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.
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One of the core difficulties in getting your first job in relief and development is the question of how to get field experience. You can’t get hired without experience, and you can’t get experience without getting hired. It can be tempting to just show up somewhere where there is need and volunteer until you get hired. I want to highlight another tragic example of why I don’t think this is something you should do, at least not in active conflict areas.
In early 2015 IS released a statement saying that Kayla Muelle, an American woman they were holding hostage in Syria was killed in a Jordanian bombing raid. While the details are sparse, it appears that Kayla travelled to Aleppo in 2013 with another person who was working for an organization contracted by MSF. The two of them stayed overnight in Aleppo, and were kidnapped the next morning. The specifics of the case don’t really concern us, you can read more here, but I wanted to draw out a couple of important things to take away from this incident:
1. Foreigners in war-zones are not safe. They never have been, and they certainly are not now.
2. Kayla was apparently not employed by an aid agency at the time of her capture. No responsible agency would have sent her to Aleppo at the time, and she apparently lacked the kind of sound security analysis and advice that major international agencies provide to their staff.
3. You need to be very cautious about traveling to areas afflicted with conflict or strife. If you are volunteering on your own, or networking on the ground, make sure you stick to areas that have existing tourist infrastructure, a reputation for stability, and a regular flow of foreigners. This won’t guarantee your safety, of course, but it will make you no more likely to be targeted than regular tourists.
Let’s be careful out there,
Q. Hi, Nick,
I am Eman from Egypt, 30 years old. I am a pharmacist and have a masters degree in quality management. I am applying for a masters of public health scholarship this year, plz wish me luck.
This is the second year for me to work in a national humanitarian aid organization (Arab Medical Union) in a project funded by UNHCR of Egypt.
I worked in the Refugees’ health support program at AMU. I worked in the project for providing medical assistance for Syrian refugees of concern to the UN Refugees Agency.
This year we will make establishing and enacting a standardized 2ry, 3ry and emergency referral care services including for emergency obstetric and neonatal care for Syrian Refugees also.
My aim is to work in African developing countries at a non-governmental organization, national or international working in health systems development projects. As I believe in the right for every person in good health. Also I have a passion to work with marginalized groups including women and children.
Do you think that i may have a chance to work at international organization in other African countries rather than Egypt ? As a I am not a Doctor, I have difficulties in entering these carrier in Egypt. what is your advice for me?
A. Hi Eman – first of all, the situation for Egyptian humanitarian workers is a little out of my area of expertise, but I think my advice is pretty much the same as for anyone else. You are already working for an organization that is receiving grants from UNHCR, which is a huge networking opportunity – I hope you’re taking the change to build professional connections both within the field of aid organizations with offices in Egypt (including UNHCR), and though your other professional connections. If you don’t already have one I would recommend you get a LinkedIn account.
My understanding from your message is that you are working in Egypt, which is your home country – this is an obstacle, since you won’t be seen as having any field experience. The plus side is that pharmacy and medical administration are both really useful skills in demand in the aid world. The key is going to be building a network of professional contacts that enable you to get jobs in the kinds of places you’re looking for.
Q. I’m 15 years old, and I have an extreme passion for helping people. I’ve been a Girl Scout for going on 11 years, and try to locally volunteer whenever my busy school schedule allows. My problem is that I want to travel and work with aid groups, but I also perform broadway/opera/theatre and I want to try and do both in the future.
One of my questions is if there is a way for me to do work for a period of time, then take a break and work on other things but still keep standing in the aid community? And also, would there be any sort of demand for some sort of teacher in these areas, to help with education for the younger people in the areas that need help?
A. Hi Kristen, I love your enthusiasm and energy. I think at your age you should be able to hold on to both of these passions (aid work and musical theatre). My recommendation is that you plan to go to college, and think seriously while you’re there about where your core interests lie. Maybe take a semester abroad, or an internship in a developing country, and some international development courses alongside your theatre.
The aid world is very forgiving of people who want to drop in and out of it once you are established with a little bit of work experience. I know plenty of people who combine assignments overseas with travel, tour-guiding white-water raft trips, writing, medical work etc. While you’re in university is the time to thrash some of this out, as you get a better feel for what your focus is going to be.
