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Careers Centre

Humanitarian aid

Sector Overview

'Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.' –Nelson Mandela

In December of 2013 a UN Official announced that $13 billion would be required by humanitarian aid organisations in 2014; she qualified that “this is the largest amount we have ever had to request at the start of the year.” Whether this is interpreted as an increase in number of crises that require help, or as a greater inclination worldwide to provide assistance, the humanitarian aid sector is undoubtedly growing.

Humanitarian Aid workers often work on the frontlines of global disaster and tragedies, ranging from natural disasters to warzones to areas suffering from systemic poverty. There are many subdivisions of aid workers; some are involved in public health and medical assistance, others are involved in policy decisions, and still others are involved in the massive logistic manoeuvres necessary to meet the basic health and nutrition needs of up to hundreds of thousands of people. Humanitarian Aid organisations can be government, non-government, or inter-governmentally based.

This is not a career for the faint of heart and often involves daily hardship and risks. Salaries can range widely and voluntary work is often essential for breaking into the industry. However, humanitarian aid can be a deeply meaningful career path that involves travel, new experiences, and the chance to make a difference.

Other pages that might be of interest to you include Civil Service, Conflict Resolution, Human Rights, International Organisations and International Development.

 

Humanitarian aid attributes profile

 Key attributes/skills needed for the role
Where you could develop these skills or attributes
Project management skills

Organising roles within societies eg for events. CAPOD offers courses on Project Management within its Professional Skills Curriculum. Also master the use of EXCEL.

Language skills Improve your fluency in a second or third language. French or Arabic may be particularly useful. Evening courses are available.
Risk management Adventurous sport or travel, entrepreneurial activity

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Empathy: a capacity to understand different perspectives than your own
  • Resilience: the work is often emotionally and physically gruelling
  • Pragmatism: perfect resolutions are seldom possible

 

Nature of sector or roles

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to assist you with your application. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (the Fast Stream has its own page) to connect with organisations. Recent St Andrews graduates have been accepted on the European and Generalist Fast Stream as well as jobs within the Scottish Government. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

What to study

Almost any degree can be applicable to a career in humanitarian aid. A good understanding of geopolitics and history provides a background for understanding specific crises and cultures you might find yourself involved with.

Fluency in English is a must, and other language skills are always useful. French and Spanish remain widely spoken languages and applicable to areas that are often in need of humanitarian aid.

Many, even most, people working in humanitarian aid have Masters degrees. Relevant subjects might include logistics and operations, psychology, child psychology, public health, finance or other similar subjects. Many degrees can be adapted to be useful to the field, but students should consider which degree paths will give them the most applicable skills if they are serious about pursuing humanitarian aid.

Consider taking a course from Building a Better Response. This e-learning platform offers modules which are designed to provide users with a practical introduction to engaging with the international humanitarian architecture. Participants completing all five units will receive a certificate from the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard.


Graduate courses

How to gain experience/internships

Humanitarian aid can be a very difficult field to break into. Internships and volunteers can be the best way to get into the system and gain relevant experience. Following is a list of links to the internship pages of major humanitarian aid organisations. This is not a comprehensive list of humanitarian aid internships but can be used as a starting point. Please note that many of these are unpaid volunteering opportunities.


If you are willing to make a serious commitment to volunteering then there are a few contracted options that are very popular for young people open to adventure:

How to get a (graduate) job

Successful candidates have a proven ability to work under stress in hardship conditions. This requires a tough mindset and a deep investment in the cause. They also have the sensitivity and understanding to navigate cultural differences. It is very helpful to have at least some fluency in other languages.

The most competitive applicants are business-minded and diplomatic. There is high demand for individuals who have experience as health care professionals, sanitation and other engineers, administrators, fundraisers, grant writers, programme organisers, teachers, researchers, and policy analysts. Additionally, for more urgent, disaster and emergency-response relief work, experience in purchasing, logistics, and project management may be useful, as well as skills such as additional languages, first aid, and counselling. It is useful to have a Masters degree.

Generally, less experienced candidates will be hired to work in administration. Opportunities often arise during sudden-onset disasters, and those with appropriate skills and experience who find themselves in a location affected by man-made or natural disasters may be well-placed to volunteer their services in response to any humanitarian emergency arising.

Sculpt your CV and cover letter to highlight skills and characteristics necessary for humanitarian aid work. The Careers Centre provides advice and CV examples. Some of the organisations listed accept speculative applications, but for many you will need to keep an eye out for specific entry job opportunities that match your interests.

