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Too poor and debt-ridden to be an aid-worker?

March 29, 2018

Q. What happens when you are too poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…? How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free? It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

Mia

A. So, Mia, I feel your pain…

I really do, but your fight isn’t with me, or even with the aid world, but with Capitalism. But let me back up for a minute. This isn’t a blog about how things should be, or how I think the aid world should work, it’s a blog about how to get your first job in the relief and development world. So I’m going to take your question seriously, and answer it as best I can. Apologies in advance though, because I don’t think you’re going to like the answer – I don’t like it either, for what it’s worth.

  1. What happens if you are poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…?

Well, you look for a job that pays well. I don’t mean this facetiously, you get the same complaint from law students, doctors, and pretty much everyone. Suppose you go to law school, wanting to fight for Greenpeace, but graduate with a lot of debt and find that enviro-anarchists don’t pay as well as Exon? It’s a real problem in a lot of industries. Want to cure the sick in low income people without health insurance, but graduate medical school with a lot of debt? Sorry!

2. How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free?

It’s hard. Areas of work where there is greater supply of unskilled inexperienced talent than demand (like acting, stand-up comedy, publishing, podcasting, etc) tend to have low starting wages. Sometimes these are even negative. This isn’t fair, it’s just a quirk of market economics. There are more people who want to be aid workers than there are jobs for them, so agencies are able to pay very little as starting wages, or even require people to pay for internships. That sucks, I wish it were different, but it isn’t. You might well ask how medical schools are able to ask students to pay money for 8 years, only to have to work for less than minimum wage until they become doctors – because there is a long line of people willing to. The ugly reality is a lot of aid workers have families or situations that allow them the luxury of spending extended amounts of time doing things that don’t make a lot of money.

3. It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

I would avoid the word ‘slave’, because I don’t think that anyone is forcing you to do this against your will, and I do think that plenty of other fields require that people put in a lot of time and effort to ‘make it’. That said, aid work is perhaps uniquely bad because of the national / expat issue. I assume that you are an aspiring expatriate, and part of the problem is that all of the entry level jobs in the aid world are already taken by people who live and work in the developing world. There are no real ‘entry level’ jobs for expats. The aid world really only needs technical experts and top level managers as foreigners.

So what are you supposed to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, except to suggest that the Peace Corps is still a great opportunity – you can get your health care paid, your debt deferred, two years of overseas experience, and a great networking opportunity – so that’s number one. A huge number of aid workers start off in the Peace Corps and never go home.

The other thing I would suggest is that you don’t wrack up huge debts. Get a degree, but what it is doesn’t really matter, and don’t go to grad school until you know exactly why you need to.

Sorry – I wish the world were fairer, but it isn’t yet. Good luck, let us know how you do,

Nick

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