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Should I just show up somewhere where there are a lot of aid agencies? Part 2

Just to recap after part one of this post. My advice is that you don’t just pick a place, get a plane ticket, and try to make yourself useful. Having said that, I think being on the ground gives you a huge opportunity to short-cut recruiting processes that emphasize previous work experience. This page is about harm reduction – if I can’t talk you out of doing it as a job-search-strategy, here are some tips on how to be safe and effective about it.

1. Pick a location you’re passionate about.

You’re planning on living here for a few years, at least, so make sure it’s somewhere you’re really interested in. Invest a little in reading about the history and culture, learning a little of the language, people will really appreciate it.

2. Pick a location that is as safe as possible.

There are a lot of locations in the world where humanitarian agencies operate where you should not go as an independent traveller. In fact, there are a handful of locations where the agency I work for will not even allow the hiring of independent consultants, instead people who would normally be consultants get hired as short term staff. The reason for this is that there is no way for individuals to get reasonable insurance coverage for health, evacuation, long term disability etc in these locations because they are so dangerous.

 3. Pick somewhere that has the basic infrastructure you will need.

Periodically when I was running programs in active conflict zones independent travelers would show up, usually on some sort of adventure backpacking trip. I would usually come across them in the context of them being stuck somewhere because there were no regular busses or taxis, or having nowhere to stay because there were no operating hotels. Sometimes local taxi drivers would deliver waifs and strays like this to our office because, well, what else are they supposed to do with a lost and clueless foreigner? We’d always try to help these kinds of folks out, but typically by arranging transport back to the nearest location with regular services.

The thing about this is that, depending on where it is, there might be fair to even odds that you’ll get away with it, but because there is no tourist infrastructure, you end up depending on aid agency staff to help you out. That’s a bad thing, it creates resentment, and places a burden on agencies that you want to think of you as an asset, not a liability.

So pick a place that has at least basic tourist infrastructure – hotels, restaurants, transport etc. You want to be able to be self sufficient.

3. Pick somewhere with a critical mass of the kinds of organizations you’re interested in.

Some locations serve as regional hubs for aid agencies, or have a large number of offices with a substantial presence. Luckily these kinds of places also tend to have transport and accommodation services, although not always. Do some research of the kinds of organizations you’d like to work for, and figure out where they have offices, and whether they are offices with relatively senior staff posted in them. You’ll want to network with the kinds of people who have the authority to hire you, and meet a large enough number of them to raise your odds.

4. Plan the logistics for your trip carefully.

Plan to be there for at least 3 months. That’s enough time to begin to get to know the culture and environment, to get to know some of the people who live and work there, and get a reputation for being serious about your job hunt.

People seem to have a mental block about saving up a few thousand dollars to do this that they don’t seem to have about spending the same amount of money on a semester of grad school. What you’re doing is making an investment in your education and experience. Treat it like that – make a business plan if you’re that kind of person, at the very least research costs and make a budget. Leave enough of a contingency fund that you can get back home and have enough money to make your landing comfortably if things don’t work out.

5. Network.

The whole purpose of your trip is to get to know the kinds of people who might hire you, and for them to get to know you. If you can get hold of inter-agency coordination lists, all to the good. These are lists of organizations and contact people in them for various things. They are often produced by the UN, and circulated to aid communication and coordination between agencies. If you are given one of these, it’s a great start. If not, then you’ll need to do some more digging to find contact information for local offices. Agency HQ offices typically won’t give out this information, partly in order to drive down nuisance enquiries.

Use your personal networks as well. LinkedIn is a great resource, and you need to begin to build a professional network that can help you get introduced to the people who will hire you. Don’t be obnoxious about it – there’s a fine line between the gracious persistence that might pay off and annoying harassment.

Let people know that you’ll be in the same place as they are, what your objectives are, what skills you have, and what you can offer them. As tempting as it is to offer to do ‘anything’, don’t do this – make a specific offer – research, writing, proposal development, whatever. Be prepared to be flexible, but present yourself as having specific marketable skills.

Get involved with local networks. Find out the bars where inter-agency happy hours happen, get invited to the local soccer team, or the hash (running club). Arrange informational interviews with agency staff where you find out what they are doing and what they need. Don’t waste people’s time by asking them questions you could have got the answers to on the internet, and don’t call people up on the phone without an appointment.

6. Volunteer, intern, make the ask.

Make yourself useful. Offer to volunteer, intern, do odd jobs, anything that gives you the opportunity to show off your talents and make yourself indispensable. Make sure people are aware of what you’re doing there, and what your objectives are. Some people find it surprisingly hard to ‘make the ask’ about jobs. Make sure you’re really explicit about this, and mention it often!

Consider local agencies as places to network and volunteer. Even if they are not likely to hire you, they are often partners with international agencies, and having them on your resume will help to show that you know how to get things done.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Miller permalink
    September 9, 2014 8:00 am

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks again for setting up this blog, I’ve found it really useful as a source of information and as a source of encouragement if I ever start doubting myself! This post in particular really sums up my current strategy. I’ve relocated to Jordan to see if I can offer my skills to aid in the Syrian crisis. I’m currently volunteering for a local NGO and writing a research paper on child labour for them. As part of this I’ve managed to arrange interviews with some international NGO’s, government officials and UN bodies which has helped the report immeasurably (and I’m sure I’ve “got my name out there” a little bit). I also did a presentation on the aims of the report at the child protection cluster meeting (which went OK, could have been better or worse). The report is going quite well and should be quite professional given my age and relative inexperience (I’m nearly 24).
    I think I’m posting this because I’m currently very nervous. Amman is a very expensive city to live in and I know my time is running out in terms of bringing money in or finding more voluntary experience. I know that job postings for the sector on Middle Eastern websites have about 200 applicants each, and besides they’re probably looking for national staff. I just wonder how I can really offer myself up without irritating people and in a way where I can really be useful (I don’t speak Arabic yet). If you have any thoughts at all, I’d love to hear them. Sorry for the long post!

    PS Will order your ebook when I get home 🙂

    • September 15, 2014 9:21 am

      Thanks for writing – this is a tough one frankly. I don’t know enough about you or your job-search strategy to give you good advice on what to do. I’d hope you’re networking furiously, and I think what you’re doing has the potential to be a good strategy, but it’s all about the details, and a healthy does of luck.
      If you want to email me we could chat about your specific situation,
      Good luck,

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