25 comments on “Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 5: Count the Cost

  1. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 4. Where Do You Fit? « WanderLust

  2. Thanks for bringing all these together. A quick comment on Alanna’s newsletter – it’s not really a job ads list (although she does send a few) but is mainly a way for people to get specific questions answered about their own career circumstances. These are then shared (anonymously) with all subscribers to the list. I’ve had useful feedback on my own questions this way and it’s almost always valuable to see what other people are asking and the advice Alanna gives them.

    • Thanks Stephen- helpful (as you can see, I’m not a subscriber myself 🙂 ). I’ve changed the description accordingly.

  3. Thank you for writing this series and taking the time to share your insights.

    While I really enjoyed this final installment, the title gave me the impression it was going to speak about the monetary costs of pursuing a career as an aid worker. As someone who has been working for not-for-profit organizations since graduating university (with a bachelor’s degree) it’s difficult to envision getting a foot in the door without indebting myself (whether it be to return to school, or travel and volunteer abroad). I wonder if you had any comment or advice about that aspect of it… I’ve applied for internships in the past with no success (ironically facing that same catch 22 – internships designed to provide overseas experience go to those who already have overseas experience).

    Still figuring out my next step ( don’t suppose you have any colleagues who specialize in communication and behavioral/social change ).



    • Hi Karine,

      Thanks for your post and your thoughtful response. And thanks too for identifying a hole I totally meant to plug. When I initially began drafting this final post I definitely planned to include a section on financial implications, and I guess I got carried away with the narrative and forgot to bring it in. Your message is a very useful reminder.

      Indeed, both short-term and long-term, being an aid worker has massive monetary cost. In getting set up, there’s often an opportunity cost of having to pay your own way (airfares, possibly even working for nothing) while you try and scrape together that all-important field experience. Salaries for starting positions- especially in western nations- are often very low, and certainly well below similar roles (i.e. requiring similar education, skill-levels, experience) in for-profit organizations. In fact, when I graduated, one of the reasons I didn’t stay in the UK to look for aid jobs was because of the prohibitive cost of living in London and the expectation that surviving while looking for a job in the NGO sector was going to be too difficult. I came to Australia, where the cost of living was lower (and I could stay with my parents…) and still consider myself fortunate that I landed myself a job within 4 months of looking (which followed the first 4 in the UK during which I did a lot of temp work and got nowhere with my career…).

      Once you actually get a job in the aid industry, salaries remain, on the whole, significantly lower than in the private sector. Talking with friends outside the sector, and people with qualifications like mine about my age who work for corporations and for-profit companies, I estimate that I currently earn somewhere between 30-50% of what I could reasonably be expected to be earning if I wasn’t with an NGO. This has implications for supporting a family, and also long-term considerations such as benefits and pension plans. So, realistically, this is a life-decision if you’re serious about getting into it as a career. And note that it’s a lot easier to transition from the private sector into the NGO sector than vice-versa. Many people do end up making the change back the other way for financial reasons, but it’s not easy.

      Field postings for expatriates tend to pay more. This isn’t necessarily in terms of outright salary, but because many positions have housing benefits, cost-of-living allowance, education support and/or home-leave, it means that aid workers can end up banking (tax-free) a larger portion of their salary than they might at home. It’s still not likely to compete with the private sector, and there is the cost (financial and emotional) associated with uprooting yourself and possibly your family overseas. On the note of family, it’s worth mentioning that this process all gets a lot harder once kids are involved (and, in some cases, partners, especially if there are two careers in the mix, both of which need servicing). Obviously, the highest-salaries aid-jobs tend to be in the more undesirable places- and equally tend to be deliberately ‘unaccompanied’ postings, meaning no allowance is made for a partner or children. This can work great for single professionals, who can put away quite a bit of money after a few years of dangerous postings- but then, note the long list of other costs associated with this lifestyle in the post above.

      UN jobs tend to pay more than NGO jobs, and many expatriates make this transition when they have more experience under their belts. In the NGO industry, this is jokingly referred to as ‘selling your soul’. While there are some good roles out there with some good UN agencies really making a difference, it’s also true that the UN tends to be [even] more bureaucratic and administrative than its NGO counterparts, with a lot of politicized decision-making and unwieldy systems that UN colleagues I know bemoan. As the son of a former UN-agency employee, I can attest first-hand to the frustrations this environment can breed. Also note that many UN postings (like NGO postings) are on short contracts- 2 years or less- which means a lot of uprooting, bad for family and- sometimes- for self.