 

Where to start your job search


If you’re interest in government –based humanitarian aid jobs try:

 

Sample Employers

UK/EU Employers

OrganisationFocus AreasBase location
Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Deutschland Civil protection, rescue services and social welfare services Headquarters in Cologne
Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Fighting poverty, AIDS, and helping vulnerable children Offices in Geneva, New York, and Paris
Global Humanitarian Assistance Policy, analysis of humanitarian organisations and their money processes Based in Bristol
Doctors Without Borders Medical care, public health Offices in 19 countries
International Committee of the Red Cross Comprehensive aid Headquarters in Geneva with offices worldwide
International Rescue Committee Comprehensive aid Headquarters in New York, Washington, DC, London, Brussels, and Geneva with other offices worldwide
OneWorld Uses web and mobile technology to engage people in social causes Offices in London, Washington, Abuja, and Dakar
Save the Children Focus on children in humanitarian crises Offices worldwide
UNDP - The United Nations Development Programme Development Headquarters in New York and Geneva with offices worldwide
UNDP - UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency Comprehensive aid to refugees Based in Geneva
Medecins Sans Frontieres/ Doctors Without Borders UK website Medical care, public health Offices worldwide
Emergency Nutrition Network Emergency food and nutrition Based in Ireland
Disasters Emergency Committee Coalition of aid organisations, appeals Based in London
Solidarites Commitment to vital needs after conflicts and natural disasters Based in France
UK Aid Network Policy, lobbying, and advocacy Based in London
European Commission- Humanitarian Aid Aid and civil protection Multiple EU offices
NGO Voice Emergency aid, disaster risk reduction Network representing NGOs worldwide
UNICEF Children’s rights Multiple UK based offices
 

US Employers

OrganisationFocus AreasBase location
Africare Development, specifically in Africa Headquarters in Washington, DC
American Councils for International Education Development through education Headquarters in Washington, DC
AmeriCares Emergency response, global health Headquarters in Connecticut
CARE Global poverty, particular emphasis on women Headquarters in Atlanta with offices worldwide
Direct Relief International Health, emergency response, disease prevention Based in California
Himalayan-Healthcare, Inc. Development and humanitarian assistance in Nepal Offices in New York and Nepal
InterAction Development, accountability & learning, humanitarian action, policy & advocacy Based in Washington, DC
International Medical Corps Medical aid, public health Headquarters in Santa Monica with offices in Washington, DC and London
International Nutrition Foundation Nutrition, public health Headquarters in Boston
International Rescue Committee Emergency response, comprehensive aid Headquarter offices in New York, Washington, DC, London, Brussels, and Geneva with other offices worldwide
MercyCorps Emergency response, development Based in Oregon
OCHA - The UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs Coordination, policy, advocacy, information management, humanitarian financing Headquarters in New York and Geneva with offices worldwide
PATH - The Program for Appropriate Technology in Health Public health Based in Seattle
Project Hope Public health Headquarters in Virginia
UNDP - The United Nations Development Programme Development Headquarters in New York and Geneva with offices worldwide
USAID Aid and development Headquarters in Washington, DC
 

Faith-Based

OrganisationFocus AreaBase Location
Catholic Relief Services Policy, development Headquarters in Maryland
Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA) Development, relief Headquarters in Maryland
Church World Service Emergencies, refugees, immigration, malnutrition, children, water Headquarters in New York with offices worldwide
UMCOR - The United Methodist Committee on Relief Humanitarian relief after war, conflict or natural disaster Offices in the US
UMCOR World Vision child protection, clean water, disaster relief, economic development, education, food & agriculture, health Offices worldwide
 

International

OrganisationFocus AreaBase Location
International Rescue Committee Crises and refugees Headquarter offices in New York, Washington, DC, London, Brussels, and Geneva with other offices worldwide
UNDP - The United Nations Development Programme Development Headquarters in New York and Geneva with offices worldwide
OneWorld Mobile and web technology Offices in London, Washington, Abuja, and Dakar
OCHA - The UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs Coordination, policy, advocacy, information management, humanitarian financing Headquarters in New York and Geneva with offices worldwide
CARE Global poverty, particular emphasis on women Headquarters in Atlanta with offices worldwide
World Vision Child protection, clean water, disaster relief, economic development, education, food & agriculture, health Offices worldwide
Doctors Without Borders Medical care, public health Offices in 19 countries
International Committee of the Red Cross Comprehensive aid Headquarters in Geneva with offices worldwide
UNOPS Project management, infrastructures, procurement. Headquarters, Copenhagen, Denmark. Offices worldwide
UNICEF Children’s Rights and emergency relief Offices worldwide
World Food Programme Food assistance. Headquarters, Rome, Italy. Offices worldwide
UNHCR Refugee rights and protection. Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland. Offices worldwide.