This is the second in a series of five posts aimed at helping people who are considering becoming aid workers to understand some of the issues. Read the first, Know What You’re Getting Into.
Twenty years ago, you could have a pulse and some good intentions, and you could get youself shipped off to almost any war-zone in the world as an aid worker.
Those days are gone. Long gone.
While aid work is a relatively new profession (when compared to such golden oldies as politics or prostitution), it has been around for more than fifty years, and is caged in a growing body of professional standards and expectations which are continuing to develop.
As well as the core values which the aid community is expected to adhere to, there are the professional standards by which the work we do is judged. Some of these are sector specific (Sphere) while others are generic, cross-cutting or industry-wide, such as protection standards, or accountability to communities.
Aid work is a highly complex job. It involves being able to work to these professional standards, applying them in accordance with humanitarian principles, in a rapidly-changing and potentially chaotic or dangerous environment, with poor information about events or impact, in a time-critical manner, and often with limited resources available.
As such, the sorts of people that aid agencies are looking for are the sorts of people who can function well in these environments. Aid agencies aren’t looking for casual volunteers, or for well-meaning individuals whose skill-sets don’t add anything to the organization’s work, or for people who want to take a year out from their career or studies while they look for meaning in their life. They’re looking for dedicated professionals who have taken the time to learn the skills and soak in the body of knowledge that accompanies the sector.
Please think of aid work as you would any other professional sector. You would not want to go to the dentist with a cavity only to find that he had taken out time from her career as a lawyer three months ago and decided she’d try her hand at pulling teeth instead, which had always been a hobby of hers. You would not expect to walk into a bank without qualifications or experience and be offended when the manager turned you away despite your passion for balancing accounts. And you would be horrified to learn that your local emergency room was staffed by enthusiastic community volunteers.
In the aid industry (and yes, it is an industry) we deal with meeting the critical needs of hundreds of thousands of people at a time. If we get it right, we can prevent thousands of deaths. If we get it wrong, thousands can die. Please don’t think that because you watch world events on the news and have a strong feeling about what’s happening, that that qualifies you for aid work. The aid industry is profession, because it’s highly complex, and when people make bad decisions, even with the best of intentions, the ramifications can be terrible.
One thing that really upsets aid workers and HR staff is people who pop up when a huge emergency breaks, wanting to be an aid worker and sent to whichever location happens to be making dramatic and heart-wrenching headlines this week. You may think this is an excellent time to get sent to the field. The rest of us think this is a terrible time.
Firstly, very few reputable aid agencies will send volunteers to the field. Even to a stable context you won’t find that many opportunities to go outside the handful of volunteer-oriented organizations such as Peace Corps, Australian Volunteers or VSO, and of course UN Volunteers. Don’t offer, and if you don’t get a reply from us please don’t be offended, we simply don’t have time to turn down all the offers of well-meaning people wanting to get sent overseas in the midst of a crisis which has other priorities to manage.
Secondly, the onset of an emergency is not the right time to decide you want a career change. If you’ve been thinking about changing careers to be an aid worker (and I assume at some stage that’s the case if you’re reading this blog) that’s great! Make some structural decisions in your life, get some degrees and experience, then come back when you have what we need. If you show up at our door three days after a huge disaster saying you want to be an aid worker, we will assume that this is a flash-in-the-pan emotional response and not take you seriously. If you go out there and get yourself the right qualifications and experience, then come back to us, there are always places we can use you. They may not be in the headlines right now, but I assure you, there’s no shortage of humanitarian need worldwide, nor will there be any time soon.
Without wanting to sound harsh, I want to make something really clear. If you’re showing up full of good intentions but not a whole lot of professional backing, we don’t actually need you. When there’s a shortage of aid workers on the ground, it’s not a shortage of warm bodies that we’re talking about. We need the right person for whatever role it is we’re trying to fill. It might be a logistician. It might be an experienced operations manager with fifteen years of disaster relief experience. But it certainly isn’t somebody who means really well and who once took a vacation to Nicaragua.
I won’t belabour the point. This has been talked about plenty of places elsewhere. To understand more on why your desire to do good doesn’t necessarily equate to improving the plight of the poor and needy, please spend some time looking at the blog “Good Intentions are Not Enough” (start here, here and here).
I also recommend three books to anybody wanting to start off in the aid world as essential background reading to understanding some of the ways in which aid workers have, despite good intentions, ended up solving nothing and in some cases making bad situations worse.
War Hospital, by Sheri Fink- a staggering, chilling narrative of international intervention failing to prevent the massacre of Srebrenica.
Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins- the story of an idealistic but misguided young aid worker in Southern Sudan in the 80s and 90s.
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch- a series of accounts written of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, highlighting some of the breathtaking failures of the international community
To understand more about what we are looking for and the sort of professionalism the aid industry embraces, please read Part 3 of this series, coming up.