25 comments on “Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 3. Experience, Education and Personality

  1. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 2. Aid Work is a Profession « WanderLust

  2. I want to thank you so much for your articulate and frank writing. I’m in transition to this new sector (from private to NGO; high-tech to humanitarian) and I’m facing many of challenges that you’ve described. I’m also seeing the opportunities and am excited about being tenacious and finding the right fit! Your insight is very appreciated and helpful.

    • Thanks for your comment Lisa, and I’m glad you found it helpful. Being tenacious is definitely the way to go in this sector! I know a lot of aid workers who had to put up with a lot of rejections and failed attempts at getting in before they were able to find a role for them. I remember when I first started in aid work (2 weeks in, with a junior desk-based role and a 3-month contract) I was at a training exercise for several different agencies. There was a girl about my age who was in a similar position- recently graduated and desperate to get a role (we both talked about how we’d go anywhere and do anything just to get established). At the time, we both felt very insecure and that it was a very closed world. She kept hammering on doors, and a few months later had shipped out to Afghanistan with a local NGO, and has been bouncing around the aid world ever since, now working a few miles from where I do at another NGO headquarters and thoroughly enjoying her path. Lots of other stories like hers. Keep at it, find that fit, and all the best to you!

      (And the next in this series will talk about finding that fit, so stay tuned 🙂 )

  3. Thanks for this, especially enjoyed the thoughts on personality. On this topic, how much difference or similarity do you see between the personality that might be suited to working on longer-term development projects vs emergency relief?

    I imagine that in many cases people gain experience of the first before the second – you suggest it here, and I’ve also heard other NGO managers saying there’s no way they would put someone into a challenging emergency situation who hadn’t already demonstrated that they could work cross-culturally etc in less urgent and immediately stressful contexts. But others suggest that the personality required is different for the two roles. For example this is from the website of Engineers Without Borders Canada (who work in longer-term development, not emergency relief):

    “Engineers interested in international work should consider which area of work best suits them. While humanitarian assistance requires people who are decisive, resourceful, and able to maintain composure under pressure, development requires humility, patience and a long-term commitment to the community in which one works.”

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • Hi Stephen & thanks for your feedback.

      I think when it comes to personality there’s always a risk of pigeonholing people and I definitely don’t want to do that. I think any team and any organization needs a blend of personalities, ideally ones that match roles. That said, yes, there are definitely trends in terms of the sort of people who are going to thrive working in emergency response postings, versus those who find satisfaction working in longer-term development.

      It’s true that organizations hesitate to put untested people into an emergency, and yes, spending time in the field working on development projects is definitely one way to demonstrate some of those skills, but you’re right to suggest that there’s not always a personality fit between development roles and people wanting to work in emergency response. In fact this personality divergence can lead to major organizational clashes, with big differences in prioritization and approach between development and response wings of the same NGO. I know of myself, for example, that I would never have the patience to deal with projects that run for 10 years, and have 18-month design-phases. Likewise I have colleagues who would hate having to deal with the chaos and drama of a rapid-onset response, and who feel strongly that any action that doesn’t have a carefully-mapped long-term impact is doomed to ineffectiveness.

      You often find that people with a bent for emergency response will ‘put up with’ a development field posting, essentially ‘doing their time’ to get the necessary experience points to move into response. But actually I think more often, people doing development work may transition- even accidentally- into response roles and suddenly discover that they’re better suited there. I was lucky enough that I stepped almost straight into response roles. In fact, my first experience of the developing world, in my pre-NGO days, was working in a small village in northern Kenya that was wreacked by famine and tribal warfare- not quite emergency response, but certainly, to this day, one of the more challenging humanitarian contexts I’ve witnessed. But chances to do this are relatively rare.

      I think EWB have broadly the right idea. Any job requires a level of personality fit, but I think the very different operating contexts between long-term development and emergency response work do require very different personalities, and it’s well worth stressing this point, especially when both roles can get lumped together under the title ‘aid work’, which isn’t very helpful. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this series is primarily talking about emergency response work, rather than long-term development as an industry, so thanks for bringing this discussion in.

