How to become an aid worker

This is a cross-post from Peter Casier's blog The Road to the Horizon

Video courtesy of WFP

I regularly get emails from people asking more information on how to join one of the humanitarian organizations, either full time, part-time or as a volunteer.

One of the goals of this site is to provide people with inspiration, and -if possible- make them think about humanitarian issues. So, getting that amount of queries is really great, and I try to give sufficient information to get them on their way.

If you have been interested in this field of work, but never dared to ask the question, then today's post, is your post: "How to become an aid worker, in 1-2-3" or something like that.

I write this with the fear of being grossly incomplete and vague. But it should set you on your way.

1. On the crossroads of life?

Many of the people who wrote to me, talked about being on the crossroads of life. Looking for a new challenge, a new meaning-full job. Have a read how I got into this work ... .

2. What is "Aid Work"? What is "Development Work"? How Does It All Work?

Before we start, you should definitively have a look at this excellent eLearning tool from Alertnet. You might also have a look at this excellent introduction manual from All-In Diary.

3. What kind of people are these humanitarian organizations interested in?

or "Do I have to be a doctor or a nurse to work in the humanitarian field?"

Well, let's compare a humanitarian organization to something we all know. A company. Say, a construction company. The activities in a construction company -like in any company-, you can split in two parts: the internal support part and the external part.

The latter deals with the external world within the specialty of that company. For instance, in a construction company, the external part would be the architects, engineers, construction workers: all people specialized in the core business of that company: "construction."

The internal support part has people working in accounting, budgeting, marketing, public relations, human resources, procurement, administration, ICT ... . These would all be people whose job it is to support those working in the external part.

A humanitarian organization has both parts too. They have the 'specialists', doing the core external work. And there is a wide spectrum of specializations: from medical, social, (micro-) finance, education, to basic emergency support, arts, logistics, construction, environment etc ... . You name one aspect of life, and I bet you can find a humanitarian organization specializing in it. Most of the people working in this part of the organization either studied this stuff, or got into it, through experience.

But most people forget the internal support part of each organization. They forget we need accountants too. And budget people, HR officers, auditors (well ... ), or even legal specialists ... . These are all 'generalists'. Internal support staff.

So, no, you do not have to be a doctor or a nurse to work in the humanitarian field. There is work for standard 'generalists' too. Even in the field offices.

4. Do YOU have what it takes to become an aid worker?

All Photos courtesy | Peter Casier

I agree with some parts in the video on the top of this post. People often have the image of us, aid workers, as taking pictures with kids on our knees, singing 'We Are the World,' ... . The reality is rather different. But we are not all hardcore logisticians neither. We don't all work in the desert or in the jungle, thousands of miles from no-where ... . Probably more than half of us work in the 'deep field'. Many of us do spend a lot of time in an office too!

Despite that, it is not all gold that glitters! Between 1997 and 2005, there were 408 security incidents involving aid workers. 434 died in the line of duty, 305 were wounded and 202 were kidnapped. Read this ODI report! And it is not getting any better. In the past running year, 63 aid workers were killed due malicious acts.
Patronus Analytical is keeping track of all incidents related to humanitarian workers in the field.

Still, what is important, though, is that we all spend a long time away from home. Read my post 'The Things That Are Important To Us'. And *that* is often a thing people do not consider when starting to work abroad, particularly in the humanitarian field: "How is my family going to cope with that?". You would be surprised how many people quit this 'line of work', just because of that reason. Even if THEY can cope with the work pressure and the potential dangers, their FAMILY might not ... .

So answering the question "Do I have what it takes to become an aid worker?" should be extended to "And does my family have what takes for me to become an aid worker?".

Now to the practical points:

5. Things to consider when you want to volunteer

There are two groups of volunteers:
- the real short term: volunteering while travelling or just "giving up" two, three weeks of your time
- the longer term volunteer.

The volunteering traveler, the traveling volunteer, the short term stuff:
There are commercial and non-profit "tour operators" which organize volunteering holidays. You pay, and you can go off helping to build a school in Vietnam for instance ... . Nothing against that, and many of those companies do good work. You can find them easily if you Google "volunteering, abroad." Just make sure that the fee they ask you is justified. The good-will, the humanitarian part should dominate the commercial and financial aspect.

