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Should I just show up somewhere where there are a lot of aid agencies? Part 1

Woody Allen said that “eighty percent of success is showing up”, and I am inclined to agree with him. If you are on the spot when there is a job to be done, that counts for a huge amount. To an NGO hiring manager who desperately needs help in an emergency, a known quantity who he likes, who might lack experience, but is on the spot right now is better than an unknown quantity with a great CV in four weeks time.

My advice is that you should not do this. Picking up and going to an environment that is in turmoil, suffering from privation and chaos, without any organizational support can be risky and difficult, potentially reckless and dangerous, and you should think very seriously about whether it is a risk you want to take.

Having said that, I think it is sometimes the fastest way to get your first job in relief work. A huge number of people who I know in this line of work (including my wife and I) got their foot in the door by just jumping on a plane to whatever disaster or conflict was in the news at the time and making themselves useful until someone hired them.

There are a couple of reasons why this is a good idea, and very, very many reasons why it is not. Let’s take a look at these:

A) The plus side

You will have a wild time, and gain valuable experience.

Hiring managers in NGO offices in emergencies are often desperate to get people on the spot quickly. They may very well take you on based on the fact that you can start this morning and seem to have your wits about you. That relief expert in the US that can be there in three weeks seems much less appealing by comparison. That you found your way to their office on your own and managed to survive a chaotic environment may be evidence enough that you are serious, committed, and savvy. For them, you have moved from the realm of the theoretical and distant to the realm of the concrete and immediate. That’s where their head will be. If they like you, there’s a chance they will just hire you or let you volunteer on the spot. The risk for them in hiring extra help in an emergency is (ironically) much lower than if you were recruited through their headquarters for a long-term position. If you turn out to be no use, they can just fire you with very few consequences and little cost. Of course, if you swim, rather than sink, you’ve made it – your resume looks orders of magnitude better, and you’ll likely have no trouble finding your next job. Having even a few months of emergency experience with a credible agency will make you orders of magnitude more employable.

B) The negative side

There is a very real chance that something awful could happen to you.

Security for foreigners in many parts of the developing world is getting worse, and kidnappings, killings, robberies and other attacks are on the rise. Add to that the risks of being hurt in a vehicle or some other accident, and you should have a fairly sober idea of the risks. Without the support of a major organization (security risk assessments, guidelines and advice, medical and evacuation insurance, logistics, lawyers, etc) you will have a much harder time of it if you get into trouble.

In addition to your own security, there is a possibility that you might contribute to making the situation worse in the place you are trying to help. Turning up in an emergency you may end up taking up scarce accommodation, food and transport resources, you might run into difficulty and need assistance yourself, drawing attention and resources away from vulnerable local populations. Unless you are prepared, careful and sensitive you might well end up making yourself more of a burden than a help. Articles like this and this crop up after every major emergency. Please please please don’t turn up unprepared in an acute emergency (or anywhere else for that matter) and expect someone else to provide for you.

There are some environments that I would never advise people to ‘show up’ in on their own. Active war-zones, highly unstable areas with high crime rates, and areas with no infrastructure to deal with foreigners are just some of these. Places like (at the time of writing) Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Sudan, and Somalia all make it onto my don’t-go list. Stick to places with relatively good tourist infrastructure, good security and a large number of international NGOs, that way you will be able to be totally self sufficient, no more likely to run into major problems than a tourist, and still able to network and volunteer effectively.

The bottom line? If you are put off by the negative side of this equation, you should think very seriously about whether you are really going to enjoy the kinds of jobs you are likely to be assigned. If you don’t want to get on a plane to a country and go figure it out, how are you going to respond to being asked by your agency to go to a country and set up an office for them by getting  on a plane and figuring it out? The level of support you receive when you are starting up a new program or responding to a disaster may not be very much greater.


Travel in the developing world carries risk. It is essential that you do your research and understand the environment you are going to and the risk you may be taking.

  • Whenever you travel, always make sure you thoroughly research the situation and potential risks.
  • Always make sure you have appropriate insurance, both health insurance and medical and emergency evacuation insurance if necessary.
  • Get specific advice from people who live in the place you are planning on traveling to about risks and sensible precautions.

A vehicle accident in Sri Lanka

My wife and I were in Sri Lanka in 2005 responding to the Indian Ocean Tsunami for a major international NGO. There were several people who we hired or took on as volunteers because they were on the spot and had skills that we could use. One of them was a woman who was in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Scholarship when the tsunami happened – she was bright, dedicated, and had a good command of the local language and context, and we took her on as a volunteer to help screen and rank proposals for relief activities from local NGOs.

Unfortunately she was involved in a car accident while traveling in one of our vehicles, and quite seriously hurt. Because she was not one of our employees, she was not covered by our insurance policy. Fortunately she had her own insurance, and got the health care she needed. She made a full recovery, and went on to be hired as a program manager in Sudan, and later became Deputy Director for the same agency’s Indonesia program.

It’s vital to make sure that you are prepared for the worst and have things like insurance squared away when you are traveling independently. Don’t underestimate the risks involved.

Read Part two of this post here.

Further reading

I try to stay positive, I really do. Thankfully Daniela Papi writing on ‘Good Intentions Are Not Enough’ has cataloged every possible way that you could make things worse when trying to do right. In case that wasn’t enough, the blog’s main author, Saundra Schimmelpfennig, explains why she thinks you should Not Go To Haiti.
She does have some positive tips on volunteering too: 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Ian Birrell has an interesting comment on the harm that pay-to-volunteer schemes might cause in The Observer.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. bobby permalink
    July 31, 2012 8:20 pm


    The information on this site really is invaluable. I was wondering though, which insurance companies provide cover for the type of countries you mention? The dangerous countries and disaster zones?

    • July 31, 2012 10:20 pm

      Hi Bobby – thanks for the feedback – please please consider buying or rating the ebook on Amazon – it really helps me to support the site!
      On the topic of insurance, just to be clear, I am in no way advocating that you visit the ‘dangerous countries and disaster zones’ – my take on this is that you can network and make yourself useful in the kinds of places that simultaneously support development and humanitarian programs and tourist industries. As to specific companies, things change and I’m afraid I don’t track it regularly – you’ll just have to call around.
      Bear in mind that, depending on your situation, you might need life insurance, death and dismemberment, standard travel, and evacuation insurance. At a minimum you want to make sure that you have enough coverage to pay for a medical evacuation flight, which could easily run you upwards of $60,000. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much coverage your existing policy provides though, so do look at your current documents and see what you already have coverage for,
      Good luck,


  1. Should I get on a plane to Nepal this week and volunteer to help? | Getting Your First Job in Relief and Development

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