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Who’s who, and who should you work for in relief and development?

What some of us still wistfully call the ‘humanitarian space’ (the parts of the world where government, markets, and civil society are not working as we would like them to) is filled with a bewildering array of different organizations. Figuring out who is who is not always straight-forward, and figuring out which organization is a good fit for you as an individual can be a frustrating process. This is a brief field guide to the types of organizations that you’ll find. The categories are broad, and in reality each organization has its own culture, norms and ethos. These are the very broad brush strokes indeed.

The United Nations and other multi laterals

If you find this site at least as useful as a coffee and a bagel, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development.

The United Nations is its own enormous ecosystem of intergovernmental agencies that are charged by UN member states with carrying out some function of international policy or implementing some treaty or other. They are diverse in their form and function, but all carry a mandate from the UN to act on behalf of member nations.

You will come across organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) who are charged with special responsibility for certain groups or issues (in these cases refugees, children and hunger). UNOCHA (the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) is perhaps worth a special look because of its non-operational role in coordinating UN agencies and NGOs in the humanitarian domain.

Another group of UN organizations are peacekeeping missions like the UNPROFOR, UNTAC,etc that are UN sponsored military or policing missions made up of units from donor countries. Still others are civilian governments put in place to govern places like Kosovo (UNMIK) or East Timor (UNTAET).

It is worth noting that not all multi-lateral organizations are members of the United Nations family. The WTO and the World Bank are examples of this group.

Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs)

These are private (in the sense of not representing a government) non-profit groups that act in the international arena. They typically claim to represent concerned citizenry, a religious group, or some other interest, and include well-known organizations like CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Islamic Relief, OXFAM and thousands of others you have never heard of. They are a diverse bunch and may include domestic advocacy or program arms as well as international missions. They range from the ‘full service relief and development organizations’ like those mentioned above to niche organizations like Internews, whose mission is to foster independent media and access to information.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent family

Confusion abounds about what ‘the red cross’ is. The Swiss based private humanitarian organization called the ‘International Committee of the Red Cross’ (the ICRC) that is mandated by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims of international and armed conflict is one part the second is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the IFRC). It is a federation of 180 or so national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies (one in each country, in the main). These national societies generally operate in their home country (running blood banks, responding to disasters etc) but some larger national Red Cross’s (notably the American Red Cross) sometimes operate under their own auspices outside of their home country.


Foreign governments

Sometimes governments will act directly in development, either by giving money, material aid (stuff like food or medicine), or expertise through diplomatic channels, at other times they will use government agencies like the US’s USAID, or the UK’s DFID to channel money through NGOs or the UN. Many of the jobs in government aid bureaucracies are found through a relatively traditional career in diplomacy.

Local Governments

Are sometimes major actors in development, employing large numbers of people to work on poverty reduction and development programs, and are sometimes notably absent. Where the local government is an active partner in development foreign governments will often form ‘capacity building’ relationships designed to increase the ability of the local government to act independently to meet development goals. NGOs, the UN and contractors are often involved in these efforts.


Contractors are private for-profit companies like DAI (Development Alternatives International) or Creative Associates and that bid on contracts to implement aid programs. These can be companies that focus almost exclusively on bidding on government aid contracts, or they can be general contractors like KBR who might bid on a variety of issues, some of which may be development related.

Further reading

  • Larry Minear’s book The Humanitarian Enterprise is a great introduction to the landscape of the humanitarian system, and an analysis of some of the bigger issues it faces.
  • Peter Walker’s book ‘Shaping the Humanitarian World’ (buy from Amazon or from Powell’s Books) is another great analytical look at the global institutions of humanitarian response.
  • Linda Fasulo’s ‘An Insider’s Guide to the UN’ (buy from Amazon or from Powell’s Books) is my favorite introduction to the vast and diverse collection of UN agencies. Part journalism, part storytelling, it manages to describe both the current structure and the most pressing issues facing the UN in the modern world.
  • David Forsythe is pretty much the world’s authority on the ICRC – his book ‘The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross ‘ (buy from Amazon or from Powell’s Books) is a great place to begin to understand the organization, warts and all.
  • Shawn Dorman’s Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America is a look at the US foreign service – it’s a broad whistle-stop tour, but does give some insight into the humanitarian roles that career diplomats sometimes play. The case study of Ambassador Hill’s role in the Kosovan refugee crisis in 1999 is an example of the day-in-the-life approach to the work of the foreign service.
  • Alertnet has a free e-course designed to prepare journalists about the major actors in disasters, it’s a good basic introduction to how things work.

Buying from these links helps me support this website.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Philippa O Leary permalink
    April 25, 2014 8:47 am

    Hey There, just stumbled across your website and find it very useful and informative.Perhaps I can pick your brain?
    I have recently completed a B.A. in Social Care in Ireland and am keen to get in to humanitarian aid. Specifically I’d like to work in the field as opposed to office based but not sure what positions would suit my skill set, etc. I speak English, and some rusty Spanish but looking into learning another language.
    I spent one placement (Four months) in Tanzania working predominantly in an orphanage and youth detention center but did some community outreach work also. Apart from this my humanitarian experiences per se are slack enough.
    I have several years of voluntary work in the disability sector mostly with kids and have a European Diploma in Adapted Physical Ability(EUDAPA Certification). I’m sure in an interview situation I can swing these skills in but would they be suitable to mention in a cover letter or CV?
    Anyway, It appears I’ve written an essay!Apologies!All info, advice, gladly accepted!
    Cheers, Philippa! 🙂

    • April 28, 2014 1:48 pm

      Hi Philippa – thanks for your question – please drop me an email if you’re interested in personal career counseling, otherwise, is there a more focussed question I can help you with? Thanks!

  2. Alena permalink
    March 30, 2016 1:06 am

    Who can i talk to about working as a nurse, Id love to get involved but struggling with getting info, thanks


    • March 30, 2016 9:36 am

      Hey Alena,
      It depends a little on where you live, and whether you are already trained as a nurse or not. I would look to local nursing associations, and then check out MSF and RedR, both of whom have resources on this.
      Good luck,

  3. Praneeth Perera permalink
    October 9, 2016 11:13 am


    I am Praneeth Perera from Sri Lanka. I have read your web site and I am really interesting to work with Humanitarian aid worker. I used to work with US military base in Iraq. I have no graduation or PHD or any other high education but I have good talent for do any situation. My career is Administrative Specialist, Graphic Designer, Photo and Video Grapher also I am really interesting to do research. I have many experience with social work. However I haven’t any family disturb and would like to be a part of your society. Kindly give me an opportunity an interview at least it will be really happy for me.

    • October 12, 2016 12:04 pm

      Hi Praneeth, I regret that I do not run an aid agency and am not recruiting, thank you, Nick

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