If that is not your thing, let's have a look at volunteering for an organization directly.
People often say "I want to volunteer two weeks of my time, and look for something in Congo" ... . Well, not much of a chance, unless if you want to pay for it. Sounds odd, but it takes a while before you are run in, and become 'useful' to the organization. The organization has to invest a certain amount of time to get you up to speed, to guide you through your first weeks. They also have a cost in 'administrating' you. And you make - directly or indirectly - use of their infrastructure. All of this comes at a cost, an overhead cost. So they expect you to compensate for that. Again, make sure they justify their cost, and it sounds reasonable.

Exceptions do confirm the rule. There are cases where you are really specialized in what you do, and find a corresponding volunteering short term job in that specialization. Or you have done that kind of job, or have worked for that organization several times before. For these, one could expect the fee the organization asks, to be less.

The longer term volunteer.
The longer time you volunteer, and the more specialized or experienced you are, the higher the chances the organization will compensate your cost, give you free boarding and meals, pay for your travel, or even pay a small fee for your services.

Don't forget insurance!
Even if the organization is paying for all expenses, make sure you are also covered by an insurance (illness, medivac, accidents, etc ... ), either through them, or through your own insurance. Traveling abroad to remote areas has a certain risk of accidents (did you know most of the casualties we suffer are not caused by bullets or illness, but by car accidents?), illness or similar doomsday scenarios. Better safe than sorry, so make sure you understand how you are covered! By the organization? Or do they expect you to cover yourself? And does your normal medical insurance cover you if you are traveling to Timbuktu or Upchawayaya? Are you sure? If not, try these guys ... .

6. How to make contacts as a candidate-volunteer

There are organizations (like the UN Volunteers-UNV) specializing in recruiting and guiding volunteers. Try also onlinevolunteering.org even if you only have a few hours per week to help. You can also go to the different web pages of the humanitarian organizations to see if they have a specific internship or volunteering programme. Lists of humanitarian organizations you can find on Reliefweb, on OneWorld, People in aid, Dev-Zone and at the International Crisis Group. Alertnet lets you check which organization is working where.

You can then apply through the organization's main office. Or, dependent on the type of organization, your chances might be higher if you apply directly to a field office in a country of your choice. Try to find the email contacts from that field office through the web pages of the organizations. Often you also increase your chances if you find someone of your nationality in those field offices. It immediately opens up a door.

Another good source for volunteers is Nabuur, an online volunteering platform that links Neighbours (online volunteers) with Villages (local communities) in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Also have a read through Jayne's post on volunteering. It also lists a wide range of organizations.

The key often is to know someone already in that organization. Or to get to know someone, who knows someone. Pick a country. Search the web for contacts in that country. Register in forums (travel forums, or expat forums like the one on the expat-blogsite. Ask questions. Look for people who live in the country you are interested in. Check with them if they know of organizations interested in volunteers, working in their area. Often they do, as expat communities abroad are usually smaller communities where "everyone knows everyone else" ... .

7. No, I want to do this full-time. Who employs?

Ok. Many different ways, many different contract types, different durations, different organizations ... .

You can divide the thousands of humanitarian organizations in four basic groups:

NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) either local and international one. This is the gross of the humanitarian organizations. Well known names are Care, Save the Children, Oxfam ...
GO (Governmental Organizations), which are often part of the Ministry of International Development (or something of that kind) of a government. DFID, USAID are just a few examples. Most of the time, you need to be a citizen of that country.
IO (International Organizations), which are like NGOs but with a large distributed network of local organizations. Well known IO are MSF, IFRC and ICRC (the 'Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement).
UN (United Nations). Forget the UN security council, and the big UN buildings in New York. The UN humanitarian organizations are quite independent from them, and each have their own funding, their particular work territory and/or specialization. Well known UN humanitarian organizations are UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP. But there are others: OCHA, WHO, UNIFEM, UNFPA, UNDP etc ... . Just scan www.un.org and you will find most of them.
All of them employ full time aid and/or development workers besides a vast set of volunteers and part-timers ... .