      Again, this notion of ‘where do I fit?’ is going to be discussed more in the next post in this series.

      Thanks for your time and comments,

      MA 🙂

      • Thanks – the follow-up and response is much appreciated. It’s a good point that transitioning between roles could be either carefully planned or a happy accident.

  4. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 4. What Do You Want to Do? « WanderLust

  5. I’d underline what you say about working with local grassroots NGO’s early on in your career to get a foot in the door – not only are the skills that you are likely to have picked up at University (good analytical skills, clear and structured writing) likely to be valued and important, but working at this level can provide a great insight into the realities and frustrations that local fieldwork staff face, that you may be more detached from later in your career.

    Working with a grassroots NGO in Mali, I have sometimes been frustrated this year that I may not be building up particular professional skills and experience that I may have got by being in the big NGO circuit. However the past few months have been a great insight into the very simple things and issues at the heart of development – how to get community members to turn up to a meeting, household gender dynamiques, how tricky ‘participation’ can actually be when carrying out different participatory techniques etc.

    I’ve tried to jot down a few of my thoughts on this here: http://bit.ly/mjk6Fy and here: http://bit.ly/hPHbhO

    • Awesome- thanks for this response Helen- you’ve summarized very succinctly (and with your own experience to back it up) a really key point, and one which I’ve always tried to stress to would-be aid-workers, that it’s a great avenue- probably the most likely to get you through the door, and also hugely valuable. I love what you say about learning basic community engagement skills that get neglected later on- absolutely, and this is essential, because ultimately, the majority of [expat] aid workers end up in detached, remote jobs very disconnected from the field. If you don’t get plugged in early on, you may never really get what’s going on at the most fundamental (and important) level- and really muck things up as a consequence. Love it. Thanks.

      PS- love this West African mob who seem to be hanging around the blog at the moment. Makes me all nostalgic… 😉

  6. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 5: Count the Cost « WanderLust

  7. Pingback: Higgledypiggledy: Weekend Links | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

  8. I love this series! I was linked to it through the international development career list and have found it very informative, so I thank you for that. I graduated with a Masters in International Development recently and am currently struggling to get my foot in the door. When you talk of working with grassroots NGOs are you referring to internship/volunteer opportunities or actual employment? I spent a semester working with an organization in India and I am interested in a similar but more long-term option in order to gain more experience. I have not come across any paid options and was wondering if this is to be expected. I am also considering the Peace Corps though I have heard mixed opinions concerning how valuable this experience is considered by aid agencies. What is your take on this?

    Thank you again for this series!

  9. Pingback: Development Digest – 15/07/11 « What am I doing here?

  10. Pingback: Worth sharing: a round-up of links « Find What Works

  11. Thanks for the posts! Very informative. A question, though. Where do you see the VSO organizations such as Peace Corps fitting into work/professional experiences. Obviously it depends on the assignment as some volunteers are teachers, others work in health promotion, and others on small business development, but does 2+ years of Peace Corps service count towards experience? What do you think when you see ‘Peace Corps’ on a resume? Thanks

    -Matt, current PCV

    • Hi Matt,

      Glad the posts were helpful. Look, for sure VSO and PC are both organizations that provide people with good experience overseas. It’s demonstrative that people can live and work in cross-cultural environments, and usually demonstrates that they’ve managed to live in conditions of fair hardship (depending on the postings; most PCVs I saw in Niger were emaciated to the point of malnutrition!) So absolutely- 2+ years of volunteering counts as experience- especially with a reputable organization like the Peace Corps or VSO. Even voluntary experience with a grass-roots NGO is experience. It’s less about your salary package, more about the type of work you were doing. So if you worked in Nicaragua volunteering for 2 years with Peace Corps as a primary-school teacher in a village, you’ve demonstrated some cross-cultural skills and experience, but not necessarily any knowledge/experience of the aid sector. Conversely, if you’ve got a PCV who’s spent two years working on a food security project in rural Mali, then their experience is far more pertinent.

      So, yes, voluntary experience of the right sort certainly has all kinds of value- but relevance to the field in question will depend on exactly what that experience is.



