So You Want a Humanitarian Job?
A Practical Guide on How to Find
Work in Disaster Relief
|Disaster relief volunteer work
with the Red Cross.
Sometimes seeing the world just is not
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 hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, famine, and those made refugees by 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.
(Editor's note: In very rare cases, there are local humanitarian aid requests from outside the local area, but you must have professionals skills or some tangible skills to offer along with permission from local authorities. Donations to charities are a far, far more effective way to help in the short-term until you become a professional aid worker or seasoned volunteer working with an organization.)
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.
How to Become Prepared for Humanitarian
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
- Learn about humanitarian aid through
books, articles, blogs, and carefully selected social
- 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
- Train up on humanitarian work by
taking a course. You will find great training resources
on 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 resume or CV on hand.
- For something longer term, there
is formal academic
training in humanitarian issues available at some universities.
- 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
Plenty of job boards specialize in humanitarian
vacancies. ReliefWeb is
filled with humanitarian vacancies, and is a great source
of pre-deployment information.
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
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
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
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
Follow the agencies
Keep up with what NGOs and humanitarian
agencies themselves are doing. Subscribe to their
videos, and other social media.. Keep
up with agency blogs like Oxfam, World
Concern, and Mercy
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
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
Most disasters have a UN coordinating
center to make sure agencies don’t fall over one another.
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
If All Else Fails
It will be difficult to find
a humanitarian job if you have no experience whatsoever. Let's
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 and Hearts Volunteers, which runs important humanitarian aid projects worldwide. Otherwise a good all-round source of
volunteer opportunities is UN Volunteers with its large list of organizations
with volunteer slots.