      The way some aid workers compensate themselves for measly pay at the front-end of their career is to become consultants. Some development consultants (brought in by aid agencies and the UN onto a wide range of short projects to advice and support) charge ridiculous rates (by my standard). There is the plus-side that, once established, you have some freedom to focus on those things that interest you, stay away from organizational politics, and, well, charge a lot more money (if you’re good). Obviously, though, this isn’t a safe source of income, as when budgets bite, consultants are the first to go. It also, once again, tends to require a lot of travel. However, I know a number who make it work for them.

      All this is a bit moot, however, for those struggling to get in the door at the beginning of their desired career. Yes, absolutely, there is going to be some financial trade-off to begin with, and my advice would be to try and save up enough cash that you can live off it for a year or two if you get an opportunity to get experience that doesn’t pay you. I think the most financially viable way of doing this is to try and get yourself over to some of the places where NGOs have field offices (or there are lots of grass-roots NGOs). Costs of living in many of these places are lower, so your savings can go further while you try and get a job, or if you get a low-paying local role. Many of the reputable organizations’ graduate/internship programs will cover costs, even if salary is low, as will some of the higher-end volunteer organizations (some of which, like Australian Volunteers, even pay you a pretty generous salary for the right role…).

      All up, Karine, it’s honestly not an easy gig, and my recommendation would be to network to other graduates who are in a similar boat to you to see what solutions they’re coming up with to fund their way into the field. If you can save up some cash and get yourself overseas where you can start connecting with other organizations, this is the path I would take (and was planning for, when I was able to get my first NGO job). It can take a couple of years to get this happening, which is another reason why aid work really needs to be considered a career-choice, and not just a passing interest.

      At any rate, I wish you the best of luck, and if you get any advice or experience you’d like to pass on to others, please share it.

      Likewise, other readers with additional experience that might help Karine, please post it to this thread, I know there are lots more folks out there in a similar boat.

      Re: communication/behaviour change, can you be a bit more specific about the sort of thing you’re interested in? In my mind, any good development worker should be working in behaviour-change, it’s pretty much what we do! What field/aspect of this do you have in mind?



      • Wow! Thank you so much for taking the time to provide such a complete response. I very much value your insights.

        As you suggest, I might have to review my savings plan to make a long-term trip abroad possible to scope out opportunities in the field.

        RE: School. Specifically, I came across an MA program offered by the University of Queensland titled Communications and Social Change which focuses on advocacy in developing countries. Since my formal education is in communications I thought this might be a better entry point for me versus strict “international development” programs. At the same time however, I don’t know of anyone who has this kind of specific training (there are no similar programs offered in Canada for instance – from where I’m writing) and I was wondering if this is actually an area of expertise for which there is demand in the field. Again, any insights you could offer would be great!


        (pushing her luck 😉 )

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

  5. Very helpful, very provocative, not a comfortable read, but certainly a useful one. My husband and I are mulling over our options at the moment. Your blog will help us to do this with reality fully in check (well, as far as possible at this stage anyway).
    Also appreciate the other links and books recommended, will get reading.

    • Thanks for your feedback Heather, and I wish you and your husband all the best as you head down this road!

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

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

  8. A link for Karine in Canada, are you aware of Canadem’s work?

    While expensive, if you can fund your way Canadem can help organise a 6 month minimum placement for you. However, it may be more cost effective to set up an arrangement yourself than use a third party.

    CIDA funds up to $15,000 for Canadian citizens however you should be unemployed or underemployed.

    Keep looking and save your money.

  9. My son has been doing a type of aid work for the last 3 years, he is 21 years of age. He spends up to 5 months of every year helping to run an orphanage in The Philippines and when he goes back this Christmas is hoping to start street teaching in Manila. His goal is to establish his own centre for abused and neglected children when he completes his degree at Sydney Uni.
    Each time he returns home it takes him longer and longer to be ‘normal’ and it seems he changes irrevocabley with each visit. He adores the children and does the work because it “has to be done”.
    He has many friends but I have noticed a pattern emerging whereby he will gravitate to a different friend set each time he comes home be it, school friends one time, youth group friends another or his mates from the music scene another.
    He gets irritated with people complaining about things here in Australia as it seems so trivial to him and he can become very judgemental. His faith in God used to be incredibly strong but that has gone now and I was very interested in your concept of an aid work ‘fix’
    I am a mother concerned for a son who seems to live life ‘the hard way’ but I cannot but admire his desire to right wrong in the world I just do not want to lose him along the way.
    thank you for your article it was most helpful

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

  11. Though i appreciate your realistic approach to what aid work really is, I cannot understand why you have to be so pessimistic. Yes, this job has very many negative aspects to consider, but your not only sending a discouraging message, you think its comical? This picture that you’ve painted looks to me like a bunch of fucked up junkies who just ended up in a third world country because they didn’t know what else to do with their lives. Like you said, the people in this field worked hard to get there with determination, compassion, and the desire to better the lives of other people. So why ruin it for the people with the inner drive to do the job. “just stay home” NO fuck you. Honestly people like you do not belong in this profession. Your blog is a piece of shit.

