This is the third in a series of five posts aimed at helping people who are considering becoming aid workers to understand some of the issues. The first is Know What You’re Getting Into. The second is Aid Work is a Profession.
There are a lot of people wanting to be aid workers. Far and away the most popular roles are those that are based out of western countries but with a healthy dose of travel. For example, in my own office, when we have a role such as mine come up, we generally have between one and two hundred applicants per position. This number tapers off a lot when we start hiring for full-time field positions, but that’s because the hiring criteria are a lot tougher.
In brief, aid agencies are looking for a mix of appropriate skills, relevant experience, and the right personality. It’s a bit of a nebulous mix and there’s no magic formula. However, if you’re lacking one of these three, you’re really going to struggle to get employed by an NGO.
a) Skills and Education
Once upon a time, people from a range of backgrounds could get sent to the field with charity groups. Today, NGOs are much more specific about the sorts of educational backgrounds. The room for vocational skills is relatively small now, as most skilled jobsets can be sourced locally (see above).
NGOs will generally be looking for a graduate degree of some sort that demonstrates that an applicant has a general overview of developing country contexts. This covers a pretty wide range of options and could be a degree in development studies, in economic development, in sociology or in demographics, as a handful of examples. NGOs want to know that you understand the implications of working in developing countries- fundamental principles such as participation, dependency, risk management, and a generalist’s knowledge of less developed countries.
For more technical skillsets and people interested in technical field work, there’s also a broad range of options. For those interested in long-term development work, things like agronomy, agriculture, economics and public health are all relevant degrees. Medical doctors and nurses, logisticians, civil engineers and nutrition specialists can all find technical roles in an emergency response team.
This sort of degree will not get you in the door. Most applicants will have this sort of educational background, and you not only won’t stand out, but will probably be surpassed by the very high number of people with two or more degrees- often a Bachelors and a Masters, and often one generalist degree with a second more specialised qualification.
An additional note for westerners looking for overseas roles: you’re also competing with expatriates from non-western countries. As global education levels rise, more and more people from countries that were once net receivers of expatriate aid workers are now net givers. East Africa and India both produce a huge portion of many NGOs’ expatriates. And not are they often willing to work for lower salaries than western expatriates, but they are often older, with more developed skillsets, more field experience, and a better knowledge of working in non-western cultural contexts, all making them very attractive as employees. So if you’re wanting to work for an international NGO as an expatriate, you really have to think very carefully about what it is that you have to offer over a graduate from the University of Nairobi with fifteen years of relevant experience.
Education alone is probably not going to get you in the door, but needs to be balanced with experience. There is a bit of a trade-off that happens here. People with the right field experience can often get in on that merit, even if they lack some educational qualifications (although most will find it more of a struggle to climb the career ladder in this instance, and I know a lot of people with 10 or more years of aid experience who are now doing part-time or distance learning to get a masters degree and make them more promotable). Likewise, younger hopefuls with limited field experience but the right attitude and a couple of solid degrees can get over the threshold and be given a shot at an NGO posting.
Experience is the one that gets most young would-be aid workers most frustrated. “How do I get the necessary experience to work with an NGO if no NGO will hire me until I have experience?”
I sympathise. I was in the same boat for a while too.
The flip-side, of course, is that from the perspective of an aid agency, the very last thing they want to do is send some untested junior staffer into a highly complex and possibly dangerous emergency response where mistakes cost lives, just to see whether they’re made of the right stuff. They want to have some assurance that this individual is going to be able to work in the team. Hence wanting to see experience.
For some NGOs, ‘experience’ doesn’t have to mean working in developing countries. If you have ten years of professional experience, this is going to count for something if you have a skill-set relevant to the sector. Medical NGOs, for example, may well send doctors and nurses to the front lines if they have a number of years demonstrated work in an emergency room. Likewise logisticians have valuable skillsets that are quite easily transfered. Men and women with military service can find that they slot quite easily into certain NGO roles- although not always with such ease into NGO culture.
Many smaller NGOs will be less choosy about the level of experience they expect from applicants. If they lack the budgets that larger agencies offer, they will be receiving fewer top-level candidates, and the competition for roles will be less fierce. However, remember that there are still a LOT of people chasing a small number of roles. It’s also worth ensuring that the organization offers the support you as a newbie need. Being chucked off the deep end into an unfamiliar context without the appropriate experience and support can be a great learning opportunity. Or it can wreck your career, and possibly your mental health in the process.
