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 $7.99, 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!
Maybe this is a little well ambitious for a 20 year-old to say, but I would like to dedicate myself to humanitarian work. I believe that this line of work may be the only one to take in order to live with myself. Aaaanyways, I wonder what sort of education I need. Would for example a bachelor in nursing be a good start?
A. Hi William,
Thanks for the question. It’s one a get a lot, and my typical answer is on this page. Before I get to the detail of your question, without wanting to sound patronizing, I would urge you to keep an open mind on the question of how to live with oneself – it can take a while to feel at home in the world.
That said, the main thing that you need to decide is whether you are interested in a role that has some technical component that requires a particular qualification. Nurses are in demand in medical agencies, and if you want to serve as a nurse you will need a the appropriate qualifications and several years of professional experience as a nurse to be considered. Likewise if you want to serve as an accountant, an engineer, a pharmacist, a doctor, or a lawyer.
Most people who work in humanitarian aid though are generalists – the manage projects, write proposals, lead teams etc. In this case what you need above all things is field experience. No education can supplement for this, and you need to use your university career to get as much experience living and working in the developing world as you can.
Q. Hi Nick,
First off love your blog here. And I am going to find your book to buy. Second, I’m a 33 y/o former Chef and now currently design homes. Doing any sort of international volunteering, aid/humanitarian work has always been something I have wanted to do. Granted I am more of a boots on the ground grunt labour type of man I would like to think that my experiences with handling food, food management (ie storage/preserving) and structure design could be a possible asset for certain regions. Is there a non-profit or any type of organization you could recommend that someone like myself could start with to get the experience needed? Even if it were something as simple as helping to build schools and homes.
Thank you in advance,
A. Hi Jordan,
Thanks for the feedback! So – I don’t know where you live, but I’m assuming it’s the UK or US. My first observation is that most development or humanitarian situations are not in need of ‘grunt labor’. There isn’t ever a shortage of people to do the hard manual work. International staff need to bring some kind of expertise that isn’t available locally. That’s usually in the project management area, or in some kind of technical specialty.
My advice if you’re really interested in this as a career is to look at the transferable skills that you have in that area, and then start to build your professional network and experience overseas. There really aren’t a lot of organizations that will help you get the experience that you need, bar the usual suspects of the Peace Corps or VSO – you need to figure that out in a more entrepreneurial way I’m afraid.
One thing I would suggest is that you consider whether you might be able to scratch this itch domestically. The design / food management skill set might be much more valuable to domestic non-profits than international ones?
Let us know how you do,
Jake Meeks is a humanitarian aid worker with a resume that includes managing procurement, administration, and logistics for aid agencies in Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. His blog ‘Aid Without A Cause‘ is something folks looking to get a start in this line of work should read. Here’s a taste of one of his recent posts – read the rest here.
“I hate the term aid worker. Though it is still used. And the term humanitarian? Not so sure about that because it could be anyone. As for international development worker….well no because that implies you’re working outside of your own country…..which isn’t always or even generally true.
Terms are important because they color how we think. People are even more important. In any discussion of industry or a sector I believe that you should start with the people in that industry or sector and what they are. So that’s what I’m going to attempt to do in two parts. Along the way I’ll need to define some terms. But first, let me tell you a story.
I got my bachelor’s degree in business. In retrospect I would have gone to film school. Or majored in history. But at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had some half-baked scheme of trying to get into the movie business by doing logistics for a movie set, hence my business degree in logistics. And the VA (Veteran’s Administration) would pay for it. So cool.
I was an angry lad though. I was pissed off at my country for going to wars I didn’t believe in. I was pissed off at my culture because it would focus more on Kim Kardashian’s ass then the fact we were in two wars. I was pissed off at my people, my generation, because all I felt that emanated from them was this overwhelming sense of apathy about the world and our country’s role in it.
So I got my business degree and I decided I couldn’t go work for a business. It just wasn’t in me, my primary focus would be making money and as long as I have food, shelter and a bit left over, I don’t give a shit about money. I didn’t want that to be the central purpose of my life. That, and I figured I’d probably hit somebody. I figured I’d meet some hotshot who didn’t know shit about the real world and was motivated by self-glorification and money and that would piss me off. So I would punch him. Or he would punch me, whatever.
