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Helping and volunteering in Syria

March 7, 2018
Q. Dear Nick,
How can i get involved with volunteering and helping in areas such as syria?
A. Hi Elijah,
Thanks for the question. First off, thanks for noticing Syria – it’s the single biggest engine of human misery in the world, and should be front page news every single day. So thanks for paying attention.
So – to your question. I’m not sure where you live, and whether you’re talking about getting involved in supporting operations in a ‘donor country’, or whether you’re talking about traveling to ‘areas such as Syria’ to volunteer. Let’s deal with that second one briefly, and let me beg you not to do that. Syria, and other places like it are unstable and dangerous at best. There is a sorry litany of foreigners who have come to nasty ends in Syria and in the region. Agencies that operate in these areas don’t use volunteers because it’s difficult and often technical work to deliver aid in these contexts.
My advice, in general, about volunteering overseas is that, if you can’t arrange something through a mainstream agency, then going to an area that is a ‘staging area’ for the aid world can be a good option. As long as the area has good tourist infrastructure (which these places generally do – that’s why agencies stage there*) then you’re most likely to be at no more risk than if you were on vacation. While you’re there you can network and make yourself useful, and work at getting hired. Which leads me to:
Marketable skill – what are you envisioning doing? There’s no shortage of unskilled labor, so you’ll want to make sure that you have a proposal about how you will add value. Very often there is a role for native English speakers who can write well and translate raw assessment information into external communication material, reporting, or funding proposals, but you’ll have to work on you pitch in this area.
To be honest, my e-book addresses a lot of this in more detail – I would really recommend you pick up a copy here!
Good luck, and stay safe!
* Aid organizations don’t want to put their bureaucracy and logistics functions in the line of fire. Procurement, logistics, finance, HR etc will generally be located in the nearest stable place to a disaster or conflict.

Opportunities for nurses overseas

January 23, 2018
Q. Dear Nick,
I am a registered nurse and I feel a passion towards humanitarian work! I have been to Uganda before and I am going to Kenya in June, I am just so desperate to be able to work like this full time and don’t know how to go about it! I would need a job where primarily I am based in the UK and about 4 times a year I could go abroad and do work there for about 2-3 weeks! Do you know how I can achieve this?


A. Hi Samantha,

Thanks for the question. There are opportunities for medical staff to do short term assignments, but people able to stay longer are definitely preferred. You’ll want to look into the various medical agencies like MSF in the UK ( that do medical work overseas. Very often your professional body will also have partnerships with humanitarian agencies and will be able to help you navigate this – good luck, and let us know how you do!


Chased through the woods by thugs with guns

November 1, 2017
Car accident training

So yes, that’s a clickbait headline. But I wanted to talk about a three-day course I went on recently that I’m still thinking about. The INGO I work for sent me on what’s known as a HEAT – it stands for Hostile Environment Awareness Training. This particular one was run by the organization’s own Security Management team, with help from the local police department and other volunteers.

The course consisted of two days of theory, including security management and awareness as well as first aid, then one day of practical exercises at a local paint-ball range with extensive woods and even a small mock village. The first scenario involved volunteers from the Portland Police playing armed thugs at a hostile checkpoint, roughing us up and stealing our car. The checkpoint came under gunfire from a second hostile group, then us being chased through the woods by people shooting at us with paintball guns. The second scenario involved responding to a major car crash, extracting four severely injured victims from the car, then responding to a mine injury nearby and extracting a severely injured casualty from a minefield.

So – I have a few thoughts about this as a pedagogical style. I don’t think that it’s possible to learn very much while you’re terrified and confused. Indeed, a couple of the less experienced team members on the course seemed to have a particularly rough time with this. There is a bit of a movement within the security training community to move away from these physical simulations to more standard operating procedure trainings this reason and others.

But here’s the thing. As someone who has been shot at, dealt with plenty of trigger happy checkpoint thugs, and experienced the stress of movement in mined areas, I can attest to the fact that there is a tendency for your mind and body to turn to jelly in those moments. Your lizard brain takes over and your first response is to curl up in a ball and hope the world goes away. That said, learning about how you react when you are confused and terrified is a really great thing.

Don’t get me wrong, most aid workers will go their entire careers and never be in a situation that even remotely resembles an action movie, but if you’re unlucky enough to have one of those days, having experienced that visceral terror, and the knot in your stomach that tells you just to pretend that this isn’t happening at least once before can be helpful. It gives you a little more of a fighting chance to do the right thing.

I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone who has the chance to do one of these courses. I don’t want to say they are fun – I actually came away with a cracked rib from diving over-energetically to avoid a grenade – but more significantly the scenarios were real enough to bring up some fairly turbulent emotions for me. You’re extremely unlikely to be unlucky enough to have a real day like this – if you have one of these in your career then you’re unlucky – many people never do. That said, it does happen, and it’s great to have the experience of jumping out of a car in a simulated ambush, trying to run for cover, and having your legs give way under you. Its humbling, but controlling your fear, and thinking through how to survive the next 30 seconds is a learned skill, and you can practice it!

This is a link to the Norwegian Refugee Counsel’s HEAT offering – it’s not the one I went on, but is illustrative of the kind of thing you should expect.

