Basic Tips & Tutorials Magazine

Basic Tips for Becoming a Humanitarian Aid Worker

CC 2.0 DFID - UK Department for International Development / Russell Watkins

Securing a job in the humanitarian sector may seem like a daunting task. With thousands of talented and intelligent individuals trying to enter the field, humanitarian organizations are putting more and more emphasis on professionalizing the aid sector. They are looking for people that can abide by humanitarian standards and bring useful skills to the table. As a result, it may be especially difficult to decide what to study to become an appealing candidate.

Develop your skills, nurture your passion

Whether it is Public Health, Disaster relief, Refugee protection, Project management, Finance, Rule of Law and Governance, Food safety and Nutrition, etc. The options to work in the humanitarian field are vast and varied. Professions can go from Nursing to IT, Political Science and Law. Requirements also vary from organization to organization, depending on your area of interest and the agency/NGO you are looking to work with. For example, the Protection Unit at UNHCR places a strong emphasis on hiring lawyers.

After you decide what type of work you would like to do, try to find people already in a similar position. Search for them on Linkedin or the website of organizations you would like to work with. And try to find out more about their career path. What did they study at university? Did they do an interesting internship? Or a special training? Maybe there is a suitable way to contact them and ask for career advice. Some people working in the humanitarian sector may remember the challenges of getting a foot in the door and might offer advice to younger potential colleagues.

Getting an advanced degree is almost a must in the humanitarian field. Competitiveness is fierce and an undergraduate degree will only get you so far. Once you are competing over a mid-level position, if both candidates have a similar level of experience, having a more relevant master’s degree might give you the advantage.

If you are not sure about how to specialize, you can always do short trainings or courses to acquire more specific skills and discover new interests. Coursera, Future Learn and edX offer some interesting certifications for humanitarian professionals.

Get experience while you study

While having a postgraduate degree is important, having relevant experience may outweigh academic performance. Most entry-level positions in the field require some work experience. While deciding on a potential candidate, having experience in a similar role will always boost your possibilities and may make the difference whether you get the job or not.

One way to get experience is by doing internships. But getting an internship at an international organization or NGO can be quite challenging. Some of them might also require recommendation letters from professors. Make sure you keep up your network and create a pool of potential referees. Volunteer at school activities, participate in debates and write a relevant thesis.

Study foreign languages

Because humanitarian workers often work in developing countries, mastering one or more foreign languages is a highly recommened. Decide where you would like to work and learn the local language. In demand languages in the development sector include French, Arabic, Spanish and to a lesser extent, Portuguese. If you’re planning to work in Latin America or the Middle East, some Spanish or Arabic will be quite beneficial towards balancing out a lack of work experience.

Check out more of our resources on humanitarian work.

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) aims to help human rights students, recent graduates and young professionals to pursue a career in the highly competitive field of human rights.