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What is a normal day in the life of a relief worker?

September 28, 2015
Q. I am 15 years old and would love to be an aid worker. I want to get degrees in Social work and engineering, and also learn Spanish. I’ve researched a ton about this career, learned all of the pros and cons, and it still appeals to me more than anything else. But, I wonder what a normal day would actually be like as an aid worker in another country. Does the organization provide food? What’s the food like? How often do you take showers and where? Do you get to explore the country in your free time? Do you get free time, if so, how much? I know a lot about what you do on the job but, not a lot about how you live in these countries. – Vanessa
A. Thanks for the question Vanessa, social work and engineering sounds like quite the combination! One of the things I love about this line of work is that there is no such thing as a normal day. I can answer some of those questions directly, and I can tell you about a few different postings that I have had, and give you a little bit of insight into what it’s like, but every posting really is different.
So: First off – usually aid agencies don’t provide food. Most of the time your accommodation will have a kitchen or there will be restaurants you can eat at. Occasionally you might be posted somewhere where there are not functional local markets, and there are no local restaurants. In those cases (I can think of a couple of examples in Tajikistan during and after the war and in remote areas of Sudan) the organization will run a kitchen for its staff.
Secondly. Usually it’s ok. It’s highly dependent on what’s available locally.
Third. Showers – usually you’ll have a house or apartment where you have normal bathroom facilities. Occasionally if you are in an emergency or very remote area you might face a situation where you’re living in irregular accommodation (a tent perhaps). In these cases you might have to improvise or use a shared shower facility. This is pretty rare though.
Fourth – free time. Most agencies have regular work weeks, weekends, holidays, vacation, and home leave. Depending on the agency you might get 4-6 weeks of vacation, public holidays, and then perhaps 2 weeks of extra home leave per year. Now, the catch is that, especially the more urgent the situation, the less there is a culture of taking this leave. You might find that you are in an office where people regularly work weekends, or tend not to take vacation. This is a huge industry wide issue, and speaks to issues of self care and organizational staff care.
So – here are three examples of typical days that I have had in different places in the world – they are quite different, and you have a choice about what jobs you take!
1. Kyrgyzstan – I was acting Country Director for a major agency in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. The office was in a modern high-rise in the down-town business district. I took a taxi from the rather nice house to the office, worked a 9-5 day, and then went home. I had plenty of time to explore the city and country on the weekends. I cooked in the kitchen in the house or ate in restaurants.
2. Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. I was one of the first responders to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and arrived in Colombo, the capital city. I stayed in a really nice hotel there, because it was all that was available, and then went to the west coast, where there was a real housing shortage. I got one of the last hotel rooms available, and shared it with another guy for a week. There was no running water for some time. We ate in restaurants because we were working 12-16 hour days, and didn’t take weekends off.
I did tack a weekend on to the end of the deployment to go visit some of the tourist sites before heading home.
3. I was posted to a remote island in Indonesia for a year – we had running water, but it was cold. We had cooking facilities, and there were local markets and restaurants, but it was hard to get familiar food. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, although I probably didn’t shower as often as I should have!
To sum up – when you’re talking with recruiters about positions, make sure you ask explicitly about living conditions, time off, and other benefits, and if possible talk to people who already live there!
Good luck!

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