8. Where are the jobs advertised?

Well not in the Financial Times, that's for sure ... . A list of vacancies you can often find on the organizations' web pages. There is a global one on Reliefweb and another one on Alertnet. Try also the vacancies published on OneWorld.net, which also features a list of other job vacancy sites. UN Wire also has a list of vacancies. Check out the vacancy page from Dev-Zone. A bit broader view on vacancies, you find in Philanthropy.com and on Idealist.org.
Reliefweb made it even easier for you: they put all the open vacancies on a map for you, and have an extensive list of vacancy websites, like the one on the UN website.
If you are looking for jobs in human rights, the vacancy listing on Human Rights Tools might be your best resource.

Most of the time this involves sending a resume to the main office, or applying online. Plenty of people do get jobs that way. Still, understand thousands might apply for the same job. You should see the amount of applications we get when a job is advertised publicly ... . So your chances of success are pretty meager, to be honest. Well, meager is harsh, call it one in a hundred, one in a thousand ... .

You have a higher degree of success when you get to know people in the organizations working in the field you are specialized or interested in.
Say you are an accountant. Well look for contacts in the finance departments of the different organizations. Look up names, give them a call, write emails. When they get to know you one way or the other, and are interested in your resume, often they will go to the HR departments stating "I want THIS person, recruit him/her."

Network! If you know someone who knows someone who works in a humanitarian organization, follow that link. Build the contacts. Again, if you get to know the right people, the recruiting managers, you increase your chance of success.

And: follow-up, follow-up, follow-up! Once you applied, make sure your application stays on top of the pile. Call them regularly asking for updates. Email them. Insist. Friendly but firmly.

9. Which organization should you apply to?

Well, it depends on your specialization. A generalist (someone applying for jobs in the internal support departments, see higher), can apply in any organization. The more specialized you are as a generalist, the smaller the niche, but also the higher the chances for success.

Or, if you are not a generalist, then you need to find an organization working in the field you specialize in. Art? Medical care? Environment? Logistics?

Are there 'bad' organizations? Hmmm ... . not really. A bad reputation spreads and those few ill- reputed ones work themselves 'out of business' pretty fast. Some organizations are slower than others, though. Some have a bigger overhead than others. Some emphasize real field work while others work mainly from a head office. Some work on longer term stuff, some specialize on hands-on short term work. Some do mainly studies, others 'do' things ... .

10. Oh and by the way: What's the difference between an aid worker and a development worker?

In two words: An aid worker specializes in acute emergencies. The short term stuff. A development worker specializes in the longer term work, in sustainability ... . Both are needed. You can not only give people fish, you also need to teach them how to fish. But a starving person is not interested in learning how to fish. He wants to eat first ... .

Still questions? Drop me an email. I will be happy to help you further ... . If you choose to become an aid worker, or a development worker, either as a volunteer or full time, I am sure it will be just as fulfilling for you, as it was for me. And still is, even after 13 years. Wishing you the best of luck!

PS(ssst): Have a look at this post if you still look for (video-)inspiration!

PPS: Check out the excellent article "Advice for First-Time Aid Workers." It is published on aidworkers, an excellent resource made by and for aidworkers. (Thanks, Tom!)

The Road to the Horizon


  1. Anonymous27.8.09

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. What type of graduate degree lends itself to sustainable humanitarian aid work?

  3. I am a civil engineering owning a construction company in Bucaramanga, Colombia.
    I would like to become a part of the project development party with international aid either in my country or some in the neighborhood.

  4. my email: gerencia@gmail.com.co

  5. Anonymous19.7.11

    I was wondering how to get in touch with you I had a few more questions for you about it email: glb3689@aol.com

  6. Hi everyone,

    It is only now I discover there are many comments on this post. Unfortunately, I do not monitor this post for comments. Please refer to the original/updated post on my blog: http://www.theroadtothehorizon.org/2006/04/rumble-so-you-want-to-be-aidworker-hey.html (the link at the top of this Need Magazine post is incorrect)...

    If you have questions on how to become an aidworker, read the updated post on my blog first, and contact me via peter(at)theroadtothehorizon(dot)org

    If anyone from Need Magazine reads this comment, please correct the link at the top of this post.


  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Thanks for the information! I'm very interested in becoming an aid worker or working in the Foreign Service check out my blog on volunteer travel www.humanitariantraveltips.com