As an aid worker, there’s one question I get more than any other, both from people I know and people I don’t. It’s some variant on “So, what should I do if I want to become an aid worker?”
I don’t actually mind being asked this question. It’s great that people are interested in this line of work. Clearly there’s a perception that working in the aid profession is either meaningful, or interesting, or some combination of both. The answer isn’t straight-forward though, and takes a while to answer, so I thought I’d put down the main principles of what it takes to be an aid worker on my blog, which I could direct people to when they ask.
Please note that this five-part series is written largely for the audience who primarily asks this question, namely people (usually but not exclusively younger) living in Western nations who want to help overseas. For my readers from non-Western nations, getting employment with an international NGO is quite a different prospect. If you have specific questions about this, please feel free to add a comment after any of these posts. Likewise this does not target those who wish to volunteer locally with an NGO in their area of residence. This is usually a much easier process so contact the local branch of the charity you’re interested in for more information.
Please also note that this is not a guide to getting a job within the aid industry. You need to talk to a careers advisor for that, or make some time to talk to an HR officer within an aid agency. That said, at the end of this 5-part series I will post a series of links to some resources that may be helpful. There will be other links scattered throughout the series that provide additional information or debate on some of the points raised which I would recommend you browse if you’re serious about taking this forward.
To others within the aid community, if you have other thoughts or resources you want to share on this theme, I’d welcome your input in the comments sections below each post, as I hold no monopoly on information in this sector. Thanks for your time.
PS- Sorry, but no, I can’t get you a job with an aid agency. It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just not what I do…
Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 1. Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into
So you want to be an aid worker?
First, read this (particularly the second half): A Day in the Life Of…
Still with me? Okay, let’s go.
The idea of aid work has a lot of romance attached to it, particularly in the Western world. In the Gen-X/Gen-Y worldview, its identity sits neatly in the nexus of a value-driven, unique vocation which allows travel all over the world and lots of amazing experiences. Kind of like a perennial gap-year which you get paid for.
This isn’t an accurate reflection. While aid work has the humanitarian imperative (the need to help others) at its core, working in an international NGO can be as much about working out how to compromise values as how to uphold them. It can be unique, but at times it can be like any other desk-job, replete with emails, deadlines, reports and administrative systems. For every amazing experience, there can be months and even years of office-based tedium. Your chances of soaking in the warm glow of being thanked by a horde of grateful villagers for saving their collective lives is extremely low. And if they do, they’ll almost certainly hit you up with a shopping list of all the things they want done in their village right afterwards.
I don’t want to make it sound like being an aid worker sucks. I love it. I’ve had incredibly enriching experiences. But I’ve also had some bitterly painful, frustrating and dissapointing ones, ones that have shattered my ideals and come close to breaking me. It’s important to approach this career with this in mind.
Realists, welcome. Idealists, beware.
If you are an educated westerner seeking employment with an international aid agency, you will almost certainly have one of three broad roles. An office-based support role. An office-based manager. Or a technical expert.
Almost anything else- from skilled tradesmen to field workers to project implementers- will be drawn from local staff. Local staff work for local wages (we don’t need to employ your two graduate degrees to be handing out grain sacks, nor do we need to export your carpentry skills into a chaotic emergency when there are hundreds of skilled carpenters available locally all scrambling to rebuild their livelihoods). Hiring local staff builds local skills and contributes to local economies. And local staff have the social and cultural access that makes them better able to do the work. If hiring you is going to deprive somebody local of an income, who can do the job just as well and for less money, you won’t be getting the role.
Being an aid worker, like many other professions, has giddy heights, deep lows, and long periods of intense boredom in the meantime. Be prepared for this.
If you have romantic memories of the time you did a voluntourism trip to Costa Rica and helped build a school, shelf them. If you’re expecting to be handing out sacks of food to happy smiling brown people, get your facts straight. And if you’re looking for a perennial paid gap-year experience, please stay at home. Aid work is a profession.