Q. Hi Nick,
I’m currently completing a MSc in International disaster management in the UK, however when searching for jobs within this area, all are asking for 3 years minimum experience. How can I break through into this career paradigm with having little experience? Un paid work is unfortunately not an option for me right now, (student debts etc) so I would be really grateful for any advice you could give.
A. So I get this question a lot. In fact, the question is essentially what this whole site is about. It’s my best attempt to answer the question of how to get your first job. Let me summarize for you though:
Entry level ex-pat recruitment is broken from the perspective of the applicant. There are essentially no entry level expatriate positions*. You need to get field experience living and working in the kinds of places you want to get a job. You’ll want to look at internships, volunteer positing, VSO, independent travel etc. You should leverage your professional contacts through your MSc, and continue to build those contacts as you job-search.
On the subject of grad-school debt, this is one of the reasons I recommend putting off graduate school until after you have a few years of field experience under your belt. Sorry not to have better news – it’s tough out there, but not impossible.
* That’s not strictly true – there are some, but they are so few, and so competitive, that we’ll gloss over them for the short version.
Q. Hello Nick, you have done extremely well with this website! Thank you, it has been very useful. I think my questions are similar to Tashina’s ones. I have Masters in Administration and three years of working experience but now I want to completely change the direction and start working in humanitarian aid, refugee camps etc. I’m Ukrainian and currently in Ukraine so I realise that here is no vast choice of jobs in this area. I’m going for a year to Holland and after that I would like to get another masters in social work or related field. Would that make sense and give me better chances for working for UNICEF, UN etc?
A. Hi there – so – a couple of issues here – first off, it would be useful to know what you’re going to be doing in Holland – I would certainly recommend you use that as an opportunity to network and get to know people in some of the European aid agencies in the area.
On the question of education, if you’ve read my page on what to study you’ll know I would not recommend you get another masters degree. I don’t believe it will help you get a job with UNICEF. Now – I’ve written a post or two about the UN, and getting a job with them is it’s own huge project. I would take a look at the PassBlue site and bear in mind that it’s tremendously competitive. Depending on your age you may be eligible for UN Young Professional or other programs, which I would definitely recommend taking advantage of. I don’t know what the situation is for Ukraine, but some countries are less well represented, and that can give you an advantage in applying.
Q. Nick, I appreciate your blog. My wife and I are new attorneys working to pay off our student debt. Do you think any of our legal skills would cross over to the humanitarian field?
We have several years to work in the U.S. in order to pay off our loans before we would even be able to seek employment internationally. Do you have any suggestions on what we could do in the meantime while living in the U.S. to make ourselves more marketable in the future?
A. Hi Daniel – first of all congratulations on graduating and getting jobs!
This is a tough question to answer, because I wish I had some more specifics. In particular, what kind of law do you work in, and what kinds of jobs are you looking for? There certainly are lawyers working overseas in humanitarian and human rights contexts, and the roles they fill are pretty diverse. Some work on issues of human rights law and advocacy, some practice law within the International Criminal Court, some work for aid agencies (who tend to need a lot of legal advice!).
That said, compared to management and technical jobs, these are a minority, and tend to be pretty tough to get. What I would say is that international agencies are always in need of legal services, and doing pro-bono work for an aid agency can be a great way to get a foot in the door and hear about opportunities. All major international agencies need legal services for everything from processing visas and immigration paperwork; navigating US law as it pertains to everything from export regulations, terrorism law, or HR law; to supporting local council in different countries navigating the different legal regimes in countries where work is carried out.
I would recommend you get in contact with some agencies you’re interested in and check out opportunities to contribute – get to know their staff, particularly their general council, and talk to their program teams about ways to get involved in the field.
Drop me a line if you want to talk more specifically, good luck!
I wanted to plug a new post at my other site, Effective Action, looking at the question of whether the situation in the world is getting better or worse – the blog looks at the use of analytics in improving mission effectiveness!