    • Hit a nerve, clearly. I’m curious, Jackie, are you an aid-worker in the field now, or are you in the process of trying to become one? The “just stay home” remark is made at a very specific audience, namely, those people who aren’t prepared to take a good hard look at themselves and consider the difficult aspects of getting into aid. One of the things I wanted to address in writing this series is that notion you express, that just having an inner drive to do the job is enough. I think aid work is often glamourized and people think it’s a life of adventure, or a perenniel backpacking holiday, or is going to be filled with the warm glow of knowing you saved the world- and it’s none of these things. Just wanting to be an aid worker isn’t enough to make it a good idea that you become one: as you’ll read over and over in this profession, good intentions are not enough. However, as I point out in the conclusion to this post, if people are willing to consider the challenges, work out ways to deal with those implications in themselves, and make sure their expectations are as realistically geared as possible, then there’s every reason to give it a go- bearing in mind it’s still a very challenging career path just to get into in the first place. And at the end of the day, disregard my advice. There are plenty of aid workers out there, of all calibres, of all varieties of wellbeing and satisfaction. I’m only sharing my own experiences and observations. However, if people are finding the ideas expressed in this blog post discouraging or distressing, well, the reality of the aid profession (just like many others) is far more-so. Whatever your path I wish you luck.

  12. I’m currently job searching as I type and just stumbled across your blog. I just have to say thank you for writing it. As I said I’m not an aid worker as of yet but I’m trying. I’ve recently come home (Cardiff, UK) from spending a year volunteering in Kenya with two local grass-roots NGOs in Nairobi. Some of the things you said about working with NGOs in a developing country did resonate with me, especially organisational frustrations, corruption withing NGOs and the romanticized view of development/aid work. That being said I’m still passionate about the work and I know it’s the path for me.

    I have a BSc in Social Sciences and an MSc in International development and human rights that I completed before I went to Kenya. However I’m still having no luck as of yet, I think I may need more experience. The jobs that I’m finding right now with NGOs that I could apply for are more along the communications and fundraising route. I need to get some paid work for now as I used all of my savings keeping myself going in Kenya. Although fundraising is not the role that I want to do long term, I’m wondering whether it is a way to get my foot in the door and to gain some NGO experience in the UK while I save some money. I don’t want to just get any old job to get money, if I’m going to work in the UK for a while I want something that will add to my professional experience. My long term goal is to be a project coordinator and I have read other aid workers blogs saying that they started working in the fundraising departments then worked their way up as other more relevant positions came up. Is that a realistic concept?

    I was also considering taking a project management course once I have secured a job to add to my skills base. Would that be worth doing? I’m also looking at volunteering with the Welsh Institute of International Affairs that work with Oxfam Cymru and UNA Wales, just to do something.

    As I live near Cardiff I’m finding that most of the intern/volunteer and employment roles (such as the Save the Children humanitarian trainee scheme) are in London which would require me to need to save money in order to live in London. The Save the Children Scheme requires that you finance yourself in London for 6 months and the placement is unpaid. So I find myself in limbo right now. Any advice that you could share would be great. Especially with CVs, cover letters and applications, such as how to structure them, what to included (most important aspects), what to make you stand out or any thing that you can think of.

    Thanks for your time and sorry for waffling on.

  13. Thank you for this blog. It has made me think, something I ha e thought about doing for years but realistically knew my family needed my attention. I could not be a part time mum or part time aid worker. My heart tears for these people but it is not enough to be able to help them. I feel sad that now it has become a job for only those with degrees. Many others of us have common sense, kind hearts, proficiency amongst other things. A degree shows intelligence but not always the right compassion. I work as an alternative therapist and healer. At times my belief is we experience these disasters to make others think and feel empathy or sympathy,
    My best wishes and kindness to all of you who work in this field Caz

    • Hi Caz & thanks for your thoughtful and heartfelt message. You’re right in that it is very hard (though not impossible) to be an aid worker and a family person. I’ve certainly felt that stretch as well over the last few years. As I mention, there are a wide range of ways you can help that don’t require you to be in the field- as well as what you are already doing, which as a therapist and healer is supporting those people in need who are immediately around you. You are already making that difference 🙂

      I hear you on the degrees issue, although it’s important to note that as I discuss, being an aid worker requires more than just a degree. Having the right qualifications is only one of several aspects required to get you into the field- compassion, attitude, personal resilience and other things are all sought after as well. Part of this is due to the fact that there are lots and lots of people who have compassion and a desire to help, but in the same way that a degree is not sufficient on its own to qualify somebody to help, nor is compassion on its own. It’s the balance of hard and soft skills, attitude and soul that make a good aid worker. Not that there aren’t plenty of people who do end up as aid workers who have degrees but no compassion- or likewise, are well-meaning but don’t know what they are doing. And likewise, some very talented people who lack one or more of these things and who still end up making great aid workers. It’s not an equation to be filled with numbers. But it is the sort of balance that most of the industry tends to look for these days.

