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So You Want a Humanitarian Job?

A Practical Guide on How to Find Work in Disaster Relief

Sometimes seeing the world just is not enough. 

There is a gnawing need inside, a pull to do more, to have an impact, to make a difference. For some of us, this means finding a humanitarian job—helping people who have been struck by disaster or misfortune. 

Sometimes, it is hard to sit by and just watch the earthquakes, floods, famine and war unfurl on the news. 

Humanitarian jobs—paying or volunteer—are often reserved for seasoned professionals so if you do not have any experience, you will be fighting uphill. 

The Humanitarian "Profile"

What kind of person can fill a humanitarian job? The requirements vary. 

Age is no barrier. Young people and university graduates may want some foreign or field experience before settling down at home; retirees may feel ready for a new challenge; mid-career breaks are becoming more common. 

Personality is key. Some of the qualities you will need to display include tolerance, cultural sensitivity, patience, openness and altruism. I find a decisive trait involves a sense of humor. Working in emergencies is highly stressful and you need the ability to relax—laughing helps. 

You also need to be able to handle it. Disasters are rife with stories of newbies showing up, throwing up, and shipping out. If you swoon at the sight of blood or cry at the drop of a pin, this type of work is not for you. Finding aid workers with a combination of thick skin and compassion is always a challenge and some agencies report a 90% staff turnover in the first 30 days of a disaster. 

Your profession is probably needed—somewhere. Here are just some of the professions needed by humanitarian agencies: teaching, management, IT, telecommunications, veterinary science, any medical field, secretarial, engineering, social work, driving, writing, therapy, security, logistics, architecture, media, finance, first aid… and this just scratches the surface. A caveat though—these skills are not needed everywhere, nor all they needed all the time. 

Get Prepared 

According to Steve Bertrand, an expert in crisis preparedness who has worked for a dozen agencies ranging from the World Health Organizations to CARE International, you can’t just jump into humanitarian work with no preparation. Here are some of his tips: 

  • Do some background reading about the places you want to go to, including history, politics and culture.
  • Learn about humanitarian aid through books, articles, blogs, and carefully selected social media sites.
  • Be sure you are healthy or you will end up being a burden rather than a help—and take a first aid course if you can.
  • Keep your passport and vaccinations up to date. You may have to deploy quickly and there will not be time for anything once you have the green light.
  • Train up on humanitarian work by taking a course. You will find great training resources on ReliefWeb, RedR, or your national Red Cross. Some sort of training will tell a prospective employer you are committed, and at least have an idea of what humanitarian work entails.
  • Make sure you have updated hard and soft copies of your CV on hand.
  • For something longer term, there is formal academic training in humanitarian issues.
  • Brush up on your language skills. If you’re headed for Latin America or the Middle East, some Spanish or Arabic will go a long way towards balancing out your lack of humanitarian experience.
  • Get insured. Humanitarian workers get injured and not all agencies offer evacuation coverage.

Where to Look for Jobs 

There are plenty of job sources for humanitarian work—in fact, at times too many and the choice can be confusing. Here are possible pathways to follow. 

Normal job searches

Search as you would for a normal job—in the newspaper, on the Internet, by talking to people. 

Look for specialized humanitarian postings

Plenty of job boards specialize in humanitarian vacancies. ReliefWeb is filled with humanitarian vacancies, and is a great source of pre-deployment information. Another good job source is Eldis

Contact the agencies

Go straight to the source. Contact the agencies that regularly employ humanitarian workers, like Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. There are plenty of directories and lists of humanitarian agencies on the web. 

Keep up with the news

Watch what’s happening where. If an organization is quoted during an emergency, it means they’re already working in the area or soon will be. Get in touch with them. A good source of information about who’s working where is the Thompson Reuters Foundation.  

Talk to people

These days you can be in direct contact with people on the ground. A great way to reach humanitarian workers is through their blogs: you will find some by country at Expat Blogs and Blog Expat, two of the many expat blog directories online. Read their blogs, leave comments, contact them and ask questions. They will be the first to know if something is happening in their corner of the world. You could also join communities like Humanitarian People. Once you are on site, find out where expats hang out—and get out there and meet them. Jobs often come through word of mouth so be sure you are connected and network. 

Follow the agencies

Keep up with what NGOs and humanitarian agencies themselves are doing. Subscribe to their ezines or RSS feeds, and keep up with agency blogs like Oxfam and World Concern.

Get on rosters

A number of agencies manage rosters—lists of qualified humanitarian workers who are on call and ready for deployment at a moment’s notice when something goes wrong. Do some research and get on some of these if you can. A good example is the Center for International Disaster Information. It is a long shot because they tend to accept only experienced workers but if you have a specific skill, go for it. You never know when your ability to set up a radio station or website from scratch may come in handy. 

Call the NGOs

Not all disasters are huge enough to make the international news consistently. If you have followed the steps above and kept plugged in, you will know quickly enough when something breaks—and who’s helping on the ground. Pick up the phone, call and ask if they need someone with your profile. Often, it is first come first served. 

Just show up?

One question that comes up often is whether you should just "show up" at the site of a disaster and apply there and then. Unfortunately the answers are mixed. Some agencies say yes—it is hard to get qualified people for short-term jobs so showing up will increase your chances of finding work. Most agencies say no—you will just get in the way. People have launched successful humanitarian careers by just showing up, while many others have tried and failed. If you do decide to pitch up, try to determine what shortages exist and bring supplies (batteries for your flashlight, any prescription medicine, toiletries, tinned food, etc), but only what is needed. In an emergency you may have no electricity, no water, no supplies, and nothing to eat, at least for a while. Preparedness is an asset. 

UN & NGO coordinating centers

Most disasters have a UN coordinating center to make sure agencies don’t fall over one another.OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is the UN body responsible for coordination in disasters and they work closely with NGOs. They will know of any NGO coordinating body in the area, so it is a good place to start. Often in these coordination centers there are notice boards where jobs are posted. You never know your luck!

Some final words of wisdom? According to crisis preparedness expert Steve Bertrand, “When disaster strikes, everyone is applying to the big guys. Unless you are on a roster or known to them, the jobs will go to people with the know-how. So take your skills to the smaller NGOs.” 

If All Else Fails 

It will be difficult to find a humanitarian job if you have no experience whatsoever. Let us face it, your skills at moving rubble or carting wood are not essential—plenty of local labor is usually available for this type of work. Your value added comes with your experience—so if you repeatedly get turned away, a good way to get that first experience is to volunteer just so you will have something to put on that CV. 

An outfit that gets rave reviews—and does not charge for volunteer placement—is All Hands Volunteers, which runs projects in several at a time (including Haiti). From the home page, you may donate and volunteer to All Hands Volunteers, among other resources, events, news, internships, and other very useful activities. Otherwise a good all-round source of volunteer opportunities is World Volunteer Web, with its large list of organizations with volunteer slots.  

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