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Who is this blog for?

Perhaps you’ve seen the United Nations or Red Cross on the nightly news responding to natural disasters, assisting refugees fleeing war, or helping to rebuild shattered communities? Maybe you have volunteered your time, or given money to a relief operation, perhaps you sponsored a child in Africa or participated in a fundraiser for the Tsunami. Maybe you watched celebrity fund-raisers and wondered in frustration whether there was more you could do than give money to aging rock-stars?

If you’ve ever wanted to run a refugee camp; feed the hungry; shelter refugees; bring assistance to war-torn countries or disaster-stricken populations – if you saw the Indian Ocean Tsunami, wars in the Balkans and Africa, or Hurricane Katrina and your first thought was “I could help, but I don’t know how to get there” – then this blog is for you.

It is for anyone who ever wanted to be a humanitarian relief worker, or work for a development agency overseas. It’s for people who want to find a job that is challenging, rewarding, unusual and absorbing. It will tell you how to get the skills, experience and contacts to find work in this field, but more importantly, it will help you decide whether you really want to. It will tell you the good sides, and the less good sides of a career in the humanitarian industry, and help you navigate the numerous career paths that are there if you know where to look.

It’s the information I wish I had had when I left university and started trying to get a job in the Balkans just after the peace treaty that ended the wars there in 1995. I knew I wanted to work overseas in relief and development, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. I’d just left college and been told by all of the 70 aid agencies that I applied to work for that they did not want to hire me because I had no experience working overseas. The careers counselor at my university told me that working for aid agencies was not a realistic prospect, and that I should consider trying to get a “real job”. I was starting to think she might be right.

Digression – national and expatriate staff
The vast majority of people employed by international NGOs are from the country that they are working in (Indonesians in Indonesia, for example). This makes them ‘national’ staff, governed under the human resource regulations, employment laws etc of that country. A small minority (typically about 5-10%) of staff are ‘ex-patriate’ (latin for ‘outside their country’), and are working in a country of which they are not a citizen (for example, a U.S. citizen working in Indonesia, or an Indonesian working in Afghanistan). These people are typically governed under the human resource and employment law of the home office of the organization employing them.

The practical results of this are that there are two categories of employment in most organizations, ‘locals’, ‘national staff’, or ‘nationals’, and ‘ex-pats’, or ‘foreigners’.

The point of this digression is to tell you that this book is about getting a job with an international agency outside your own country. While my experience is as a westerner, much of this advice will apply to you whichever country you are from. These strategies are not as applicable if you live in a country where international agencies work and want to find a job with them. That is quite a different proposition, and you will likely need to apply different strategies.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Evy permalink
    November 26, 2011 7:51 am

    This is great. 🙂 I appreciate all of your information and dedication to this blog. I just came across it and I’m already hooked. haha Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • November 26, 2011 9:27 am

      Thank you – I did – hope you did too!

  2. Brittain Sluder permalink
    February 12, 2012 4:13 am

    Hey, I’ve been reading this blog for the past couple days — wonderful database and overview — and I was wondering: how viable would you say an undergraduate degree in Sustainable Development is, especially versus Anthropology with an SD concentration? Or is there a hands-down more viable course of study altogether? For instance, I hear engineering floated around a fair amount. Or perhaps is there a viable trade skill-set (electrician, plumbing, ‘computer information systems’, etc)?

    I have maintained great interest in aid work for many years but recently took an indefinite hiatus from university in order to re-align my goals and major, as I realized the anthropologist’s life of grad school and subsequent grant proposal writing is not my optimal career path. I have a couple semesters of Anthropology under my belt and could quite plausibly finish up with an BS/BA Anthro w/ SD concentration, but I’m open to other options and welcome your opinion.

    • February 12, 2012 12:03 pm

      Hi Brittain,
      Thanks for the feedback – if you like it please do consider buying the e-book, or at least rating it on Amazon – that helps me a lot!
      On the subject of qualifications, there are two main issues: For a certain type of job (i.e. public health, engineering, medical etc) you require a certification or qualification to get the job. For everything else, in terms of getting your first job, I don’t think your education matters very much. What counts is your ability to get things done in challenging environments. One of the main things recruiters looks for when they are trying to figure that out is whether you have a track-record of that on your resume. That’s why field experience is so important.
      Note that I’m not saying education doesn’t matter, or that what you take is not important to your path as a professional, simply that an entry level recruiter is not going to ask you what your concentration was in – it doesn’t matter for entry level jobs (unless they are in one of those sectors we mentioned above). Focus on things you are interested in that will get you out into the field a lot!
      Hope that helps, and is not too much of a downer…

      • Brittain Sluder permalink
        February 15, 2012 2:40 am

        Don’t worry, it wasn’t a downer at all. Thanks for the clarification. This blog has helped put things in perspective, so thanks again for that as well. Anyways, I “Liked” your book on Amazon, but don’t see a way to rate — I have to buy to review, yeah?

