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This might sound rude, but I’m very irritated…

December 31, 2013

OK – so I’m hoping you had a great Christmas / holiday season – over the break I got this question from Seth, and while I usually answer questions in the comment sections, I wanted to pull this one out because there’s such a lot that I want to say about it.

This might sound rude, but I’m very irritated. I want to go to the worst of the worst places and do humanitarian work. I don’t care about hours, conditions, type of work or the danger. I can’t find one organization that brings volunteers on board without thousands of dollars in their pocket for “safe home bases” or whatever they spend it on. I care less about a home base, I’ll sleep in a damn tent! I’m sorry, I just need help. I truly just want to go and help people, but I can’t save up that amount of money. Can you direct me to anybody looking for volunteer humanitarian workers where you don’t have to spend 4,000$ to help people. Thanks

It’s not an uncommon sentiment, and it’s one that I identify with, so I don’t want anyone to interpret my response as being unsympathetic. That said, I’m going to address this question by explaining the reason why there are not a lot of organizations that take volunteers without some element of ‘pay-to-play’.

1. So the background to this question is that there are a bunch of organizations that offer ‘humanitarian volunteer’ or ‘working vacation’ type experiences, and as Seth points out, they usually cost thousands of dollars. The reason for this is that deploying foreigners to developing countries is expensive. Flights, insurance, visas, amenities, in-country travel, accommodation, supervision, all add up, and that money has to come from somewhere. Major international donors are unwilling to pay these costs, so the volunteer is left holding the can. Of course, the other reason these things exist is that there is a market for them – some people are willing to pay to do this.

2. So why isn’t there a demand from organizations for unskilled international volunteers? Seth doesn’t attach his resume, or mention whether he has any particular background or experience that would make him a valuable asset to an aid organization, but the fact that he doesn’t care what work he is assigned suggests to me that this isn’t an area he’s thought through a whole lot. The fact is that the developing world is packed with bright, enthusiastic, hard-working people who live locally, speak the local language, and don’t require international relocation. Between 90 and 99% of staff in any emergency or development program will be hired from the country the program is in. The only reason expatriates (volunteer or paid) are brought in is a) they have a skill-set that can’t be sourced locally, or b)  a major donor insists on an expatriate in a certain key management position. Frankly it doesn’t look like Seth fits the bill on either of these categories.

3. Seth says that “I want to go to the worst of the worst places and do humanitarian work. I don’t care about hours, conditions, type of work or the danger.” Well frankly, as a hiring manager, that rings alarm bells for me. Imagine the look you would get if you showed up in an Emergency Room and said “I just want to do trauma surgery – why won’t anyone take me as a volunteer?” A lot of the work in ‘the worst places’ takes place in fragile and potentially violent environments. The reason agencies want experienced trained staff is that people do get kidnapped, hurt or killed doing this, and most of them are not expatriates, but locals. Agencies care very much about the safety of their staff, not simply because they are human beings, but because having a staff member killed can close down a program and put staff and beneficiaries at risk. Agencies don’t want to hire Indiana Jones, they want cautious, professional managers who realize the importance of maintaining safe, secure, and sustainable operating conditions for their teams.

So. What to do? It comes back to:

a) Develop a skill that is useful in the field. This can be anything from project management, finance, nursing, logistics, you name it.

b) Get experience living and working in the kinds of environments where you want to work. No responsible agency is going to throw you into the ‘worst places in the world’ without starting you out somewhere more stable. Peace Corps is a great place to start, but there are lots of alternatives.

Sorry to rant, Seth – I hope that helps a little! Happy New Year, and good luck!


6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2014 9:14 am

    Dear Nick, i must say i had the same thoughts as Seth. I can’t find a volunteer program for less than USD 1000. ” How can they charge people who want to help?? Maybe they are not 100% reliable and might keep this money for themselves” That was what i always thought about that. However, after reading this i am way more confident and finally understood the purpose of this money. We all know international humanitarian aid is expensive since resources need to be reallocated and people who are there to help also need to be helped. Now, if i really wanna change professional fields and throw myself into new career related to this – as i want – i gotta follow the 2 advices you gave us: get skilled and have experience. I was still lost about how to begin but that was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I will start some readings, online courses and even short – and long – period. I would suggest you to point us good courses worldwide you reccomend to international students. I am from Brazil and we don’t have lot of options nearby. Thank you!

    • April 22, 2014 8:36 am

      Hi Manoela,
      Thanks for your comment – I regret that I am completely unable to keep on top of the quality and content of the many courses for international relief and development that are available worldwide. I would welcome feedback from anyone who has experience in these – sorry!

  2. Kim Bridges permalink
    January 11, 2014 11:54 am

    Dear Nick,
    Thank you for this site. It has been most helpful. & truthfully a bit discouraging. I am coming into this later in life than most. I am in my late 40’s, spent 10 years in law enforcement, & almost 12 years in elementary education. Although I do not have a 4 year degree. Yet, after the limited amount of research I have done so far, it doesn’t seem that I am qualified for anything!! (Also, years of raising my children & local volunteering)

    I am not giving up….I am still researching & still looking at ways I can help… it in the field or where ever. Using my abilities to the best to help?

    Do you have any suggestion?


    • January 15, 2014 9:31 am

      Hi Kim,
      The good news is that people from all kinds of backgrounds do make their way into this line of work, it’s certainly not impossible, and it sounds like you’re not lacking in commitment.
      The bad news is that I think finishing a four year degree is a good idea – while it’s not a deal breaker, not having one does raise issues that you’ll have to be more pro-active to get around.
      Depending on where you live, you might want to look at the Peace Corps or Voluntary Service Overseas – both are structured, pay costs, and might be a good fit.
      Let us know how you do,

      • Kim Bridges permalink
        January 15, 2014 5:58 pm

        I am still researching. & finishing my degree is not out of the question. I do have the passion & commitment. I have done volunteer work with kids in poverty in the US. The school where I worked was extremely high poverty level.

        Will be using this site a lot as a reference until I can buy a kindle & your ebook!
        Thanks again

  3. May 5, 2014 9:35 pm

    Thanks Kim – just so we’re clear – you can read the ebook on pretty much any computer or tablet – and while I appreciate people buying it to support the site, the information in it is the same as the site.
    Good luck,

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