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How to Become a Humanitarian Aid Worker: First Crucial Steps

The world of humanitarian work has undergone significant changes in the last few decades. With a massive increase in the number of qualified, intelligent individuals entering the talent pool, finding and securing a job has become a much more challenging (and often daunting) task. Because of the large supply of workers, agencies, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) have become enabled to professionalize the aid sector- a sector that was once run almost entirely by volunteers and individuals with a willingness to be of assistance. However, this shouldn’t dissuade a person from pursuing his/her dream of becoming a humanitarian aid worker. With the right plan, knowledge of the game, patience, and persistence, there is a place for everyone in the sector of helping those who need it most.

What to Study

Only a few years ago, the subject-matter of one’s undergraduate degree did not matter so much when applying for aid jobs. Gone are those days. If humanitarian aid is the field you’re sure you’d like to pursue, making the right decision when declaring a major is critical. Employers now seek out those with degrees in international relations/affairs, public policy, development, etc.. However, this is only a general rule of thumb. Earning a degree in nursing or medicine, engineering, public health, or counseling/social work will also make you of use after disasters or in cases of conflict, when health, hygiene, and sanitation practices are lacking.

It is also important to note that the bar has now been set, requiring individuals to have a masters degree to even get in the door for an interview. Again, which graduate program to apply for will depend entirely on what type of sub-sector you wish to work in- child protection, water and sanitation, human rights, education, peace-building, health, development, etc.. An easy yet effective way to narrow down options is to look at the LinkedIn profiles of people who have had experiences that you’re interested in. There is no “one-size-fits-all” package for how to proceed through the education process. However, taking any and all additional opportunities to undergo trainings is always beneficial. There are many websites (edX, FutureLearn, Coursera, UN) offering free courses and trainings on topics such as refugee protection, gender equality, disaster relief, psychological first aid, etc. Participating in these types of courses further demonstrates dedication to the field and can make your CV stand out to employers, who are often sifting through hundreds of nearly identical resumes for a single role.

Get Experience While Studying

In order to secure a job as a humanitarian aid worker, you will almost always (as in, 99% of the time) need to prove that you have previous experience. This might seem like a catch 22, but it’s just the way it works in this competitive industry. Unpaid internships and volunteerships are critical for amping up the CV and demonstrating that you’ve previously learned some useful skills that you can bring to the table, even for most entry level positions. As most people aren’t financially fortunate enough to work for free for extended periods of time in their adult lives, the best way to gain this experience is to intern or volunteer while earning your degree. In fact, having even a few months experience under your belt can often outweigh academic performance. Try to get experience in a sector, organization, or role that will give you skills that can transfer over easily to your future ambitions. For example, if you want to work in refugee education, it doesn’t make much sense to do four months of supply chain communications in a WASH department. Again, make a plan and give your all to sticking with it. Also, remember that these internship programs are often very competitive, so developing a solid rapport with a professor or other person qualified to give you a solid recommendation or reference is crucial.

Learn a Foreign Language

…or several. While not always required, particularly if you are applying for positions that serve your home country, having the skills to communicate in a foreign language is a huge asset. In the international community, it is typically required that you possess the skills to communicate fluently in professional settings. Do not underestimate this requirement when reading a job description or posting. In many countries, aid workers communicate almost entirely in the local language (or one of them), and it doesn’t do candidates any good to lie about their language skills. If you are not fluent, you can be honest about this, but demonstrate that you are working towards it. There are innumerable resources for language learning online, many of which are free. While niche languages can set you apart from the masses, they will only be useful in very specific roles in specific countries. Generally speaking, French, Arabic, and Spanish are the most useful second languages when trying to be a humanitarian aid worker. However, if you have a particular region or country that you’re interested in, do some research on the language(s) and dedicate yourself to learning a bit. Even if you are not fluent when you apply, it is highly desirable for a candidate to be able to communicate with the local population.