      • Brittain Sluder permalink
        February 15, 2012 4:47 am

        Actually, I have one more question: in your experience, is there a desire in the developing world (God knows there’s a need) — from the public, the public sector, and/or the private sector — for ecological/sustainable approaches to subsistence, infrastructure, and planning, etc? Or rather, do the people you’ve interacted with have an interest in pursuing a course of sustainable development?

        I apologize for the crude breadth of my question haha I’m not familiar with the jargon.

  3. February 28, 2012 9:57 am

    Hey Brittain –
    I’ll check the Amazon issue – I’m not sure, but it couldn’t hurt to buy it… 😉 Anyway, the issue of sustainable approaches to development… Boy that is a big question – I’m going to punt it by saying that the ‘developing world’ is not a thing – there is a huge variation in what’s going on socially, politically, environmentally in the part of the world that I think you’re talking about. The reason I’m squeamish about this definition is not entirely to avoid answering the question, but to point out that China is not Chad, and, Western China is not Beijing etc. There are very different forces at work that come to bear on people and ecosystems.
    Broadly though, if I were pressed on this issue, I would say that the problem often comes down to – yes – in the abstract, all things being equal, people everywhere would love for things to be ecologically sustainable, and for their development not to be at the expense of vital ecosystems. However, that’s rarely the case, and when forced to make a choice between boiling water so your kids don’t die of diarrheal diseases and preserving local forests, most people cut the trees down.
    The other issue is the externality game – very often the people cutting the trees, or whatever the issue is, are not the people most directly affected.
    Of course, the whole ball-game from a sustainable development perspective is to find ways out of these problems. So the short answer is ‘yes’, there is a need for these kinds of understandings, but ‘no’, don’t expect the issue of atmospheric carbon to be high on the list of refugees.
    Hope that helps somewhat!

    • Brittain Sluder permalink
      October 26, 2012 2:40 pm

      This is long-delayed, but thank you again for your reply and time. I’m returning to university for the Spring semester and revisiting this blog has been helping me sort out my long-term plan. Keep fighting the good fight, Nick. Cheers from North Carolina!

  4. Cari permalink
    June 10, 2012 11:20 am

    Hi, first let me tell you that you’ve done an amazing job with this blog and this is exactly what I was looking for, because well I want to help others and work in a humanitarian organization but like you said “I don’t know how to make it happen” (well thanks to you at least know I have a clue). And about your book well I would definitely buy it but I’m from Venezuela and I don’t have a credit card so I’ll rate it!!

    Ok Now let me tell you something about myself. As I said I’m from Venezuela, I’m 23 years old and I graduated 2 years ago as a Petroleum Engineer. When I was 16 I wanted to study social work because well I wanted to help people, but I took the wrong decision of studying petroleum because well I was a fool and I wanted to be like everybody else (you know go to parties and have expensive stuffs).

    While I was studying petroleum engineer I knew inside of me that that wasn’t for me but I’m a responsible person so I thought that the most responsible thing to do was to stick at my decision and be a petroleum engineer. So I graduated and started working in the oil field but as you can imagine it didn’t work out because well I still have that need inside of me, telling me that I want to help people( not just being a donor, I mean I want to be involved). So I realized and accepted that I’m different, because I don’t want to have the most expensive things, I don’t care if I have a car or not or if I have an expensive cell phone, I just know that the only thing I want is to spend my life helping others.

    So I quit my job in the oil field (something really painfully because well I was good at it and my family was really happy about it, but hey it wasn’t for me) and now I’m a volunteer in a hospital and teach English to kids in the afternoons, but I want to do more, I want to dedicate my life to help others. So that’s why I’m writing to you because I don’t know anyone that have the knowledge in this field, someone that can advise me as I know you can. And let me tell you that I really need your advice because right now I’m kind of lost, I don’t know what to do with my life.