Grassroots environmental and humanitarian work?

August 18, 2017

Q. Hi Nick,
I’m 21 years old recently dropped out of university. Highest education qualification is graduating from High School. Very minimal practical work experience. I’ve always aspired to go into grassroots environmental and humanitarian work. Do you have any tips or suggestions of how I can make this possible. Tips on where to look for volunteering opportunities or even possibly entry level employment?

Cheers 🙂 Zoe

A. Hi Zoe,

Thanks for the question. I guess I’d ask you to think concretely about the kinds of jobs that you want to be doing in 2-3 years time. Take a look on LinkedIn or other job / networking sites, and rummage around – make a shortlist of organizations you are interested in and bookmark some actual jobs that you think would be interesting to you.

Once you’ve done that, start to think about what kinds of education and experience those jobs need and ask for. You don’t mention why you dropped out of university, but I would strongly urge you to reconsider that decision. The vast majority of people working in this industry have at least a bachelors degree – by not completing that you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.

Good luck, let us know how you do,


A year off to do international aid work?

July 17, 2017
Q. Hey Nick,
I am 21 years old and I have worked in Turkey and Vietnam doing physical/psychological therapy. I have backpacked, hitchhiked, and bused through 16 countries on 3 different continents now and later this year I will be traveling through Peru and Bolivia (Continent #4 :). In a couple years I will be finishing my undergraduate in Global Public Health and Biology at UC San Diego.
I speak basic Turkish and am learning Spanish. I plan on applying to medical school once I graduate but want to take a year off to continue to pursue work in international aid. What organizations would you recommend I apply to after college or even during college?
I don’t have any preference to where in the world I go as long as it doesn’t snow.
A. Hi Steven,
It sounds like you’ve had a pretty busy time in college – you’re doing all the right things building a resume of experience living and working overseas, but your question brings into focus a trend that’s been going on in international relief and development for a couple of decades now – that is it’s continuing professionalization.
It used to be that a lot of agencies would take folks without a lot of professional skills to work on relief and development projects. There are still a couple of these, but to be honest I’m not sure that I recommend them.
The thing is – while your resume is pretty interesting for someone your age, recruiters are not going to find it that compelling in terms of filling positions overseas.
It comes down to the demographics of aid agency staff – in most countries some 90-95% of staff are from the country in question – the foreigners (expats) make up 5-10% of the staff, and fill those positions that can’t be recruited locally, either very senior management, or some technical speciality like engineering, public health, or conflict management.
While your experience doing therapeutic work and your public health education is valuable, it’s not going to qualify you for positions that require an MPH or therapeutic qualification – imagine what you would think about a Turkish undergraduate showing up in California to help Americans – I think we’d be a little uncomfortable with it.
I want to encourage you to continue your engagement with this work, and explore it as something that might be a good fit for you later in your career, but not as something to do during a year off – its a profession, and is increasingly being treated that way by recruiters.
Good luck!

Do I need a degree to work in humanitarian aid?

July 11, 2017

Q. Hey Nick!
Don’t worry I won’t ask if there’s a specific degree I should get to land a job in humanitarian aid 😅
What I was curious about though was whether you think anyone would look at my resume with a diploma and a specialized certificate as opposed to a degree? I work in logistics and have 4+ years in supply chain management but got into the work with no credentials. I have also travelled extensively and sit on the board of directors for a preschool in Rwanda, which I have volunteered at as well. I’m looking at getting back into school, but am not sure I can get through a full 4 year degree at my age, while juggling my current work and living situation (I have to study part-time so a 4 year degree will actually take me closer to 5-6 to complete)
I don’t need the diploma/degree for my current work, so I don’t want to go back for the diploma if it won’t help me find work.
Sorry for rambling!


A. Thanks Mathew – I appreciate you pitching me a new one!

OK – so – my usual advice is that a degree is pretty much the baseline for jobs in humanitarian aid these days. Most jobs require one, and most times CVs without one (particularly entry-level) will be discarded.

That said – your case is a little different – you have extensive experience in a relevant field, and it sounds like at least a little bit of overseas experience. Once a resume has a few jobs and years of relevant field experience, most recruiters won’t look at your degree (or not, as the case may be). I know several people without degrees who work in this field, and I don’t think it’s an issue once you’re established. I know that I have never once, in over 20 years, been asked to provide evidence of my education, or even asked about it.

Don’t ever lie or misrepresent yourself, but I would encourage you to simply write a resume that emphasizes your work experience and doesn’t draw attention to your educational background. I bet if you don’t mention it 90% of recruiters are not even going to notice. If they do, simply be honest, and explain it to them the way you did to me.

Good luck!


Remembering Otto Warmbier

June 19, 2017

I want us to spend a moment today remembering the life of Otto Warmbier, who died this week after returning home following over a year of detention in North Korea. Job-seekers in this line of work are often told to seek experience visiting, living, and working in the kinds of places where development and relief takes place. Otto’s tragedy is a reminder that this can be a dangerous thing.

I don’t know any aid workers who don’t have a story or two about a close call. These are often told as badges of honor, but we need to always remember that the line between a great story and a tragic headline can be very fine. Read some of Otto’s story here, and please, please travel safely, wherever you are going.

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