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.