    The first think I thought when I quit my job was to become a social worker, because well it’s a beautiful career and I will be directly working with the people in need, but then I thought that maybe I could study environmental engineering and specialize in water treatment so I can go and help in those many countries where they have all these water problems… So now I’m confuse I don’t know what to decide, and I wanted to ask you what do you think about it, I mean I know I have to make the decision by myself but everybody needs always at least an advice… and well I know I would be good studying one of those careers because at the end the only thing I want is to help people, but I’m confuse because I don’t know with which career will I be more helpful, I know both careers are important, but maybe they need more engineers or I don’t know maybe they need more social workers…. So please tell me what do you think about it, what do you advise me to study or what do you think they need the most??

    I was also thinking that instead of studying again I should be a volunteer in a developing country, because well I’m 23 and the thought of starting from scratch is scary and besides if I decide to study one of the careers I mentioned, by the time I graduate I will be almost 30 and well don’t you think that’s a little old to start looking for a job in the humanitarian field?. Anyway continuing with the volunteer part I was thinking that in order to be a volunteer you have to get a training or some preparation before you volunteer, but it has been kind of difficult for me because in my country they don’t have that kind of training and well they don’t have a lot of humanitarian organizations. Although I read about this organization that is called Humana people and they have these programs that prepare you during 6 moths and then you go to a developing country and apply the knowledge you obtained during those 6 moths. So I wanted to ask you if you have heard about this organization? Do you thing it would be a good idea first to be a volunteer in this program? Do you know other volunteering programs in which I could participate? Because I was reading about the Peace Corps and it says that is only for Americans…

    Well sorry that what I wrote is too long, hopefully you’ll read it and be willing to advise me…and thanks for this blog


  5. Geoffrey Lotz permalink
    June 27, 2012 9:00 am

    Hey, thanks for taking the time to put all this info out there. I am 48 year old South African, qualified a a diesel mechanic, with a diploma and seatime as a Marine Engineer, a licensed and cunning radio amateur with a win in a national field station contest, and with a host of other skills and technical abilities. Lately I been pondering a career change and bringing all these skills and talents to bear in the humanitarian disaster/emergency field. Your blog has already helped to crystallise some of my thinking! Thanks!

  6. DianaC permalink
    November 27, 2012 3:28 pm

    Thank you so much! this is exactly what I was looking for – The teacher arrives when the student is ready! 🙂 Thanks

  7. Steve H permalink
    August 1, 2013 8:05 am

    Nick, Thanks for providing such a great resource for someone entering the job market. I really appreciate all of the frank advice which has slightly altered my approach to the current job search. I’ve happily purchased and highly rated your book on Amazon; a much better purchase than a cup of coffee and bagel.

  8. Ray permalink
    September 30, 2013 1:10 am

    Thank you so much for doing this blog! I am a soon-to-be college grad trying to figure out how to get my foot in the door. I have been trying and failing to find this kind of information for a long time.

    • October 1, 2013 11:09 am

      Hi Ray, thanks for the feedback – good luck – let us know how you do!

  9. marcelle permalink
    January 14, 2014 7:53 am

    Hello Nick,
    l have a scientific and educational background and now l plan to enroll in an international development program (master). Since younger, l’ve dreamt about working in international field helping others and having a great experience on what others might experience in difficult situations. Is that necessarily to take a master degree to achieve my goal? what can you advice me in a first time to get involve with international agencies instead of volunteering? l mean is there any other option than volunteering than l can do to get connected with people working in those kind of agencies?
    Thanks l will appreciate your answer.

    • January 15, 2014 9:29 am

      Hi Marcelle,
      Thanks for your question – honestly I feel like it’s pretty much answered on the site – if you want to clarify, or ask something that isn’t dealt with, I’d be happy to try to help!
      Good luck,

  10. Miss Alex Hitchmough permalink
    July 18, 2014 12:24 am

    Great blog Nick. Informative, direct…and entertaining! I will definitely be using it as a reference tool, along with your book which I will be ordering today 🙂
    Thanks heaps!

  11. Rubyna Khan permalink
    June 18, 2015 11:38 am

    Hi Nick
    I want to work in Humanitarian network as a human rights worker, programmer campaigner and currently I m working in ngo as a programe manger since three years . I live in Karachi Pakistan. Lots of human rights issues occurred here. I have been tired to apply human rights international organization and forum also. i am also connect on world peace forum and humanitarian groups on Facebook.but not get success to find job Please give me advice me to getting involve with these international agencies, forum etc.
    Thank you
    Waiting your prompt Reply

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