      Of course, the opportunities for western personnel to find overseas aid postings is dwindling by the year- even since I wrote this post. More and more roles go to local, well-educated and highly competent staff, and more and more of the roles for westerners are in marketing and fundraising in their own countries, not overseas. Just the reality of the industry. At any rate, it sounds as though you have found a great place- supporting your family and those in need nearby- and if you do find the opportunity to serve people overseas as well, I wish you all the best.


  14. Thank you so much for this blog-post. My partner and I have considered entering aid work. My main worry, however, is whether or not we’ll be able to survive all this. There was already a childhood trauma to survive and I’ve been reading more about failed relationships in this line of work than about those who work. However, most of them are about long-distances or unaccompanied assignments, where my partner and I are planning on travelling together. Is that possible? Do you know of any couples or families that have successfully navigated this cause together?

    A thousand inlaid thanks.

    • Hi Mamacire,

      Thanks for your message. You raise a good question and you’re right in that it can be very challenging to do overseas aid work with a spouse/family around you. I’ve struggled with this with my own family- posted elsewhere on this blog (https://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/in-which-an-expat-aid-worker-talks-long-distance-relationships/ & https://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/long-distance-relationships-keeping-the-home-fires-burning-guest-post/).

      Ultimately, there are many kinds of aid workers and many kinds of things you can do if this is your chosen career path, and yes, travelling with your partner is possible, but not always easy. In some (quite rare) cases, you can find husband-wife teams employed by the same organization. More common are finding accompanied positions (where one person is employed and is given additional benefits to allow their partner and/or family to come with them- housing, school allowance, etc.). This can be challenging in that the partner often finds it hard to find work in the same location. In some accompanied positions, visa restrictions mean that accompanying partners are not allowed to get work. Depending on experience, they can sometimes do local or offshore consultancies, or if they’re very lucky, find work locally (though unless you’re lucky enough for both of you to get contracts with the same organization, or simultaneous overseas postings from different organizations- very unlikely!- they’re more likely to work for local wages not expat wages). Of course, for emergency/disaster response postings, these are usually unaccompanied- i.e. the organization considers it too dangerous to bring partners or families, and will not pay to bring the other with them. However, accompanied postings are by far the best way to make international aid work function for families, as they ensure the most amount of time together, as a rule.

      One thing I know some professional couples do is take it in turns- one partner gets a job, does a couple of years at the post while the other comes with them but does not necessarily work, then after a couple of years, they swap over, and the other partner gets a contract and takes them somewhere else. Again, it’s not the easiest, but it can work.

      Basically, you need to be creative, flexible, and willing to make compromises on some aspect of your life. Regardless, the nature of overseas aid work means there will always be a significant travel element where at least one partner will be away at various times, and you will need to look at how your relationship will cope with time apart- whether just for a few weeks or, quite possibly, months or more. It is tough! But it is doable.

      I wish you all the very best.


      • Thank you SO much, MA! I’ll definitely talk it through with him.

        Brightest blessings!

  15. Pingback: So, you're thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again. | WhyDev

  16. thank you for your insight into what it takes to be an aid worker.

    I noticed that in this final post you said you were a psychologist, but throughout your blog you never mentioned anything related specifically to aid jobs as a psychologist. Furthermore, your experience doesn’t sound psychology related and instead like it consists of many years of office work. Is this because there are no roles as a practicing psychologist in NGOs?

    This interests me as I am currently studying to be a clinical psychologist and I wanted to become an aid worker. From you experience does qualifying for registration as a psychologist in Australia allow you to work for Aid agencies in other countries? Are there jobs for psychologists out there and what would be the best organisation to contact in regards to obtaining a job as a psychologist?

    thanks for your time

    • Hey Sam, thanks for your reply and feedback, and so sorry for the length of time to reply- I have largely dropped out of the blogosphere lately. I believe I have written a line in the post carelessly; Where I say in brackets “I am one”, I do not mean I am a psychologist- I mean I am one of the aid workers who sees psychologists.

      If you want to know more about psychologists and their role in NGO work, can I suggest you get in touch with Lisa Mackay of http://www.lisamackaywriting.com- she is a psych who has spent many years supporting NGOs. There are numerous ways in which psychologists can support NGO operations- both from a staff care perspective, and also in developing and delivering emergency response programs to beneficiaries who have been subject to traumatic experiences, or even as the mental health component in a public health campaign.

      All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s