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Human Rights, Humanitarian Action or Development: which one should you choose?

This is a familiar story: you finish your undergrad degree, you realize you want to work to help people on an international (or national) level, you are passionate about NGOs and IOs and would like to join one of them someday. But what kind of NGO or IO? This is an important question because, when choosing what Masters to pursue, you want to make sure it will be relevant for your future career.

You might dream about a UN job, but you might also be interested in Amnesty International or more grassroots activism associations; or perhaps you want to engage in fieldwork in refugee camps around the world or contribute to the fight against HIV in Africa, or you are passionate about gender issues and would like to improve opportunities for women in countries where they are still sorely lacking. Although we might include all of these activities in NGO work, they don’t all fit into the same field of expertise. Some are human rights stuff, others humanitarian action and some others development-oriented kind of projects. If you have specific training for one, that does not mean you will be successful looking for a job in an organization that specializes in another.

Being a human rights advocate, for example, might require additional legal training, while development professionals are often required to specialize in one specific area (education, agriculture, economics…) once they enter the labor market or during their studies. As for humanitarian action, if you are passionate about human rights and want to advocate for victims of abuses, you might find the neutrality and impartiality needed to engage in humanitarian work troubling, since “naming and shaming” strategies are usually not welcome. Whichever of these areas you choose, it will most likely have a big impact on your personal life as well. While the majority of human rights advocates working in large organisations are mostly relegated to “office work”, dedicated to very intense research, humanitarian and development workers are often required to spend months or even years apart from their families – in the case of humanitarian workers, the lack of security of most settings which are in acute crisis completely blocks the possibility of family members joining you, while in development settings it might be possible in some cases, depending on the location of your assignment.

So, let’s start with the basics and then move on to the specifics. First, what exactly are we dealing with here when we speak of human rights, development and humanitarian action?

Well, we can define humanitarian though its goal in this manner: “Humanitarian action is intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and disasters caused by natural hazards, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur.” Humanitarian action is governed through its principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Human rights are, according to the United Nations, “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.” To pursue a career in human rights means to make sure they are respected, protected and fulfilled, whether through legal action, awareness raising, activism, political pressure…

Finally, we have development. There is no consensus as to what development means, that’s a whole philosophical discussion. But the field of development that has risen with the dissemination of human rights all over the world is very influenced by the scholar Amartya Sen. He defines development as freedom, as the expansion of the capability of citizens to access things they have reason to value. To Sen, this freedom cannot exist with widespread discrimination, poverty, inequality, etc., so a developed country is one who fights against all this. Today, our notion of development is guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that englobe all these concerns and much more. Obviously, a country ravaged by disasters or conflicts or a country that engages in human rights abuses cannot develop properly. That’s one of the reasons why these three fields intersect with each other.

You can also say that human rights and development and intrinsically political because they exist to challenge the status quo. Humanitarian action, while it’s often manipulated for political gain, it’s supposed to be independent and not interfere with the country’s politics.

Now that you have an idea of the three fields, let’s get to the practical stuff. Here is a simple comparison of three Master programs from different universities, so you can have a sense of the distinctions in terms of studies:

In University College Dublin, for example, here are the core courses of the Msc in Human Rights:

And from the University of Deakin, here is an example of a Master in Humanitarian Assistance:

And finally, from the University of Edinburgh, here are the compulsory courses for the MSc in International Development:


In all universities, the optional courses allow you to diversify your field of study and incorporate some law classes, for example, or political ones. But in general, once you have chosen one of these areas, the specialization required of a Master’s degree makes you focus specifically on that area alone.

If you are passionate about these topics but you are still unsure of which area to choose, maybe it’s a good idea to research Masters degrees that present you both and them, through a thesis or internship, allow you to specialize in one after knowing more about the topics.

The London School of Economics, for example, has an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies and Sciences Po offers a Master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action.  There are also many Masters around the world that might mix one of these areas with other topics, such as conflict or gender.

Whatever you do, make sure to research the organisations you would like to join and try to see whether their work fits into the mold of development, humanitarian action or human rights. Often, organisations might have different projects related to all three, but usually they specialize in one.

Good luck!

About the author

Margarida Teixeira

Margarida Teixeira is a Master student of Human Rights and Humanitarian
Action in Sciences Po. She has worked mainly on migration and refugee
issues with both the Croatian Red Cross and the European Network for
Migrant Women. She also enjoys writing and is a collaborator of Words In
The Bucket magazine and the Paris Globalist.