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. Hey Nick,
Your site was very helpful! I’m actually a grade ten student, at fifteen years old, and humanitarian aid is the closest I’ve come to my dream job thus far. As of right now, it might as well be my dream job. However, if it is my dream job “for certain”, I’m not so sure. I need to make a decision fast about what I want to persue for the rest of my years at high school, but how do I know that humanitarian work is for me if I have no experience in the field whatsoever, as I am only fifteen?
Although I am attending a Me to We Youth Volunteer Trip to Ecuador this summer. I realize that the conditions will be quite luxurious compared to the conditions of an aid worker, and the stuff I will be doing (building a school, learning a language, volunteering with community members) is a lot different than the work of an aid worker, but is it a good start? This will be the first time I have left Canada, and I’m quite excited. I know that I want to travel (see the world – in it’s beauty AND in it’s destruction), and I have a passion for volunteering and helping people that is probably unnatural, so a career that contains both is exciting for me.
I’m doing all of the research I can surrounding humanitarian work, and I loved your site – it has helped me very much in discovering what humanitarian/international aid is all about.
A. Hi Hannah,
First off, thanks for the kind words about the site – I’m glad it’s helpful.
Second – I want to let you know that you’re doing everything right in terms of figuring out what you want to do with your life. While you do need to make decisions about what you take in school, those decisions won’t be that important in terms of jobs in relief and development. If you think you might want to go to medical school, become an architect, or a professional musician, taking the right classes in school might be really important, but in the aid world it doesn’t matter that much (unless you want to work as a medical professional or an accountant, for example).
You should definitely carry on getting experience overseas whenever those opportunities present, learning a language is always an advantage, and start to get work experience either overseas, or in related experiences in Canada. The main thing is to get your feet wet and figure out whether this is really something that you’re going to love, or something you love the idea of.
What I would say is that, more than ever, people are having several careers in their lifetimes, so while the decisions you’re making now are important, you will have opportunities to make changes later in life, so take them seriously, but don’t worry too much about them.
This article by ‘J’ from the Guardian might interest you, good luck, and let us know how you get on!
Q. Gday Nick.
My name is Chris. I am 28 and an established Carpenter of 12 years experience in the building and construction industry in QLD Australia. I am looking for a way to put my skills to better use. The industry in my area is very crowded and finding and securing work is becoming more and more difficult. I want to combine my love of travel, my desire to help or at least be involved and the skills I possess to help in areas such as; developing and third world countries remote and disaster areas.
I’m basically looking for some sort of a contact or a point in the right direction.
Would appreciate your feedback.
A. G’day, Chris.
So – you’re a carpenter, and it’s hard to find work, and you’d love to travel and help other people. So – I think that we need to deal with a couple of different issues here, and I’m going to be frank and honest, rather than tactful and sensitive. I hope that’s ok.
First – I don’t think carpentry is a skill that is in particularly high demand in the developing world. It’s rare that any society lacks the skills to construct basic shelters and structures. Most of the time there is plenty of semi-skilled and skilled labor available locally in these areas. What is often in demand is the ability to manage construction contracts on a large scale.
I would suggest that you don’t think of aid work as a way to find less competitive carpentry jobs – if anything the aid world is more competitive than a lot of careers. If there is a skill-set that is in high demand it is construction management, contracting, and the associated jobs of bidding and supervising sub-contracts.
Sorry if that isn’t what you wanted to hear,
Q. Hi Nick I found your blog whilst looking at international aid work. At the end of my education I will be a fully qualified physician associate. My question is can I do aid work with a chronic condition, I have a long-term neuralgic condition which requires medication but not much in the way of hospital treatment? I would love to get in to this field and use my skills where they are most needed. Any insight would be helpful.
A. Hi there – first of all, congratulations on your graduation!
So – the issue of long-term medical conditions. The broader question that I get quite a lot is whether particular disabilities or health conditions disqualify you for particular jobs. Unfortunately the answer can vary depending on where you are, and what country the organization hiring you is based but, in my experience there are a couple of things to consider:
1. Are you able to carry out the tasks in the job with or without reasonable accommodation on the part of your employer? Now, if the job description required you to drive, but your condition meant you couldn’t, that would not be a good fit, but if your condition is largely managed by medication then you should be fine.
2. The second issue is whether the location you are going to has adequate healthcare facilities. If you need regular treatment or availability of treatment in an emergency, and it is not present in the country you are going to that might be a deal breaker.
Basically you need to look at what the job requires, and what you need, and figure out whether there is a good match. In the main well treated chronic conditions don’t disqualify you for work. You might want to check out my interview with Tiana Tozer, which touches on this issue.
A couple of articles piqued my interest in the last couple of weeks, and I thought I’d share them:
This one ‘If not us, then who?’ from CNN takes its title from a comment from Michael Bowers, Mercy Corps’ senior director for strategic response and emergencies. It looks at some of the realities of operating in extremely insecure environments.
This NPR article called ‘The Truth About Humanitarian Work: High Ideals Vs Hard Realities‘, a short piece that looks at some of the motivations for people to work in dangerous environments like Syria.
A commentary from the Guardian on the state of LGBT rights in international NGO human resource departments, focussing on how straight aid work still is, at least in some parts of the industry. I’m lucky to work for one of the organizations that was a quiet leader in adopting equal opportunity policies with regard to sexual orientation – for a less progressive example see this Philanthropy.com article.
Lastly, something a little lighter – Frame Changers, a daily cartoon from Khanjan Mehta (Director, Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Pennsylvania State).
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.