  12. Pingback: What is an Aid Worker and How do I Become One? | The Out Post

  13. Very interesting and helpful article, so first off thank you. I’m currently trying to decide the best route to take to get myself into the international development sector. I have a BS in Construction Management, and my goal is to work in rural communities in developing nations on water and sanitation issues. I guess I should also note that I’m American. I have been accepted into a very interdisciplinary community development program (by very interdisciplinary I mean I have 4 required courses and then can choose the rest of my courses from any program throughout the university). My plan, if I choose going back to school, is to take the required courses to get a background in community development and then take water related courses (water resource management, hydrology, water policy, ect) so that I can be knowledgeable when speaking to and informing people in the communities about water related issues.

    On the other hand, right now I dont have any international experience (besides some traveling) which makes me very nervous. I would most likely be able to do a summer internship overseas if I decided to go back to school, however, I doubt 3 months would be enough experience? The other option I’m considering is doing Peace Corps (or something similar) to get myself a significant amount of experience. The one problem I have with Peace Corps is that you dont have control over what you end up doing, and therefore I’m not sure how helpful it would be for me to do Peace Corps if I’m not working on a water or sanitation related project. Would the experience alone, even if not specifically related to what I want to end up doing, be a better route?

    I’ve heard different things from different people which has made this a very difficult decision for me. I would hate to spend 2 years earning a degree only to find that I cant get hired because I lack experience, and on the opposite side of that coin, I would hate to go volunteer somewhere for 2 years only to be told that I need a Masters degree to get hired. Maybe something that is important to note is that I’m a very hands on person and would like to work in the field, in communities, with the people, hand-in-hand on coming up with and implementing solutions. I’m not really concerned with making a lot of money (maybe this will change in the future), and I’m really just concerned with helping people. I know there’s no “right” answer to my questions, but any thoughts you could offer would be very much appreciated. Thank you!

    • Actually with your BS in construction management, you have a higher chance to be in a WATSAN type program. Remember though, there´s more to this project area than just building and sometimes two years just isn´t enough. Regardless of what PC program you would land in, the big emphasis would be community development and participation. You´re also gaining language skills and showing you can actually work abroad – organizations in general are hiring fewer and fewer westerners as there´s plenty of labor closer to the countries they are working in. Unless you´re getting your MA in something technical (engineering, MPH, MPP, MPA for example) is advice I´ve been receiving over the last couple years is don´t get an MA in development or any social sciences regardless of how cool the program sounds. How are your language skills? Do you have any other experience working in other communities?

      • Thanks for getting back to me Matt. Could you elaborate a little on why people are saying not to get an advanced degree?

        To answer your questions, my language skills are pretty weak. I’ve taken spanish classes in the past, however, because I haven’t used it very much most of it has been lost. And no, I do not have any prior community development experience. Does this change your response at all?

      • Hi Blue. I wasn’t advised against any advance degree, but a degree in something like International Development, Development Studies, or a lot of MAs for two main reasons. One is the programs are meant to be money makers for universities and there’s not too much for a Uni to create a development studies program MA. There’s few scholarships for MAs, so you’re going to be paying $40 – $60k for the degree. And that degree, if you look at the coursework, is probably not going to leave you with many hard skills. While probably a bit more in-depth, they looked a lot like my undergrad coursework in international relations at a liberal arts college. There are exceptions, such as Georgetown for foreign service or the SIPA program at Columbia because of Jefferey Sachs but then again those are also programs where the college and the alumni network has weight… Programs like MPHs, MPPs, and MPAs are more recognized because the coursework is more standardized across universities and you’ll be developing hard skills such as organizational management, financial management, and stats whereas it’s pretty easy to avoid that at a lot of MA programs if you want. Lastly, I was told regardless to get some experience before going straight into an MA program to avoid taking on (more debt) and get a real taste for the type of work I thought I wanted to get into before sinking myself deeper into it. Especially when talking about international development, studies only go so far until you’re actually on the ground.

