I get A LOT of Emails from people who would like to start as an aid worker and find it difficult to get into the humanitarian world.
While I condensed my advice in this post, many ask for specific tips, or "what would you do if you were in my situation?"...
Back in January, I got this request from Stefano, via The Road's discussion forum:
(...)I have been an Italian expat for nearly 20 years. I moved to the UK with no English at all, ended up with a BA degree in European Studies. After 11 years in the UK I moved to Ireland in 2002. Between the UK, Italy and Ireland, I have been working primarily in the air transport sector and I was able to travel around the world extensively and learn many things.
Finally in 2005 I eventually decided to change career for something I was passionate about. Humanitarian Aid. So, I went to study for the Masters degree in Humanitarian Action at University College Dublin. With my own finances, I went to Fiji and Cook Islands and finished my research thesis in Disaster Risk Reduction, Preparedness and Mitigation in the Pacific.
Sadly, I found no jobs afterwards, so I decided to volunteer and managed to spend 6 months in remote areas between India and Nepal doing an evaluation on the development work of 21 educational institutions.
On my return to Ireland, I started doing some teaching in Development Studies in schools and a few sessions at Universities in International Development. But that was it. Soon afterwards, I was recruited by Irish Aid to be on the Rapid Response Team (Surge Capacity) register for UN OCHA and WFP as Humanitarian Affairs Officer and Logistics, respectively.
Got fully trained by the UN in policy and practice, field security, vehicle handling, GPS, Compass etc. After a year on the roster I was put forward for a few jobs with OCHA and WFP in various locations but I was not successful in either occasions. The UN and many agencies out there require a fair bit of experience, let's say a minimum of 5 years in the field. So, I fear I will be on stand-by for many more years..
Anyhow, all I wanted to say here is that my expectations were quite different. And It's not just a money issue, I thought that a professional qualification in the field would have made a slight difference, but it did not. It was great to acquire lots of skills and knowledge in the area but It's the experience that counts. And with no experience you will not get the chance to gain experience, Catch 22 situation ?
I gave my piece of advice, but then did not hear from Stefano until a few weeks back:
I am just writing a short note to say thank you for your advice.
I am pleased to say I made some good progress since we last heard from each other. In April I was taken on board with OCHA and posted to Colombia to run all field office ops in one of the most problematic regions at the very border with Venezuela. Since I am practically doing everything here, work is very challenging and rewarding. I work very closely with all other UN agencies, of course, especially WFP with whom I go joint missions as well.
I asked Stefano to sum up his experiences and advice for other people who would like to get started as an aidworker. Here is what he wrote:
The work of humanitarian assistance has changed its face over the last 20 years or so. The new global development agenda and an increased number of complex humanitarian emergencies have prompted the need to professionalize the aid sector. Over the last few years, there has been an increased demand for qualified people with the ability to manage humanitarian and development programmes. Many colleges and universities around the world are now offering postgraduate courses in humanitarian assistance and development studies. With agencies working globally and the increased diverse needs in humanitarian work means technical people are also sought from other sectors.
Skilled people like engineers, IT, logisticians, accountants, nutritionists and doctors are also in demand. With the advent of the private sector in development programmes, it also means that aid work can virtually be suitable for anyone coming from different walks of life.
However, there are certain issues one ought to take into account. Like any other sector or industry, it is often very difficult to get your foot in the door. To get your foot in the door requires good preparation, self-motivation and a lot of persistence. However, speaking from personal experience, even that sometimes it's not enough. As some people say, you also need to be at the right place, at the right time. Basically, you need a fair bit of luck as well. But luck does not come along by itself, you need to look for that. Just imagine aid work as a big family on a rollercoaster. Your aim must be joining the family on that rollercoaster.
How you do that?
For start ups, inexperienced or wannabes, voluntary work is the best start. Or an internship if you are at college. For those with some ground work done, the secret is networking. Attend meetings, conferences, seminars, make yourself known. Apply for jobs and follow up. Agencies receive tons of CV's and most of them end up in the bin. Only a few get an interview. Often only one gets the job.
Last but not least, aid work can be very rewarding but is hard work, too. You must be very passionate about it or can easily end up in misery. You must have natural interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt to intensely challenging situations and withstand emotional strain.
And passionate he is. I can hear that in what he wrote about his work in Colombia:
After just 2 months I have realised Colombia is one of the largest and most complicated humanitarian emergencies around the world but with no media coverage whatsoever. That's why I have recently decided to start a blog about it. It's about giving some kind of visibility on the long standing humanitarian situation, whereas Colombia only gets news on guerrilla and narcotraffic.
Also, the blog intends to give some ideas about life in Colombia which is very far away from what most people think around the world.
Coming from Ostia (just outside Rome) I was definitely surprised to see many places here are far more modern and organised than the place I come from. Life in urban areas is more normal than we think, living standards are quite high for many (yes, thanks to illicit dealings, too). Yet, life in rural areas is very different, indeed.
Briefly, the current scenario has seen a number of actors such as the Army, paramilitaries, guerrillas and politicians engulfed in a situation that has led to mass displacements, forced confinements and extra judicial killings, not to mention other socio-economic-environmental factors that are affecting the population. Alike us foreigners, even ordinary Colombians know very little about the real situation here since the Colombian government and national media also pretty much ignore whats going on.
Finally, I also believe Colombia does not get the headlines because there aren't any IDP or refugee camps like in Rwanda or DRC. People might have ended up everywhere but the number of people displaced, killed or disappeared are around 4 million!
And to top it off, he also started his own blog, Forgotten Colombia.
Hat off, Stefano, and keep on going. We wish you a safe stay in Colombia. One day, our roads will cross.