Local or grass-roots NGOs in-country are often the best way in. Of all the NGO types out there, not only will they likely be the least choosy in terms of qualifications (often only able to pay local wages, if that) but as a westerner, you will probably actually have something significant to offer that is different to the rest of their staff- for example, your language skills, your knowledge of donor cultures, your ability to network with other expatriates at coordination meetings, and an external perspective. Significant work with local NGOs will definitely start clocking up points on the experience meter, and will also provide some great learning opportunities and demonstrate cross-cultural skills. And if you’re sitting in-country with a local NGO, you have the opportunity to network with other larger agencies if you so wish. You’re much more likely to build the necessary relationships to get in to an NGO if you’re based out of Nairobi or Lusaka than you will in Toronto or Phoenix.
A respectful little note here. Some of what might pass for ‘experience’ of third world countries around the college bar won’t actually slice the Dijon where aid agencies are concerned. The three-week missions trip you took to Tijuana when you were 17, that voluntourism project at the Cambodian orphanage, or the gap-year you spent backpacking around South America where you worked for 2 months at a hostel in Cusco may all be great experiences which changed your life and from which you draw a lot of personal satisfaction, and that’s great. However if they’re the only thing on your resume, don’t expect to stand out from the pack, and don’t expect the HR staff to get too excited.
In addition to education and experience, you also need to have the right personality. Aid work is a highly stressful profession, and it brings out the very best and the very worst in peoples’ tempraments. Team leaders want to know that the staff they’re deploying are going to be able to work in that environment, and not just make more work for the rest of the team who have to tiptoe around their dysfunction.
This aspect is a little harder to quantify, and can be quite subjective. The je ne sais quoi of the aid world.
As a rule, though, when it comes to this side of things, I can ask myself, who would I want next to me when the proverbial is hitting the spinny thing? When I look at the context I described above (chaotic, rapidly changing, potentially dangerous, highly stressful, professionally rigorous), what characteristics are going to help somebody perform as part of a team?
In fact, one of the first things most aid workers (myself included) would put on that list would be ‘a good sense of humour’. Beyond that: adaptable, flexible, quick to learn new things, strong critical analysis skills, independant but also a good team player, good communicator, able to take and manage risks, demonstrated ability to work in a cross-cultural team, ability to manage stress over a prolonged period of time…
These aren’t the characteristics you find in every expat aid worker. They are ones you find in most of the good aid workers however. And they’re the ones I’d be looking for in any aid worker I’d want to take with me into an emergency response.
If you reckon you do a good job hitting a good balance of education, experience and personality, then think about how you can demonstrate these things to an NGO on your CV and in an interview. If you reckon there are some gaps, are they gaps that can be filled (e.g. by a graduate degree, a couple of years spent working with a grass-roots NGO in South Asia, the surgical implantation of a sense of humour…)?
There’s no hard and fast rule. You can tick all these boxes and still not get in the door with the NGO of your choice, because it’s a highly competitive sector and many others also have these criteria met. You can also miss out on some of them and still get yourself a position- being the right person at the right time to the right organization. But the above list should give you a starting point for what you should be presenting to an HR officer if you’re looking for a job with an NGO.
To be the right person at the right time for the right organization, consider what you actually want to do and read on with Part 4 of this series.
NB: For those wondering about my own track into the humanitarian world (and note this is now nearly 10 years ago, when the industry was at a much earlier stage of professionalisation):
I grew up overseas in the UN system, with a parent working for a UN humanitarian organization and me attending an international school. By the time I interviewed for my first NGO role, I had lived in 6 different countries and visited about 25. I was bilingual (French/English) with a decent grasp of Spanish, and had a lifetime of demonstrated cross-cultural communication and adaptability. I had a Bachelor’s degree in social science (with units focusing on issues in developing countries, on disasters, and on risk management) and a Masters degree in development and the environment, both from a respected University. I had spent time working with projects in a couple of different countries, one as a volunteer and one as part of my Masters thesis.
In all, I was definitely light-on in the experience side of things, but I was also one of the lucky ones who happened to show up on the doormat at just the right time. I also had a cultural/experiential background (through no skill of my own) that recommended me to this line of work. I got myself a desk-job which was largely project paperwork, and from there took several other office jobs over the next year and a half. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of different jobs, between which have taken me to a further 25-or-so countries and dozens of humanitarian projects. I consider myself a humanitarian professional and expect this line of work to be a part of my career for many years to come. It is also something that, despite it’s regular and often deep frustrations, is something I love doing and find richly satisfying (sometimes perversely-so).