      • Hey Blue, thanks for your comments and questions. Listen, I think Matt’s feedback is pretty on-the-money here. With very little overseas experience, you could have a PhD in International Development and most agencies would still be hesitant to offer you a job. Getting overseas for you would be critical because firstly, you need to see and understand your own role in the development context. As Matt’s said, things have really changed in the development industry, and most roles are being hired locally rather than for expatriates- even highly technical roles like water engineers and so forth are being drawn from national populations in most places. Expatriate positions, for the most part, go to programme manager and senior manager roles, which may be technical (for e.g. overseeing medical or water-engineering projects) or may be generalist (e.g. operations, country program). There may be roles for less experienced technical experts with smaller NGOs, which might be a good option for you to try and find at a field level, but you may have to expect low pay or even just working to get your costs covered. Your best bet finding these roles is to actually show up in-country someplace and try and network your way in. It’s not easy, I’m sorry to say. I unfortunately know a number of experienced aid workers with 5-10 years experience who are struggling to find roles in the field (or out of the field). But I can say with confidence (because I am actively involved in hiring for a number of NGO positions in my own organization) that a) almost all our hiring is going to national positions, and b) those that are going to expatriates are going for high-level management roles with 10+ years experience in the industry.

        I know the ‘must have experience before being hired’ chicken-egg thing is a pain, but I would absolutely go with Matt’s advice here. The development industry is SO competitive these days, with so few openings for inexperienced westerners, and so many young people doing BAs and MAs in International Development, that without relevant field experience, your CV won’t even get a glance unless you happen to know somebody in the right place who wants to give you a break (so network, network, network). Your advantage, comparatively, is that you have a technical focus (WASH), and if you’re serious, get into that side of things. But until you’ve got some experience in the field- even voluntary or with a small NGO- I wouldn’t spend another cent on getting an MA. Your chances of getting employed are low, and your likelihood of ending up with big student debts are high, and I hate saying it like that, but I just know too many good folks with passionate hearts wanting to get good field gigs, and failing right now.

        Either travel to an NGO hub and get into the field on a volunteer/low-pay gig for a year or two, learn the industry and where you fit, and see whether you want to spend the next 20 years doing this, or try and get into a water engineering position state-side and get some professional experience for a couple of years. Some companies (do your research) may do professional exchanges where they second their commercial staff into charities for a few months, where you could find yourself working on projects. Also, bear in mind that there is a growing commercial (for-profit) sector in overseas engineering. A lot of companies have huge engineering projects overseas where there’s big construction going on, so that’s another way to get useful experience. Finally, and maybe this ship has sailed a little, and I’m not necessarily going to recommend this as the best way forwards, but remember that a lot of US companies particularly are still doing engineering projects in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, so if you’ve got a price-tag on your soul, you could look into working for that sort of company and see if you can angle an overseas posting as a result. All relevant experience that might open doors later.

        As Matt says, really recommend against getting an MA in Development studies at this time. Get some practical experience in the field or the profession, consider a higher technical degree (or professional engineering qualifications) when the time is right, but focus on demonstrating you can work in the field.

        One caveat- for promotion once you’re inside the sector, a higher degree is pretty much a must these days. We’ve actually had to turn down a good candidate recently because they didn’t have an MA, because we wouldn’t have been able to justify to the government getting a work permit for them if they didn’t have that higher qualification. So down the line, worth considering. But really only after you’ve been able to demonstrate you have what it takes to work in the field, and have a line in to the industry. Otherwise you stand a very good chance of wasting your money.

        Sorry if that’s discouraging feedback, but I hope this gives you some food for thought. I wish you luck.


      • Thank you both for your replies! I really enjoyed reading your feedback and it’s been very informative. You both talked about MAs, but both programs I’m considering would leave me with a MS (one is an MS in Community Development and the other is an MS in Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies with a focus on Natural Resources and the Environment). Does this make any difference?

        MA, you mentioned heading to a NGO hub and trying to get my foot in the door. Could you recommend anywhere specifically?

        Also, do either of you have any experience with the Peace Corps as far as knowing how beneficial that could be to me? Initially I was going to apply for the Peace Corps, but I somehow got talked out of that and applied to grad school instead. Looking back I’m realizing I should have applied to both.