I went and got my master’s instead. Then I found my way to the NGO world. Man told me, “There’s three types of people in the aid world: missionaries, mercenaries and misfits, which one are you?” Well there is nothing in my bones that goes and spreads any kind of word of God of any religion, so it ain’t missionary. I don’t give enough of a shit about money to be a mercenary. Guess that leaves one choice.”
Read the rest of Jake’s post at Aid Without A Cause.
Jeff wrote to me with a course offering that may be of interest. I don’t have personal experience with this course, but I have worked with RedR, which is a very credible and impressive organization. If anyone does have recommendations of courses or other trainings that have been useful to them please do drop me a line and I can post something about them.
“La Roche College in Pittsburgh, PA is offering a series of Global Development and Humanitarian Aid Training courses. The training sessions take place between May 16, 2016, and May 27, 2016. This is the third year for the program, which has been successful and well-received by participants.
Partnering with RedR UK, one of the world’s premier training organizations, La Roche’s Global Development and Humanitarian Aid Training Program will develop these core competencies:
- Understanding human rights and humanitarian contexts, principles and law.
- Working collaboratively to achieve results.
- Ensuring safety and security under conditions of pressure and change.
The program’s first two years each saw about 20 participants from all walks of life. They included recent college graduates, undergrad students, graduate students, retired nurses, a priest, and people already involved in the field of humanitarian aid from West Africa, to name a few. The training combines online RedR disaster online material, simulations, interactive classes, and one-on-one interaction with experienced humanitarian aid workers. All of this is combined in a structure geared towards helping interested candidates learn the field and understand how to approach humanitarian aid efforts most effectively.
Undergrad or graduate students can also earn college credit through the program, providing extra incentive for people in those fields.
A look at the 2014 training program and trainer biographies can be seen here.
For more information about the program as a whole click here.“
You can read the first part of this story here. This is part of a personal narrative about my flailing attempts to get my first job as a humanitarian aid worker.
In the winter of 1996/7 Sarajevo was a getting back on its feet. The war was over, and people were starting to pick up the pieces. Markets were working, buses were running, and the international aid and security groups there were spending millions of dollars to try to kick start the economy and repair the damage of the previous five years. When I left the UK I was given the address of someone to look up in Sarajevo by a friend who was a Bosnian refugee in Britain. When I got there I fond that the building was no longer there, it was a pile of rubble. I don’t know what happened to those people, the school friends of the biologist and doctor couple of I met in York. Of course I’d seen the devastation on the TV, but this was the first time it viscerally connected with me that this was a human tragedy of massive scale.
I spent a few days in Sarajevo, trying to connect with people who worked in the aid business, but it felt like no one would give me the time of day. I couldn’t get meetings, and people would not return my phone calls. Of course, this was in the days before everyone had email and mobile phones.
So, on the advice of someone who did meet briefly with me I got on a bus to Mostar, a city in western Bosnia that had been one of the worst affected by the war. I rented a room, and started to work out how to connect with the couple of names I had been given to look up there.
Mostar had a much more relaxed pace. The old medieval city had suffered massive damage in the war, and the iconic Turkish bridge had not yet been rebuilt. My first stop was to an organization called ‘Mladi Most’ (Youth Bridge), a multi-ethnic youth center that took volunteers from overseas to work run youth programs aimed at diffusing conflict. I hung out at the center for a little while, but pretty early on I knew it wasn’t going to be where I fit in. The pot smoking hippy vibe was great, and the programs the group had run were well respected and certainly bold in the political environment, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.
I stayed a couple of weeks in Mostar, introducing myself to people, beginning to get to grips with the language, and finding my way around. I didn’t find anyone who was hiring, or any job that it felt like I could do well enough that it would help. I did meet a lot of very competent, dedicated Bosnians who working hard to get their country back on its feet, and who were very graceful in hosting me, and very polite about my rather crass and naive questions.
In the end, I left Bosnia more sure than ever that this was a career that I wanted, but more despondent than ever about how to get my first job.
Q. Hi Nick,
There are so so-called “volunteer” programs that I can apply to but have to pay for them. Is “voluntourism” experience considered as field experience that can be beneficial for me to get a job as an aid worker?
