spill over into disrespect for people’s homes and histories.

Guidelines for doctors visiting developing countries

April 9, 2018

So the American College of Physicians put out a position paper in March 2018 entitled “Ethical Obligations Regarding Short-Term Global Health Clinical Experiences: An American College of Physicians Position Paper” aimed at ‘informing ethical decision making surrounding participation in short-term global health clinical care experiences.” It’s an interesting read, and I think even non physicians should consider taking a look at the issues it raises.

It’s also stoked controversy because, apparently, when putting together their guidelines for working in developing countries no people from developing countries were consulted.

Oops. Yes, and it’s not that unusual. We all need to remember when we write about countries or people without their involvement we both disrespect them, and also exclude the hugely valuable perspective they offer. This NPR article has the story.

Which websites post aid jobs?

April 4, 2018

I thought you would never ask! Here’s a good list to get started! I would definitely also use the agency websites themselves as well (like this one, and this one), since some things don’t get cross-posted.

Good luck!


Graphic design in humanitarian aid

April 4, 2018

mercy_corps_01The aid industry employs all of the same jobs as the rest of the world, as I was reminded the other day when I stumbled across this blog post from a graphic designer who worked on Mercy Corps’ rebrand.

It looks at ways in which the visual identity has been deployed outside the strict brand guidelines that marketing folks usually want to see – he sounds like he made his peace with the way in which the realities of remote field locations insist on improvisation and adaptation!

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.21.10 AMThis is one of the rebrands that I actually like (three generations of Mercy Corps’ logo – top is the oldest one, very relief focussed, with a problematic cross front and center).

There have been a bunch in the last decade, some that I like, and some that I’m really not excited about. In no particular order, here is CRS’s before and after:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.32.20 AM


I’m actually more into the old one, partly because of its simplicity, and the fact that the new one uses the acronym and the name (which seems redundant), but a little bit because the ambiguous shape on the left side – that’s a motif we’ll start to see a lot…

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.48.09 AM

Here’s CARE – their old (blue) logo above, the new one below. I don’t know, I really liked the gritty simplicity of the stenciled logo. I get how the visual of lots of different hands appeals, but it doesn’t do it for me…

IRC thankfully seems to have gone the other way, trading their pretty horrible old flame/foot logo for a graphically simple and positive one:Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 1.23.25 PMI only wish they had kept the acronym – it’s much more recognizable at a distance.

Oxfam on the other hand are going in the other direction. Here is their original ‘Oxford Committee for Famine Relief’ logo, a bad rendering (which was all I could find – they seem to have scrubbed it pretty effectively from the internet!) of their old logo, and their newest ‘toilet seat’ logo (once you see it you can’t stop seeing it… ;(Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 1.32.46 PM

Anyway, I got a little sidetracked here, but what I was trying to say is, the aid world needs graphic designers… 😉



Too poor and debt-ridden to be an aid-worker?

March 29, 2018

Q. What happens when you are too poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…? How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free? It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.


A. So, Mia, I feel your pain…

I really do, but your fight isn’t with me, or even with the aid world, but with Capitalism. But let me back up for a minute. This isn’t a blog about how things should be, or how I think the aid world should work, it’s a blog about how to get your first job in the relief and development world. So I’m going to take your question seriously, and answer it as best I can. Apologies in advance though, because I don’t think you’re going to like the answer – I don’t like it either, for what it’s worth.

  1. What happens if you are poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…?

Well, you look for a job that pays well. I don’t mean this facetiously, you get the same complaint from law students, doctors, and pretty much everyone. Suppose you go to law school, wanting to fight for Greenpeace, but graduate with a lot of debt and find that enviro-anarchists don’t pay as well as Exon? It’s a real problem in a lot of industries. Want to cure the sick in low income people without health insurance, but graduate medical school with a lot of debt? Sorry!

2. How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free?

It’s hard. Areas of work where there is greater supply of unskilled inexperienced talent than demand (like acting, stand-up comedy, publishing, podcasting, etc) tend to have low starting wages. Sometimes these are even negative. This isn’t fair, it’s just a quirk of market economics. There are more people who want to be aid workers than there are jobs for them, so agencies are able to pay very little as starting wages, or even require people to pay for internships. That sucks, I wish it were different, but it isn’t. You might well ask how medical schools are able to ask students to pay money for 8 years, only to have to work for less than minimum wage until they become doctors – because there is a long line of people willing to. The ugly reality is a lot of aid workers have families or situations that allow them the luxury of spending extended amounts of time doing things that don’t make a lot of money.

3. It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

I would avoid the word ‘slave’, because I don’t think that anyone is forcing you to do this against your will, and I do think that plenty of other fields require that people put in a lot of time and effort to ‘make it’. That said, aid work is perhaps uniquely bad because of the national / expat issue. I assume that you are an aspiring expatriate, and part of the problem is that all of the entry level jobs in the aid world are already taken by people who live and work in the developing world. There are no real ‘entry level’ jobs for expats. The aid world really only needs technical experts and top level managers as foreigners.

So what are you supposed to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, except to suggest that the Peace Corps is still a great opportunity – you can get your health care paid, your debt deferred, two years of overseas experience, and a great networking opportunity – so that’s number one. A huge number of aid workers start off in the Peace Corps and never go home.

The other thing I would suggest is that you don’t wrack up huge debts. Get a degree, but what it is doesn’t really matter, and don’t go to grad school until you know exactly why you need to.

Sorry – I wish the world were fairer, but it isn’t yet. Good luck, let us know how you do,


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