How to become a humanitarian aid worker

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Introduction

 

A career as a humanitarian aid worker can be exciting and rewarding.  There can be opportunities for travel and a satisfaction from knowing that you are making a difference.  As you would expect, getting into the sector is highly competitive so here are five top tips to help you get started:

Boost your qualifications

One of the most common ways to gain entry to humanitarian jobs is to take a higher-level qualification and become specialised in a field which is needed.  Qualifications give you confidence when you arrive in the field and mean you are well placed to help build capacity in local staff, passing your expertise on.

Qualifications in particular demand for humanitarian jobs include MSc in Tropical Medicine, MSc Logistics, Prince 2 Project Management, MSc in Civil Engineering or Engineering for Development or MSc Nutrition.

Whilst looking for work you can also improve your qualifications in other fields such as driving (including off road driving courses), first aid and languages (French, Spanish and Arabic can be particularly useful).

NGO jobs are now focusing on empowering local people so when you join a team as a specialist it will be with the expectation that you can teach/train others, so consider taking a teaching or “train the trainer” qualification.

Build experience and knowledge

If you are new to humanitarian work, it is essential to get experience before applying for NGO jobs.  Working environments can be dangerous and challenging so you need to hit the ground running. 

Look out for NGO Internships or entry level humanitarian jobs, either in headquarters or field sites.  Larger, well known NGOs can be difficult to get into, so target smaller NGOs to find your first role.

Visit NGO open days or online events to find out more about the sector and to demonstrate your commitment. 

Choose 3-5 NGOs that you are particularly interested in and follow them on social media to increase your knowledge and understanding of sector trends and developments.

Volunteer

Some NGO jobs can be accessed via a volunteer programme, but these tend to be in longer term development projects in stable environments, rather than in conflict zones or natural disaster responses. 

Many of the skills needed for a career in humanitarian jobs can be developed closer to home.  For example:

  • If you are interested in working on food distribution projects, start by volunteering at your local food bank
  • For a career in Water, Sanitation and Health, volunteer with your local flood management team
  • If you hope to have a career in medicine, volunteer at your local vaccination centre
  • For a career in communications, start by volunteering to write articles and blog posts for a local NGO

Move sidewards

The first step in your career might be to find an entry level humanitarian job in support services within an NGO and then look to move sideways into becoming a field-based humanitarian aid worker. 

NGO jobs in headquarters include finance, admin, HR and IT support roles so this is a good way to get started. 

Having a knowledge of these support functions can also be a real help when working directly on delivering aid.  During emergency response, aid workers still need to write reports for donors, fill in forms to procure materials, draft contracts for new staff and maintain spreadsheets for income and expenditure so having a background in these skills, and the paperwork required, can be very beneficial

Step Up

Another route into finding humanitarian jobs is to consider moving into management.  In many emergency response situations, there is no shortage of skilled local people to help with the practical tasks but what is needed is an experienced project manager to oversee the process.

Having experience in delivering results, managing staff, reporting to donors, dealing with journalists, delivering training and handling budgets in a previous job puts you in a strong position to help an NGO with an emergency response.

Due to insecurity there can be a high level of staff turnaround in NGO jobs and positions such as Deputy Country Manager or Country Manager may be a good route into the sector if you already have leadership experience.

Summary

The trend within humanitarian aid is to support and empower local communities wherever possible.  The routes into humanitarian jobs are therefore becoming more specialised with a clear focus on capacity building.  However in all cases, you will need to demonstrate skills, experience and commitment to work in this challenging but rewarding sector.

 

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