        It’s kind of crazy…you would think that all of the worlds problems would be close to being fixed considering how difficult it is to get into the field of international development. Unfortunately that’s far from the truth. Thank you again for your responses, and I look forward to hearing back.


      • Hey Brian,

        Re: MS vs MA- not really any difference for a generalist degree like Cty Dvpt- might make a difference if it was an MS in Engineering or some such- i.e. technical. Ditto Public Health or another sectoral expertise. But again, would suggest you get stuck into the sector before committing to this.

        Re: NGO hub- depends on your area of focus. East Africa- Nairobi (Addis is growing but v hard to get work permits etc.), but from there you could easily travel to Kampala, Arusha, Dar es Salaam, even Kigali/Goma where there are heaps of NGO operations of various kinds, try and network. West Africa- Dakar in Senegal is where a lot of NGOs have W Africa headquarters, but there’s also a lot of stuff happening in Mali right now with the response to the insurgency. Accra (Ghana) is quite accessible and has a lot of NGO activity and is English-speaking (Dakar & Bamako both Francophone)- and with increasing stability there’s a lot happening in Monrovia (Liberia) and Freetown (Sierra Leone) too- they’re both anglophone too. If Asia’s more your thing, then a lot of NGO activity in India- heaps of need in multiple sectors. India’s one of those countries with a massive educated population though so you’ll struggle to find jobs. A lot of NGOs have regional offices in either Bangkok or Singapore. Sing’s difficult due to cost of living- not somewhere you want to hang out without an income, but BKK is cheap and if you can get networked that’s a pretty good place to spend a few months, and also gives you easy access to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, all of which have reasonably vibrant NGO communities. Also a lot of stuff happening in Indonesia, so you could look into Jakarta. Some other places like the Syrian border, Afghanistan and Pakistan are ‘growth’ areas for NGOs but would not head there right now as a) they’re quite insecure and not good places to spend time, and b) they’ll be looking for experienced aid workers, not newbies, so this would probably be a bit of a waste of time. The downside to all of this is that you need to have a way to cover your costs (i.e. savings) if you want to spend a few months out there. Think about how you’d pitch yourself to NGO staff- what are your skills, etc. And think about targeting local NGOs rather than the big international agencies. If you get to know somebody in a big org, you might be able to find a way in early, but if you rock up cold, the big international agencies & the UN probably won’t have many opportunities for you.

        Good luck!

        And it’s not that the problems of the world have been fixed. It’s just that there are a lot of qualified local staff who are more adept at fixing them than outsiders. And, to be honest, the focus of NGOs on sustainability and local empowerment has probably overemphasised local hire, even at times when it may have been more appropriate to bring in external expertise. I’ve seen both the positive & negative impacts of this dynamic.

        Re: Peace Corps- a huge number of US staff I know in the NGO world have spent time as PCVs. It’s certainly not going to be dismissed. It’s also not a guarantee- thousands of folks join Peace Corps, only a small number go on to get NGO jobs. One good thing about being a PCV, regardless of what you end up doing, is the in-country networks you can create on the ground. And it’ll give you community-level credibility, AND, perhaps most importantly of all, it’ll transform you as a person, help you decide whether this is how you want to spend your time, give you insight into how community development does and does not work, and help you yourself realise how limited your own contributions to problem-solving can actually be (in spite of all your great motivations) and how much potential already exists locally. So I think PC is always going to be valuable. It’s a big sacrifice and a pretty tough gig, generally speaking (I have yet to meet an overweight PCV in Africa…). But in my current role I’m working with a 20-something who came out to the field as a PCV last year and has been able to transition that into an NGO role. So it does happen. So PC isn’t a waste of time- it can be valuable, and it will be looked on as relevant experience (if nothing else it shows you can hack the field environment), but it’s not a golden ticket into NGO employment either.


  14. MA, great series. Definitely pointing people who ask ‘the question’ here. Like the education/experience/personality emphasis, as it is right on. I usually add a ‘risk profile’ to the personality bit. Risk of taking a short term gig; give up ‘certainty’ of employment future and living in risky environments. Knowing my own tolerance for risk in these areas helps me decide if this line of work fits me.
    Thx, Steve

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