Skip to content

Too poor and debt-ridden to be an aid-worker?

March 29, 2018

Q. What happens when you are too poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…? How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free? It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

Mia

A. So, Mia, I feel your pain…

I really do, but your fight isn’t with me, or even with the aid world, but with Capitalism. But let me back up for a minute. This isn’t a blog about how things should be, or how I think the aid world should work, it’s a blog about how to get your first job in the relief and development world. So I’m going to take your question seriously, and answer it as best I can. Apologies in advance though, because I don’t think you’re going to like the answer – I don’t like it either, for what it’s worth.

  1. What happens if you are poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…?

Well, you look for a job that pays well. I don’t mean this facetiously, you get the same complaint from law students, doctors, and pretty much everyone. Suppose you go to law school, wanting to fight for Greenpeace, but graduate with a lot of debt and find that enviro-anarchists don’t pay as well as Exon? It’s a real problem in a lot of industries. Want to cure the sick in low income people without health insurance, but graduate medical school with a lot of debt? Sorry!

2. How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free?

It’s hard. Areas of work where there is greater supply of unskilled inexperienced talent than demand (like acting, stand-up comedy, publishing, podcasting, etc) tend to have low starting wages. Sometimes these are even negative. This isn’t fair, it’s just a quirk of market economics. There are more people who want to be aid workers than there are jobs for them, so agencies are able to pay very little as starting wages, or even require people to pay for internships. That sucks, I wish it were different, but it isn’t. You might well ask how medical schools are able to ask students to pay money for 8 years, only to have to work for less than minimum wage until they become doctors – because there is a long line of people willing to. The ugly reality is a lot of aid workers have families or situations that allow them the luxury of spending extended amounts of time doing things that don’t make a lot of money.

3. It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

I would avoid the word ‘slave’, because I don’t think that anyone is forcing you to do this against your will, and I do think that plenty of other fields require that people put in a lot of time and effort to ‘make it’. That said, aid work is perhaps uniquely bad because of the national / expat issue. I assume that you are an aspiring expatriate, and part of the problem is that all of the entry level jobs in the aid world are already taken by people who live and work in the developing world. There are no real ‘entry level’ jobs for expats. The aid world really only needs technical experts and top level managers as foreigners.

So what are you supposed to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, except to suggest that the Peace Corps is still a great opportunity – you can get your health care paid, your debt deferred, two years of overseas experience, and a great networking opportunity – so that’s number one. A huge number of aid workers start off in the Peace Corps and never go home.

The other thing I would suggest is that you don’t wrack up huge debts. Get a degree, but what it is doesn’t really matter, and don’t go to grad school until you know exactly why you need to.

Sorry – I wish the world were fairer, but it isn’t yet. Good luck, let us know how you do,

Nick

Advertisements

Psychology or social work degree for humanitarian work?

March 21, 2018

Q. Hi Nick,
I just came across your webpage and read every bit of it! Thanks very much for sharing your experiences and setting up this page it’s a massive inspiration. I’m also very passionate about humanitarian work and would love to gain some experience. I’m nearly done with my undergraduate degree in psychology and was wondering whether there are any chances to use my degree for helping others in developing countries.

So far I‘ve looked at organizations that mainly look for medical staff but have you got any tips where I could apply to? Or as for an internship? Sometimes I feel a background in social work would have been far better. If you have any advice this would be highly appreciated!

Sarah

A. Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the kind words Sarah, sorry to take a while to respond to this! I actually have a degree in psychology, for what it’s worth, and I have a couple of observations about it. First of all, no one has ever asked me about it in a professional context. I have never had an interviewer ask about my degree, and while I don’t know for sure that I have not been declined for jobs over it, no one has ever told me that. So I’m going to give you my usual advice – unless your work requires it (finance, medicine, engineering, HR etc) I don’t think your degree matters much. (I’m assuming that you are not wanting to work as a clinical psychologist).

That said, I actually do use many of the skills I learned through psychology on a daily basis. Understanding the scientific method and statistics as they are applied in the social sciences is tremendously useful in monitoring and evaluation, and a lot of the concepts that come up in psychology are useful in understanding human behavior.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out internships, and as much volunteer experience as you can.

Good luck!

Nick

Should I specialize or be a generalist to get into aid work?

March 12, 2018

Q. Hi Nick!

Uhm, I may be a bit younger than your average reader, but I’d like to say that your blog is amazing- the way you write is really compelling, and I’ll definitely be investing in a copy of your book soon!

Having scoured the blog, I know you get bombarded with “what degree should I study” and “how do I get into this line of work” but I’m a blank slate; I have absolutely no qualifications or experience so far and there’s so much advice from not only you, but other bloggers and professionals, that I feel a little conflicted. Some people strongly recommend specialising, and others like yourself say that a general degree etc. is sufficient and to rely on volunteering, which I know either way is really important. The only thing I have lined up is volunteering at a school in Gambia this time next year for a few weeks, but I know that isn’t especially huge and to be completely honest I don’t think I could afford to do much more.

Thanks,

Honey

A. Hi Honey,

I took the liberty of editing your message a little for space, but thanks for writing! Your question about specializing or being a generalist is interesting. To be fair, I don’t think I want to discourage people from specializing. There are several routes to take in this line of work – one is through specialization – becoming a public health worker, an engineer, and HR specialist, etc, and the other is being a management generalist.

In general, for the first group it matters very much what you study in college. You need your MPH to work in public health, for example. For the second group, I don’t think it matters very much what you study.

There is a need for both of these groups, but I think my sense of it is that people who are passionate about water supply and sanitation engineering tend to know that about themselves and are drawn to engineering, whilst the kinds of people who as ‘what should I study?’ are more likely to be drawn to the generalist route.

You’re doing the right thing by getting as much experience as you can overseas, and your A-Level choices sound pretty reasonable – more reasonable than mine were, at least! I would simply recommend that you continue studying things that you’re interested in, and find a university course that will give you opportunities to engage in these issues.

Good luck,

Nick

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?
Thanks,
Elijah
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!
Nick
* 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?
Thanks

 

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 (https://www.msf.org.uk/job-profile/nurse) 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!

Nick

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,

Nick

%d bloggers like this: