How to become an aidworker?

Last updated: Dec 27 2011 (updated all links)



I regularly get emails from people asking more information on how to join one of the humanitarian organisations, 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 aidworker, 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 and why I am an aidworker...


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 list of excellent introduction manuals from All-In Diary.



3. What kind of people are these humanitarian organisations 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 organisation 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 speciality 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 organisation has both parts too. They have the 'specialists', doing the core external work. And there is a wide spectrum of specialisations: 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 organisation specializing in it. Most of the people working in this part of the organisation either studied this stuff, or got into it, through experience.
But most people forget the internal support part of each organisation. 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 aidworker?


I agree with some parts in the video on the top of this post. People often have the image of us, aidworkers, 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 2008, 63 aid workers were killed due malicious acts.
Up to 2009 Patronus Analytical kept 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'. Something people often 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 aidworker?" should be extended to "And does my family have what takes for me to become an aidworker?".


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 traveller, the travelling volunteer, the short term stuff:
There are commercial and non-profit "tour operators" which organise 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 organisation 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 organisation. The organisation 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 organisation several times before. For these, one could expect the fee the organisation 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 organisation 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 organisation 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. Travelling 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 organisation? Or do they expect you to cover yourself? And does your normal medical insurance cover you if you are travelling to Timbuktu or Upchawayaya? Are you sure?


6. How to make contacts as a candidate-volunteer?


There are organisations (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 webpages of the humanitarian organisations to see if they have a specific internship or volunteering programme. Lists of humanitarian organisations you can find on Alertnet and at People in aid. Alertnet lets you check which organisation is working where.
You can then apply through the organisation's main office. Or, dependent on the type of organisation, 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 webpages of the organisations. 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 organisations.
The key often is to know someone already in that organisation. 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 organisations 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 organisations...
You can divide the thousands of humanitarian organisations in four basic groups:
  • NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) either local and international one. This is the gross of the humanitarian organisations. Well known names are Care, Save the Children, Oxfam,..
  • GO (Governmental Organisations), 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 Organisations), which are like NGOs but with a large distributed network of local organisations. 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 organisations are quite independent from them, and each have their own funding, their particular work territory and/or specialization. Well known UN humanitarian organisations 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 organisations' webpages. And then there are lists of vacancies, and lists and lists... 

As there is not one central place where you can scan all vacancies, I made my own website "AidJobs", where you can find the latest openings for volunteering positions, consultancies, internships and full time employment. You can track the latest vacancies on Twitter (follow @AidJobs) and the AidJobs Facebook page.

Here is an overview of individual lists:
Most of the time this involves sending a resumee 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 organisations 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 organisations. 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 resumee, 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 organisation, 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 organisation 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 organisation. 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 organisation working in the field you specialize in. Art? Medical care? Environment? Logistics?
Are there 'bad' organisations? Hmmm.. not really. A bad reputation spreads and those few ill- reputed ones work themselves 'out of business' pretty fast. Some organisations 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 aidworker 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!)

Video courtesy of WFP

47 comments:

Anonymous,  15 April, 2007 11:52  

Hey Peter,

I wanna be a aidworker, but GALAXY never replied and I am still in hope and waiting for nothing ...

Thanx for blog, mate.

73 Andy

Devon Whittle 31 May, 2008 02:36  

Great post, thanks Peter!

I was wondering in your travels if you have any advice/comments for a law student just finishing up their degree? Have you had any interaction in the field with lawyers working in development?

Peter Casier 31 May, 2008 07:34  

Devon,

My first advice would be to enjoy life for a year before starting to work. Travel, experience, look and feel around you.
After that, there is plenty of time to work.

Yes, there are lawyers working in the humanitarian field. A lot of them in the area of human rights, the International Tribunal, but also in individual agencies' legal departments.

Or you might see your law degree as a base, but head off into another direction...

Wishing you, at the start of life, all the best!!

P.

vasco-pyjama 23 September, 2008 07:56  

I would also like to add that it's pretty important to be totally realistic about what being a development or humanitarian worker entails. For many, it means a life of spinsterhood / bachelorhood. Others don't realise it means pit latrines, bad food, sand in bread and cold water.

It's a rewarding career, but not as glamourous as Angelina Jolie. I've had interns freak out the moment they find out what poverty is really like.

So I agree with what Peter Casier says about travelling first. And that is travelling as a backpacker in the dodgiest spots.

Anonymous,  20 October, 2008 12:01  

hi,
i am writing in the hope that you may be able to give us some directon, next summer for four weeks me and my partner want to provide short term aid work in a developing country, we have two young children and want to bring them as we belive it will provide them with a unique learning experience and should not prevent us from going as this is something wee feel pasionate about doing before we buy the new house at the end of next year and as a result become restricted in persuing this. i would like to know if this is something we could do with the children and where we go from here, if anyone has done something similar or has advice i would love to here from you my email address is paige.jodi@yahoo.com

thanks

Peter 20 October, 2008 19:19  

@Paige: answered to you via email. In summary: going on mission with children is not a problem. I did it too.
The challenge might be more the relative short period of 4 weeks...

Peter

Anonymous,  04 December, 2008 12:33  

Hi Peter,

Your blog on finding aid work is very inspiring. I have 14+ years of experience in development work, now desiring to work in the African region - some country, in program support. I have multiple skills. Most of the times though my CV matches the job descriptions perfectly with INGOs, almost all the time I never got an interview call. I am also willing to take up short term up to 6 months. Looking for some advice and help,

Thanks again in advance,
Sundar
rsundar65@rediffmail.com

Peter 04 December, 2008 13:00  

@Sundar:

Replying to you via email.

P.

kieran bannigan,  30 December, 2008 18:08  

hello,

This information has been truly inspiring, i am myself in exactly the same frame of mind as you were that particular evening when you thought, enough is enough. my life has been dramatically shaken maybe i am at that turning point in my life but i cannot eat nor sleep with the thought that i am alone in wanting to truly do good for the earth and for the lives that need light. over the last 4 years through information from the internet i have since seen there is so much good at work that it fills my heart with hope and the possibility to be part of that brings joy to me that i cannot express with words. i am worried i do not know enough of the world to put myself somewhere where i can truly benefit, i dont want money from doing this or any gratification, just similar dedicate people, have you any advice on this?

the_tree_frog@hotmail.co.uk

all the best to you

in admiration

kieran

Peter 30 December, 2008 19:45  

Kieran,

I will answering you via email.

Peter

Luke Wilkinson,  07 January, 2009 04:29  

Inspirational stuff Peter!

I am at that same turning point you described in your car that evening.
I am not statisfied with my life and want only to be part of something great and important. Financial gain means nothing compared with the feeling one gets when they have the opportunity to change lives.
I am willing to go down any route to achieve this and any help would be greatly appreciated.


wilkotaz@yahoo.com

Keep up the good work mate.

Anonymous,  14 January, 2009 23:11  

In my experience most of the jobs overseas call for a Masters/grad degree of some sort. Its just a bit taxing to find a job in the nonprofit sector--I have friends who feel the same way. Some with Master degrees and years of experience.

Peter 15 January, 2009 01:39  

@Luke:

answering you via Email.

Peter

Peter 15 January, 2009 01:41  

@Anonymous:

It depends agency per agency. There are normally no university degrees per se required for consultants.

As professional staff working for the UN, a university degree is required, but bachelor level (no masters needed. - I don't have a masters...).

And I agree: in these times of economic decline, the non-profit sector is getting squeezed. Job opportunities are there, but the market certainly became more competitive.

Don't give up, though!

Peter

The Mystic Tin 07 February, 2009 10:34  

Hi Peter,

I am a 38 year old male with the need to do something that brings meaning to my life. I have always believed and will for ever so that all of us need someone to help us out in a time of need.

If we can not or are ignorant of the fact that as humans our greatest strengths lie in the ability to help each other, who then can the people of our planet rely on?

I have a wide range of skills gathered over many years of working in all sorts of fields. I never studied one particular field of interest, but preferred to remain open to all sorts of challenges.

Is there an entity or platform on which folks like myself can get exposure or direction?

Thanks,
Wayne

Peter 07 February, 2009 11:30  

@Wayne,

Go the volunteering route, first. There are plenty of opportunities both physical as well as virtual (via the web) where any kinds of skills can be put into good use.

That is where I would start...

The "Aid Resources" column in the side bar has many sites where you can start...

P.

Anonymous,  18 February, 2009 20:06  

I find some of the information on this site to be a big joke. Even with a robust economy, networking, and volunteer exp., you are hard press to find an aid position WITHOUT a masters degree. Maybe it was different 20 years ago, but now I know people fluent in 3 languages, have volunteer experience, contacts,etc., but always get denied by aid agencies-especially international aid agencies. I've read "What color is your Parachute" and books like that and had success standing out the field, but as an aid worker its like playing pin the tail on the donkey...on a football field. Not a vent, just speaking recent experience.

dtc_1139@yahoo.com

Peter 18 February, 2009 20:20  

@anonymous:

In the past 13 years I must have hired, or been involved in hiring somewhere around 300-400 people. Of which probably 2/3 were at the level of international staff or international consultants...

Only a handful had a masters degree.

The prequalifications for international staff in the UN specify "a university degree". No matter which level that degree is.

So no, I don't agree with you that lack of a master's degree would reduce one's chances.

But I *do* strongly believe that it is very challenging "to get into the aid world". According to me, the reason is simple: there are thousands out there, knocking at the same door, competing for the same positions.

P.

Gurjeet 29 June, 2009 20:45  

Excellent post, thanks for all the tips/links.

-Undergrad with hopes of getting into this field.

SamWandering 09 July, 2009 07:32  

I am about to enter University. I need advice, how do I go about obtaining the degree I need to be the best aid worker I can be? What majors do I need to be looking at to work out in the field? I am not scared I can handle the frontlines, my question is though how can I set myself up to get there? What skills do I need to help those suffering? I know I am young but I see that as an asseset, I know what I am called to do with my life, I only need some direction in getting there. DO you have any advice you would be willing to offer me?

Peter 09 July, 2009 11:51  

@SamWandering

Sam,
as you are about to enter university, my advise would be to choose a direction of study in which YOU are interested in, and NOT one that might lead you into the aid world.
Humanitarians come in all kinds of shapes and forms. All kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds can be used in the aid world. From accountants to technicians to policy people to lawyers. Go with what you would like to do, and what you are good at. The rest will come.

Meanwhile, see if you can volunteer during your studies. Either as online volunteer, or as neighbourhood volunteer, etc..

Hope this helps,

Peter

jose 29 September, 2009 09:45  

Hi Peter

I got to read you useful post through a link you posted in Aid Workers Network.

As most of the people that reaches wether AWN or your blog, i'm also gathering information about how to become an aid/developement full-time worker.

I have a BArch and some years of experience in private companies. Since i left my job in Norway 11 months ago, i have been travelling though Asia. I spent 7 months in Nepal involved in a long-term volunteering building an orphanage in a village 20 km of Kathmandu. As you mention in your post, that experience was quite disappointing since the ong was 100% focused in the collection of 'the volunteer fee' in order to fundarise the project and all the volunteers i met during my time were pretty much retarded...

After that, left 2 months to Thailand where, thanks to some info of people i met on the way, got to Mae Sot in the norhwest and could work very closely with the burmese refugees issues building playgrounds for the ilegal migrants schools, a really nice experience but once again,just volunteering at least this time with no volunteer fee whatsoever.

After that travelled Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, where i find myself right now.

I've been visiting several of the websites you recommend in search of a job vacancy that suit me but all of them seem to be very undifined and none ask expressely for 'an architect'. The "architects without borders" websites don't offer real job vacancies either....

I'm also open to give up my job and start 'a new career' in a differen field.....but, in what?

Hope your vast experience can help in some orientation

Thanks for reading

My email: barastegui@yahoo.es

Peter 29 September, 2009 11:26  

@Jose

Just sent you an answer via Email!

P.

Anonymous,  15 October, 2009 07:04  

Hi Peter -

A million thanks for this - seriously grateful to people like you: helping those who want to help the world.

Previous posts answer most of my concerns but one: Does age matter? I have just come back from backpacking in SE Asia and like many people, inspired to give back and help. I don't have relevant volunteer experience, only have a college diploma, and have one year of work experience in my related field (marketing).

To be able to work for NGOs or IOs, I understand that I need a degree and I would like to start over and pursue a degree in international development studies or social sciences. So this means finishing studies and starting a jobsearch (entry level positions) in aid/development work around 30 years old. I realize it's never too late to start over and do what you love but realistically, do you think I could face issues when actually looking to start my career?

Thanks so much for your advise on this

C

Peter 15 October, 2009 07:28  

@C:

Nope, age does not matter. I am not sure if the NGOs require a degree, but the UN does (varying from graduate to a Masters degree dependent on the agency).

I was 34 when I started in the humanitarian world, and I felt I was one of the younger ;-) After consulting, I landed my first job at 36.
There are people getting into the system which are much older. Often they first start a career in the commercial sector, grow tired of it, and then move to the nonprofit.

Hope this helps,

Peter

Yvonne,  26 October, 2009 13:00  

Dear Peter, first my compliments for your site and all the aid work you did, very interesting to read. I found out that many vacancies in development work are from US and British NGO’s. Is it true that they prioritize US or UK citizens above applicants in other countries? I don’t get any reply on my applications, aside from confirmation (I am Dutch).
sincerely,

Peter 26 October, 2009 13:14  

@Yvonne,

Unless if I am mistaken, international position for US government organisations (as USAID) is for US nationals only. I *think* this is true for any governmental aid organisation.

As for NGOs, I am not sure for each country, but I assume legally they don't "have" to take their own nationals, but in general, I found they do give priority to their nationals...

As for large international organisations (MSF, IFRC, Goal, Save the Children): they often have an overall coordinating branch, which is easier to get into. They also have national branches, which again, often take people from their nationality.

But keep on applying, and follow up on the applications with email, phone calls...

P.

Anonymous,  27 January, 2010 23:05  

Hi Peter

Blessings to you from the Carolinas! Can you tell me what qualities, traits, and skills are imperative for a role as an aid worker for the ICRC in Harare Zimbabwe? What challenges are typical in the face of an aid worker?

Kindly,

Deepa

deepz99@hotmail.com

Anonymous,  18 August, 2010 15:40  

Hi Peter,

Interesting post and very good advice. I wonder though if it's worth telling people that it helps if you are male, or at least if you are not a mother. Vasco-Pyjama made a good point about this in an earlier post above. I know many people in working in both development and aid - but, apart from those working in universities, which do often have partners/kids, the vast majority are single and very few to none have kids (women especially). It's hard to stay in development as a woman, if you choose to become a mother. Perhaps not impossible, but certainly difficult. I have a PhD in development, as well as a Masters and BA from top 10 Universities. I have taught as a university lecturer, done field work, volunteer work (of course) and rapid response aid work. I love development, it is true what you write - that it is a passion. Having a love of development/aid is, I often feel, an extension of oneself - being immersed in the world, being a 'player' as it were in the decisions that take place all the time around us, being part Of life as it happens, rather than as an observer. But with young children (4) and as a woman you are quite limited in terms of the flexibility and commitment needed for development/aid work, especially given the amount of people vying for each and every position. You are unable to commit in the same way that a bachelor or, at least a man with a wife/kids willing to Not work or live at a home base can. I grew up overseas, have been to about 60 countries - (male) members of my family work for the UN and I have a lot of connections - but still as a mother - and with the manifold needs of children - you have to choose. I have had to take time out for the last 4 years which now leaves me, regardless of past experience and a PhD, behind others. Luckily my husband works in a similar field - Geomatics, strategy/performance at govt level, has done aid work, and is looking to move into UN (etc) work. But, at best that will mean me living somewhere as a mother first. Don't get me wrong, I Adore my kids, and love being a mother - but it is hard as a woman - who has the same passion for development/aid/the world as you do, going on your posts - to have to stand back and, essentially, give it up. The choice for a man doesn't seem as harsh - work but also be a dad. But for a woman to work in this field full-time, realistically, necessitates having to choose between two things that I think are impossible to choose. One's kids as the priority or one's passion. I chose my kids, but the passion for development, for being part of something in a very real way (not as a p-time player) burns inside me and sometimes I feel bereft as I find it impossible to be able to work in development, and be a good, present mother. Maybe that will change in the future. If you have any inspirational stories I'd be glad to hear of them.

Peter 19 August, 2010 22:46  

@anonymous:

Your comment is almost a testimonial by itself. I wrote about "women in aidwork" before.

From the organisations' point of view, often there is positive discrimination to enhance the chance of women's employment in the aid world.

From a personal perspective: it is true that, even though women get a fair chance in employment, the practicalities often make it difficult. Most women indeed choose for the kids as a priority (most men let the women choose for the kids as priority too)... This limits the choices of duty stations (safety, schools,...) and tasks (amount of travel, pressure)... Even though that is the case in the 'normal' world too, in the aid world, the more so, as we often work in off-beat places, and change duty stations/duties often.

As such: yep, it is far more difficult for a woman in the aid world than for a man. But is it impossible to do this work, and to be a mother, and a wife? No, it is not. There are plenty of women who do this work and combine it with their families. Some of them are even single mums, and even travel with their kids.
As such, the aidworld I found to be more tolerant for the "human" factor.

So good news, and bad news: as in "the real world", is tougher to be a mum, wife and full time employee BUT it is doable and there is a greater understanding and tolerance for those challenges in the aidworld.

Hope this feedback helps,

P.

Anonymous,  20 August, 2010 10:49  

Hi,

Thanks for your post. Yes, of course I agree that it is not impossible, just much more difficult - as I wrote as the beginning of my post. Really, I suppose what I am commenting on would happen in all careers to some extent - so nothing new.

Clearly, the specific issues that come with development/aid work - which I am well aware of having worked in various countries worldwide - make it more difficult to take children to, and of course as a parent one naturally balks at
putting their children in dangerous situations! It has certainly made a difference to where I
would/will take my kids. Obviously, from an organisation's point of view they too have
responsibilities to both the work they need carrying out and responsibility to ensure people (e.g. children) are also not placed in compromising areas. I think this is a good thing.

I suppose I was just musing on the wider and entrenched difficulties that women in the workforce, in general, face - esp as mothers (for example, to be sure acadamia is one!)

Without question my children Are my passion, but what I was getting at was more the idea that as a parent one usually wants what is
best for them and to do whatever it takes to enrich their lives further - to that end I think it is good when children can see their mothers also being passionate about something and able to really contribute in the long-term.

The difficulties, and by that I mean the choices that are not really 'choices' at all, regarding a women's ability to work in certain careers as a mother are, I feel, more complex and difficult than what most men face. This is said with the knowledge of the many many women I have known and still know in both academia and dev/aid organisations worldwide.

Of course I am well aware of what the 'real world' consists of - one doesn't have children, work in overseas development and academia wihout a very good understanding of what it takes! But my comments above, and in my previous post, still hold true. Some NGOs might be more forward thinking, and, of course the UN has family stations etc - but families working in overseas development with both parents working, or perhaps work-sharing etc (rather than the man working and women staying at home etc) are still not the norm. I'm also talking about families, generally with 2-3 or more kids, and of course their ages make a difference. I know of a few who are abe to do it with one child, but 3+ young kids can be
more difficult logistically as I'm sure you will agree! Indeed as vasco-pyjama pointed out
development work is still very much peopled by singletons - this is a fact.

In any case, thanks for responding - and you have a very nice website!

Anonymous,  20 August, 2010 11:23  

ps - I just read your previous post "Rumble: I Am an Aid Worker. And a Woman. Help!" and can I just say, as a woman, thank you! If all men, Regardless of the field they work in, thought like you did, and wrote about the difficulties women face with such truth, gender equality would come on leaps and bounds.

Peter 08 September, 2010 08:21  

I received an email which was meant as a comment on this post.

I am copying and pasting the original mail with my comments interwoven in the next comments

Peter
____

To add to the really interesting mix of people commenting here, I am a
recent graduate of development studies and have some, questions of a
larger scale. I hope you could answer them and would certainly
appreciate any input by other people reading this!

- geographical distance and cyber-recruitment
in my hunt for jobs, i was wondering about whether it is easier to
land a job in the field or in your local duty station, in my case
vienna. if you network people via email or phone, is there a
correlation between geographical distance and the likelihood that they
will network with you?

***my answer: I think in the aidworld, we are moving around so much that geographic distances don't mean anything anymore. However, there is of course no substitute of being able to see people face to face.

Peter 08 September, 2010 08:22  

another question i got via email, with my answer.

Peter

- can you share some insider knowledge on online application forms?
does any recruiter actually give a damn about the elaborate electronic
forms with tabs and sub-tabs that take a whole day if not two to fill
out. applying to several organisations therefore takes a whole week, a
lot of patience and copy/pasting. on the side of the recruiter, can
they filter applicants by skills/education or are they overwhelmed by
the electronic application system as well?

** My answer: I can not speak for the other organisations, but in ours, as a recruiting manager for international posts, we can only pick candidates from a pre-screened list, selected by the HR division. The HR division makes the selection based on the incoming forms. The different tabs are used to index the applications on subjects, specialization etc..

However, this is very different for consultants, which are recruited solely on the choice of the recruiting manager without pre-screened lists (there is a post-selection screening by HR of course). Once you get in as consultant, it is much easier to get into the 'staff'-circuit. THAT, to me, is the best and least-difficult way to get into the circuit.

Peter 08 September, 2010 08:23  

Another comment received by email, with my answer.

Peter
___


- as a recent graduate who has done internships in two international
organisations in the fields of human rights and refugees, i find that
the number of internships has substantially increased, making it hard
for what i call "generation R(ecession)" to make the step from
university into the field. however, i did see that locals get hired
straight into a P1 position without 99 years of experience as
programme assistant or somalia-based cartoonist (ads like that are a
joke, it is almost as if they are there to fulfil demands of
transparency while the post is already filled). i have met people who
interned/UNVed with the UN for a year (!) in three (!) different duty
stations AND have a masters from a distinguished us-american
university and still hasn't found permanent PAID employment (i am
against promoting recruitment on the basis of good university branding
but am just illustrating my confusion with the high job requirements).
on the other hand, when i used to intern for an international
organisation, my post was re-advertised as a PAID job almost as soon
as i moved department. these and other experiences i have heard of
from fellow students who interned in development inspired me to write
my most recent blog entry on the transition from intern into
entry-level employment and the gap between calls for youth
participation/empowerment and... well, the fact that it is cheaper to
employ a local who, law graduate or not (and i have had the privilege
to work with really dedicated and professional local law graduates),
will be satisfied with a local salary and saves on costs for visa or
taxes. technically, employing interns saves more capital that could be
invested in operational expenses but i don't think money is
automatically re-distributed like that. there are probably also donor
agendas involved. i am not saying that expats should have a
prerogative over locally qualified people in aid/development jobs.
doing so would reproduce power imbalances and could undermine state
sovereignty, particularly where large-scale humanitarian operations
are taking place. but in the age of e-recruitment, i am wondering how
to get through the large amounts of online applications. thanks for
reading this really long post! :)

*** My answer: When you say 'local', probably you are speaking from your living in Vienna. The situation is quite different in developing countries. Yes, "locals" are always cheaper, as they are hired on local contracts. Often there is also a commitment to the 'hosting government' to hire a certain percentage of locals. You could get around it, by proving you have lived in the country since a while. In Rome, plenty of expats are hired on local contracts, as they are the spouses of someone working for one of the organisations.
In my experience, the "system" is pretty good at retaining "good people". If you are good, the system will find a way to keep you in the system. At least if you have a manager supervising you.

***On your remark "interned/UNVed with the UN for a year (!) in three (!) different duty
stations AND have a masters from a distinguished us-american university and still hasn't found permanent PAID employment"
Pooh... One year? That is nothing. I worked at volunteering wages for almost 3 years before I landed my first job. And I am not 'a generalist'.. I had a very specific niche for which there was a constant demand.

Peter 08 September, 2010 08:24  

- as a recent graduate who has done internships in two international
organisations in the fields of human rights and refugees, i find that
the number of internships has substantially increased, making it hard
for what i call "generation R(ecession)" to make the step from
university into the field. however, i did see that locals get hired
straight into a P1 position without 99 years of experience as
programme assistant or somalia-based cartoonist (ads like that are a
joke, it is almost as if they are there to fulfil demands of
transparency while the post is already filled). i have met people who
interned/UNVed with the UN for a year (!) in three (!) different duty
stations AND have a masters from a distinguished us-american
university and still hasn't found permanent PAID employment (i am
against promoting recruitment on the basis of good university branding
but am just illustrating my confusion with the high job requirements).
on the other hand, when i used to intern for an international
organisation, my post was re-advertised as a PAID job almost as soon
as i moved department. these and other experiences i have heard of
from fellow students who interned in development inspired me to write
my most recent blog entry on the transition from intern into
entry-level employment and the gap between calls for youth
participation/empowerment and... well, the fact that it is cheaper to
employ a local who, law graduate or not (and i have had the privilege
to work with really dedicated and professional local law graduates),
will be satisfied with a local salary and saves on costs for visa or
taxes. technically, employing interns saves more capital that could be
invested in operational expenses but i don't think money is
automatically re-distributed like that. there are probably also donor
agendas involved. i am not saying that expats should have a
prerogative over locally qualified people in aid/development jobs.
doing so would reproduce power imbalances and could undermine state
sovereignty, particularly where large-scale humanitarian operations
are taking place. but in the age of e-recruitment, i am wondering how
to get through the large amounts of online applications. thanks for
reading this really long post! :)

My answers:

*** When you say 'local', probably you are speaking from your living in Vienna. The situation is quite different in developing countries. Yes, "locals" are always cheaper, as they are hired on local contracts. Often there is also a commitment to the 'hosting government' to hire a certain percentage of locals. You could get around it, by proving you have lived in the country since a while. In Rome, plenty of expats are hired on local contracts, as they are the spouses of someone working for one of the organisations.
In my experience, the "system" is pretty good at retaining "good people". If you are good, the system will find a way to keep you in the system. At least if you have a manager supervising you.

***On your remark "interned/UNVed with the UN for a year (!) in three (!) different duty
stations AND have a masters from a distinguished us-american university and still hasn't found permanent PAID employment"
Pooh... One year? That is nothing. I worked at volunteering wages for almost 3 years before I landed my first job. And I am not 'a generalist'.. I had a very specific niche for which there was a constant demand.

Peter 08 September, 2010 08:28  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Love Kids Worldwide 27 February, 2012 05:36  

Thanks for providing this article on how to become an aidworker! Keep on posting!

Anonymous,  13 October, 2012 08:43  

allredy 20 min on this page but i can not find how to become a aid worker. if somebody knows the direct way please email me ko.as(at)hotmail.com

Anonymous,  20 May, 2013 02:54  

Good morning, I am looking at heading to University next year with a view to doing anthropology, and longterm plans of getting into aid work. Are there any subjects you suggest I include in my degree to help with this? I currently have 5 years experience as a Team Leader, and I'm going on a 2 month volunteer trip as a Group Leader in Dec.
Thank you for your assistance,
T

Peter 20 May, 2013 08:16  

Dear T,

There are no subjects outside of the aidwork-area. Almost everything can be applied, one way or the other,...

I would suggest you follow the topics in which you are interested. This will stir up your enthusiasm for the subjects, and that by itself will increase your eligibility :-)

If you are looking for any specific topics, anything on international development would help, of course. For the rest, follow you interest: environment? human rights? media?....

best,

Peter

Airyk 18 June, 2013 11:27  

Peter,
I have 3 years INGO experience and 2 years in the USA. Things were going well, at least I think they were then I decided to Hitchhike around the world. It was great, it was my time off, but maybe it was a bad idea, because now I find myself applying and applying and never getting anything. I volunteer now and my skills are highly sought after, but no one can pay me more then food and a floor to sleep on. Can you offer me any tips? Counseling? Any place I can make more contacts? Maybe I should just fly down to Juba, South Sudan and network there?
Thanks
Eric

Peter 28 June, 2013 13:16  

Hi Eric, replied to you via email.-Peter

Anonymous,  25 September, 2013 16:52  

Hello, this is a really good post and I am asking for some advice.. I want to work in a developping country.. and I was thinking to do it in the educational field. And I am about to start a new degree at University.. and I am in a dilemma on what to study.. if i should get a teaching degree or go with international development studies to have a basis on what I want to do later.. or would you advice doing something else?
Many thanks in advance. :)

K.C.

Peter 28 September, 2013 21:39  

Hi KC,
I would not choose an education solely based on the fact that you would want to work as an aidworker. As I described in the post, aid organisations take all kinds of people from all kinds of professional backgrounds and educations. At this stage in your life, choose a profession on basis of what you like and are interested in. You'll be better at it. And somewhere you will find an entry point in an aid organisation.

so go with your heart. :-)

Peter

Jo 09 December, 2013 03:28  

Hi Peter!
I echo what many people have said above - great website and many thanks for taking the time out of your life to educate and inform and share your wisdom. I hope you are rewarded for your efforts.

I am in the same situation as K.C. above and am having to figure out what to study at university with the eventual goal of landing up in Aid and Dev [more so Dev]. I understand what you mean when you say 'dont choose an education based solely on what fact that you want to work as an aid worker'.

I hope to come to an answer fairly quickly [like...by tonight] as tomorrow is the closing date for university applications! This Q had plagued me and I have thought and researched myself into paralysis, it seems.

BUT - I am curious to know what you studied and how you landed up in your field. Please forgive me if you have already addressed this is an earlier post. I have only JUST stumbled upon your website.

T.S.

Peter 05 January, 2014 16:39  

Hi T.S. -- sorry for the delay in answering! The story how I got involved in aidwork, you can read here: http://www.theroadtothehorizon.org/2007/01/tales-of-horizon-introduction.html

And indeed, my studies were unrelated to my aidwork. I graduated as a graphical engineer... :-)

Happy new year!

Peter

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