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Integrating humanitarian work and travel

January 15, 2014

I got this question in the comments recently, and wanted to give a more lengthy reply than usual.

I am passionate about three things in life : international relations, humanitarian working, and travelling. I hold a political sciences bachelor with an option in “humanitarian field”. I had the chance of studying quite deeply the Bosnian conflict.

I have now been travelling for the last 7 months, from France to Dubai by land, and I am now in Israel. I want to accomplish a master’s degree in humanitarian gestion and coordination in Paris (I am French) when I go back home.

My question is : I really would like to work in places like Afghanistan, Mali and such, but I am pretty sure I don’t want to do this only. I know how to travel without almost any money so this is not a problem; so my ideal life would be working for NGOs 50% of the time, and travelling 50% of the time, without any jobs and duties, and take time to learn languages and things like that.

How would the NGOs’s employers would feel about a guy who keeps working for 6 months or 1 year and then ‘disappear’ from the carreer path for the same amount of time ? Is it perceived as a very bad thing or they don’t care ?

So – the quick answer is ‘yes – there are certainly ways to do this‘. Most of the people I know who do this work in the humanitarian side of the business, not in the longer term development, where turnover is very high and its not uncommon to have 3-6 month assignments. Organizations like MSF, ACF, ICRC, IRC, and a host of others will hire emergency project managers, engineers, medical staff etc on short term assignments to go set up or run refugee services, conflict programs, disaster response programs etc. I know people who work six month a year as rafting guides or some such, then six months as refugee camp managers, and I know a couple who does three year rotations – in their words, they “work one year with the UN to fund their lifestyle, one year with an organization they respect for the good of their souls, and then take a year sailing because they really love that!

It’s more difficult in the development side, but still pretty normal for people to do a 1 or 2 year stint then take six months off to go travel or sit on a beach, the industry is very used to this, and in fact kind of likes it because there isn’t always an immediate follow-on program for someone to work on, and managing burnout by taking time off is a really good thing in the long term.

As long as you’re up-front about what you’re doing, honor commitments that you make, and don’t put people in difficult positions by disappearing at key times, you’ll be fine doing that.

Good luck, let us know how you do,


2 Comments leave one →
  1. daisy permalink
    January 26, 2014 3:26 am

    am Kenyan female who has this passion of doing humanitarian work. Unfortunately I don’t have any experience. I went to the university then dropped out after a year couldn’t pay the fee. This is my dream but I guess I just have to give it up. I wish there was some agency that could take me under their wing, give me some training because that’s even a better way of gaining experience. It would further enable me identify the specific field of interest. Here in Kenya its impossible unless you have qualifications.

    • January 26, 2014 12:56 pm

      Hi Daisy,
      Sounds like you’re in a tough situation. As you say, there are a lot of aid organizations in Kenya, but I agree that they typically want applicants with qualifications. Good luck!

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