This is the fourth 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. The third is Experience, Education and Personality.
International NGOs are largely varied organizations, many of which are themselves large with extensively varied staff profiles.
The types of people who work in them often have vastly different skill sets and very different reasons for wanting to be there. Some are motivated by faith, others by guilt, others by experientialism, others (misguided fools) by money.
Think about how your vision, motivation and skillset would match with a particular organization.
First off, you have different types of organizations in the humantarian sector. You have development NGOs whose focus is on more stable context and looks at how to help alleviate structural poverty at a community level over many years. Their mandate differs from frontline aid agencies who work in unstable and often dangerous frontline conflict and disaster environments offering lifesaving assistance.
Some NGOs offer practical assistance- the delivery of goods and services directly to communities affected. Others offer less tangible support- focusing on human rights issues or policy change and development.
Some agencies have a very broad mandate, covering multiple sectors and who try and be everything to everyone. Others are highly specialised, and offer only one or two types of activitiy to their beneficiaries- water sources, perhaps, or emergency medical care. Still others are support agencies, which might offer services to other NGOs, such as logistics support, training or surge capacity. Some are local, or grassroots, agencies, with a very limited local mandate and extremely rooted in the communities which they serve. Some organizations don’t implement directly, but identify and work through partner agencies on the ground with whom they have relationships.
Some organizations are motivated by faith and carry out overt prosletysation as a part of their mission. Others are extremely secular and don’t appreciate any expression of religious identity.
There are not-for-profits, private development consultancies , fundraising and donor bodies, for-profit development contractors, corporations with corporate social responsibility programs. There are NGOs, government aid programs, UN organizations, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement.
There are- quite literally- thousands of aid agencies out there of varying kinds. I can’t even begin to compile a list here- that’s where your own research has to begin, guided by your own interest and vision in this department- and what you feel you have to offer.
Think about where you fit and what you’re wanting to give. If you’re motivated by your faith, you may be inclined to source a faith-based organization or even a missionary organization. If you’ve got fifteen years professional experience as a trauma surgeon, then a frontline medical NGO could be up your street. If you’re trained as an agronomist and have a vision to see crop yields increase in marginal farming areas, you’re probably after a development organization with a mandate for food security.
Aid agencies, like any other organization out there, employ accountants, administrative staff, auditors, lawyers, HR personnel, media officers, marketers, communicators, IT gurus, managers and all manner of other support functions as well. Most of these posts are at headquarters level. Many exist at the field level as well, although they may well be filled by local staff (as they should be in most circumstances). So don’t let the fact that you don’t have training or experience in third world development stop you from commencing a career in aid work if that’s a shift you want to take. And don’t let the fact that you’re terrified of large spiders, get plane sick, and break out in a heat rash every time you look at a postcard with palm trees stop you from fulfilling your dream of contributing to the alleviation of poverty. Many of these roles never require you to leave your own suburb, and are little different in their accessibility than other similar roles in the for-profit corporate world.
Where you fit is going to be some combination of your personal vision, your experience and skillset, and your personality, the latter three discussed in my last post in this series. You alone are going to be best suited to decide on the starting-point for that journey, and from there see where you get to.
Two things to think about here with respect to selecting an organization. First, if your motivation is grounded in the genuine desire to help the less fortunate (and I hope that, by and large, it is), then please make sure you offer your time and services to an organization that takes these things seriously. As I’ve talked about earlier, there is a long list of professional standards and codes that aid organizations should embed their work in. Ensure that your organization takes these things seriously. A good starting point is ensuring that it has adopted the Red Cross Code of Conduct. Another, for your own sake, is that it adheres to the principles of People in Aid. The principle here is, do no harm. If this is an NGO that doesn’t take these things seriously and behaves unprofessionally, not only does this cast other NGOs into disrepute, but stands a very real risk of causing harm to the people it’s trying to help.
Professional standards alone aren’t the be-all and end-all of aid work, nor are they enough to guarantee good outcomes or avoid failures. But agencies which flaunt them have a much higher likelihood of creating harm, not good.
In the same vein, think very carefully before investing yourself in a startup NGO (or, indeed, in starting your own NGO). This is something that happens particularly around large disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake. People, often motivated by a genuine desire to help, look at the situation and figure, ‘Hey, I can do something to help there’. Then they grab a suitcase full of money, get on a plane, and start running around the streets of whatever afflicted country has taken their fancy spreading their do-goodness.
Every NGO has its starting point, and I’m not going to say that these (hopefully) well-meaning projects are universally awful. But generally, when you take somebody who has limited or no knowledge or experience of working in a disaster zone, they’re probably going to make mistakes. The sort of mistakes that more established organizations have made in the past and have measures in place to avoid. It’s a case of not knowing what they don’t know. They make coordination very difficult, they have little or no knowledge of international standards, and when they do a poor job, they cause headaches for other organizations.
I’m sure you’ll be able to find me examples of Mom & Pop NGOs which have accomplished great things in Port-au-Prince. That’s great. There were around 10,000 NGOs that registered to work in Haiti following the earthquake. You show me those examples, and I’ll ask you about the other 9,820 startups that descended en-masse into the chaos in January 2010.
As a professional aid worker (and knowing I speak for hundreds of other professional aid workers) I ask you to consider very carefully before getting involved with that particular aspect of the humanitarian industry. This has been discussed ad nauseum in other portions of the aid blogosphere, so I won’t go into further detail here. It’s not always a popular line to criticise peoples’ good intentions, but sometimes these things have to be said.
If I haven’t offended, disillusioned or generally knocked the stuffing out of you yet, check out Part 5 of this series, Counting the Cost.