A. Thanks for the question, Anh,
You’re referring to a number of programs that range from tourism that has some sort of service element built into it, to organizations that take volunteers but require them to fundraise for the costs involved in hosting them. I want to unpack what’s going on here a little, but for the TL;DR crowd, the short answer is ‘no’, these programs will not normally be considered ‘field experience’ from the perspective of a humanitarian agency recruiter.
There is a market for a type of tourism that takes people to places in the developing world, lets them experience the culture and environment, and lets them interact with, and (hopefully benefit) local communities in some way. The quality of these programs vary greatly. Some of them have long-standing arrangements with local communities and profit-share in some meaningful way, while preserving the dignity of the people are being visited. In a lot of ways this no worse than any kind of cultural tourism. Local people host visitors, share something of their culture, sell them trinkets, and get paid for it. At the other extreme is a much more exploitative arrangement where a tour company will bring outsiders into a community with little money flowing into that group. The key difference with a lot of these programs is the inclusion of some kind of social service element. Sometimes this is helping to build a school, sometimes it is working in an orphanage, you get the idea.
In general though, when you think about it, bringing a tourist thousands of miles at great expense probably isn’t the most cost effective way to get labor to build a school, or to work with children in an orphanage. What you’re paying for is the sense of personal connection and contribution. There is a supply and demand relationship here that I’m a little uneasy with, but I’m not sure I think it’s the worst thing as long as everyone is getting something worthwhile out of the deal.
At the other end of the spectrum of these programs are organizations (often although not always religious) who take volunteers and ask them to pay their way. These are often longer term, and may have a more serious expectation that participants contribute something valuable aside from money.
But back to your resume – no – recruiters won’t look kindly on this in the main. Unless you can demonstrate that your fundraising was entirely incidental to the other valuable contribution you made, there will be a pall over that entry on your CV. It will look like tourism, which is not the kind of ‘living and working in the developing world’ that recruiters want to see.
I don’t want to sound too down on these experiences, they can be very rewarding for all concerned if done well, but I wouldn’t count on them from a resume building perspective.
PS I have limited experience of these programs, so if there is anyone who has a different perspective on this and wants to write a guest post I’d love to air another point of view.
Q. Hi Nick,
I’ve been applying for jobs all morning and just seen your blog when I was at breaking point, so thank you :) It’s great to read your advice as this is an area I’m pretty new to. I studied zoology at uni, but found that I had an interest in development through my housemate who studied politics; however it was too late to change degrees. I decided it was too late to go into development.
I traveled to India for three months with a charity a few years later and released that this area is 100% where I want to work. I’m trying to get experience now, I volunteered here in the Uk with the fundraising team of an African charity and have just come back from four months in a Team leader role in Bangladesh, But my question is where do I go from here? Every job specification I look at wants 7 years experience, a masters and lots of languages. I also really, really want a hands on kind of job working in the field as opposed to an office job in the sector, maybe as an aid worker, do you have any advice what I could look for next?
A. Dear Ally,
First of all, congratulations on your career decision – getting clarity on what you want to do with your life is a wonderful thing. First things first – your zoology degree. I wouldn’t worry about that, as I’ve said many times I don’t think what degree you have is very relevant (except for medics, engineers, accountants and the like). What is important (and it sounds like you’ve made progress here) is getting field experience.
So the problem, if I’m reading it right, is that there is a mis-match between the experience requirements of the jobs you’re interested in and the experience on your resume. There are a couple of things I would say – first off, sometimes those experience and education requirements are aspirational, and sometimes they are designed simply to reduce the number of applicants recruiters have to screen. You do most likely need to build your resume with some more experience living and working in the developing world, unless you have more than the 7 or so months you mention, but you likely don’t need 7 years to get your first job.
I think you need to do a couple of things – the first is to get serious about networking in this sector. You need to get to know the people who are hiring for these jobs, and you also need to think about either taking internships, volunteer positions, or looking for jobs from the field rather than from the UK. Many many people get their first break by bypassing HQ recruiting altogether and just showing up. Note that its very important to do this only in places that have established tourist infrastructure and are not in a state of collapse, but it can be a great way to get hired.