How To Become An International Aid Worker

Dec 09, 2016 1 Min Read


9 Tips to get you started; Lessons from my journey

Humanitarian Aid work, at a distance, is a romantic dream for many. It was for me.
On Twitter, many people have asked me how to become an aid worker. Much has been written on this already. Rather than repeat what is already out there, I have distilled nine tips from my journey for that you may find useful.

My story

In early 1999, I left the Australian Regular Army after 10 years. My time in the army was a great experience, though I knew it was not my true vocation after I was injured rolling my land rover in the outback.

After leaving the army, my first job application was to the Australian Broadcasting Corp for an entry-level position as a cadet journalist. A week or so later, my aspirations were shattered with a polite rejection letter. I needed to keep looking.

With my second cup of coffee in hand, I continued my morning ritual of scanning the newspapers while listening to the BBC World Service. The news opened, as it had for most of the past week, reporting on the escalating conflict halfway across the world in Kosovo. Their description of civilians trapped at Blace, the border crossing between Macedonia and Kosovo, was tragically moving. The power of journalism to convey tragedy and build empathy had worked its magic.

As the news ended, my eyes were magnetically drawn to a vacancy notice for CARE Australia’s Emergency Response Roster. Without a moment’s hesitation, I typed an application to CARE and posted it the same day. A few weeks later, I was deployed for a three-month assignment as the Security Officer for CARE’s operations in Macedonia.

There is no standard road that one takes to be an aid worker. People become aid workers from all works of life, from many different countries.

Arriving in Skopje, my role quickly expanded beyond security. Initially tasked to coordinate our Mine Action work, within days I was reassigned to help manage accommodation at Cegrane Refugee Camp, which at its peak housed over 40,000 refugees.

By late June, CARE’s return to Kosovo was in full swing; this is where I wanted to be. I told management that I wanted to go to Kosovo, and within a few days, I was driving across the border to take up my assignment as a Project Officer with our food and non-food project in Ferizaj (Uroševac).

Just over a year later, I was in North Korea as Country Director for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Children’s Aid Direct. By August 2001, I joined the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as their Head of Office in North Korea (DPRK) and have remained with them ever since.

My road to becoming an aid worker is not that different from those of my colleagues, apart from the details of course. Most of us became aid workers through a combination of chance, design and risk-taking.

There is no standard road that one takes to be an aid worker. People become aid workers from all works of life, from many different countries.

Drawing on my experience, and those of the people I have worked with, here are nine tips that might be useful as one embarks on a truly rewarding career.

1. Get on LinkedIn.

On LinkedIn, you can easily find profiles of aid workers. You will see that aid workers come from a wide variety of professional vocations; accountants, doctors, human resources professionals, engineers, lawyers, logisticians, nurses, social scientists and so much more. There is power in diversity.

Does your current non-aid work experience match any of the profiles? If yes, then you may find ideas as to what your first step could be in your journey. If not, the profiles may help identify what you need to do to bridge the gap.

2. Be a volunteer.

If you are not yet an aid worker, are you somehow already engaged in the humanitarian endeavour in your home country? If not, consider volunteering with your local Red Cross or with a community-based organisation helping refugees or the displaced. Apply for an internship with the United Nations or an NGO.

Try and find volunteering opportunities in another country where your skills will make a difference. This is a good indicator that someone is genuinely interested in the humanitarian endeavour. More important than strengthening your resume, you will be doing some incredibly important work while learning new skills.

3. Join the conversation.

Get on social media; show that you are engaged in the humanitarian conversation. Communications are a core part of aid work. Apart from improving your social media skills, this will help you remain abreast of issues and developments in the humanitarian domain.

4. Network

Learn how to network in person and online. Be engaging and respectful of people’s time you try and connect with. Many short-term jobs, especially those that are at a more junior level, are filled by word of mouth, which is the reality of our world.

5. Travel the world.

This is not easy for many aspiring aid workers, especially if you can’t afford to travel or your nationality makes travel difficult. If you have the means, travel to a few less developed countries. Experience life, as far as it is possible, as a local. Stay put in one country for a few months; you may be surprised what opportunities will appear.

6. Seize opportunities.

Raised Hands

In Kosovo, many NGOs were so short of staff in the initial few months of the response in late 1999. Some hired aid workers, internationals and nationals who had simply knocked on their office doors in Pristina. Not all had previous aid experience. Not that I am advocating you fly into Iraq or Somalia and knock on doors today.

Our world has changed; however, some short-term jobs with NGOs and the UN are filled with people already on location. Simply being in the right place, at the right time, combined with networking, may land you your first paid job as an aid worker.

7. Work for an NGO before the UN.

It is easier to get a job, even as a volunteer, with an NGO than with the UN. This is because, in part, there are simply more NGO jobs. Although many UN humanitarian workers enter the UN without working for an NGO, the experience you gain working for an NGO will always stand you in good stead. I am biased, of course, but generally speaking, UN aid workers who have first worked with an NGO bring that extra understanding of aid work that UN staff who have not worked for NGOs will ever have.

8. Perform

Once you have secured your first job as an aid worker – paid or unpaid – the key to your next job is to demonstrate competence and collegiality. In your first job, become a sponge; absorb everything you hear and see. Seek out opportunities to learn, leap at chances to work directly with the people your organisation is seeking to help.

Trust me, get your hands dirty and get out of the office. All too soon, you will be stuck behind a computer or in meetings. Whatever task you do in this job, do it well, and if you don’t know how to do it, ask.

Intelligent people, like anywhere, are usually noticed and will quickly secure their next job. But I don’t think being bright is enough; be nice to people. It goes a long way.

9. Persist

If you can apply most of these tips, I do believe that you will have a chance at being an aid worker. It may take you longer than you think, a lot longer, but persistence usually pays off in the end, like in many walks of life.

Here are some useful websites for aid worker jobs:

ReliefWeb –
UN Jobs –
UN Job List –
Inspira (UN Secretariat jobs only)
UN Volunteers –

Also, many jobs are only posted on individual UN Agency and NGO websites. Although tedious, it is worth making the effort to visit their individual websites.

For a lighthearted look at being an aid worker, watch this video from the Global Poverty Project Channel.

Brendan McDonald is an international advocator and leader of democratic engagement and public policy change. He has engaged, advised, shared information with and strengthened relationships with multilateral, senior-level partners, UN agencies, government officials and the media. This article first appeared on his blog, “7piliers”. To get in touch with him, e-mail us at

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