Students often ask me how to begin a career in humanitarian assistance or international development.   While I am more familiar with humanitarian assistance, much of this would be applicable to both. Further, humanitarian assistance and development are increasingly inter-connected, needing to happen concurrently and ideally in a coordinated manner.  The skills you pick up working in humanitarian assistance might be of use when later pursuing development-oriented work and vice versa.   The purpose of this blog then is to suggest a few ways to position yourself for that first job.

1) Languages:  The bad news is that it takes a long time to learn a language well.  The good news is that you can start today.   Speaking a language that an organization needs is an asset while speaking no languages is a drawback.  From a humanitarian perspective, Arabic and French are useful, and depending on where you want to work, Turkish, Kurdish, or Spanish.  It is no longer necessary to buy books to study.  There are many good applications.  Some of them, such as Duolingo, are free.  Others, like Babel, are more in-depth but require a fee.

2) Overseas and Domestic Experience:  Employers often give preference to applicants with experience living and working overseas.   This could include anything from short-term volunteer work to being a Peace Corps volunteer.  Rotary International is the largest non-governmental provider of scholarships in the world.  You may be able to receive a scholarship by networking with, and being nominated by, a Rotary Club in your area.  If overseas experience is not possible for you, consider volunteering/working with vulnerable populations domestically or volunteering with the American Red Cross.   Perhaps you could intern domestically with a non-governmental organization that supports programming overseas.  Interested in working with refugees overseas? A great way to get started is to work with non-governmental organizations and local groups that help to integrate refugees who have been resettled here from other countries.  Take a look as well at opportunities to partner with the UN Foundation on important campaigns such as Nothing but Nets, Girl Up, and Shot@Life.

3) Training:  There are many on-site training opportunities – but these can be expensive and require travel.  However, there are very good online resources for learning about different aspects of humanitarian assistance and development.   The Disaster Ready website is a thorough collection of humanitarian assistance distance learning courses.   Start with the modules on humanitarian principles and practice.  Interaction (the umbrella organization representing NGOs working overseas) has some free online trainings – for example on Preventing Sexual Abuse and Exploitation and Shelter and Settlements in Emergency Settings.   Interested in reproductive health?  You can receive certification by taking the Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations (MISP) online course.  UNICEF has online trainings for nutritionRedR has both distance learning and on-site trainings related to emergency response and security that are generally good although not free.  The United States Institute for Peace (USIP) has online and on-site trainings related to conflict analysis, negotiation, etc.   On the development side, USAID has a Global Health Learning Center and a free one day Global Health University Conference in Washington DC.

4) To Specialize or Not: Maybe you’ll be a generalist and work on a wide range of issues over your career.  Flexibility is really important – but it doesn’t hurt to have a skill as well.  I started working on strategic planning and health, but these days spend most of my time on monitoring and evaluation.   You should familiarize yourself with the tools people in your field use to design, implement, and monitor programs.  Some tools are broadly useful.  For humanitarians, the Sphere Handbook t lays out the minimum standards for what populations affected by disasters and conflict need – how much water?  How much food? How much shelter space?  You can download the Handbook for free, in a variety of languages, from the Sphere Project website and there is also an online training.  In both humanitarian assistance and international development, different sectors will have different tools.

5) Job-Hunting:  Certain skills will help you get your foot in the door.  Experience working with donors is valuable as is knowing how to pull together budgets and write proposals with good logical frameworks and measurable indicators.  USAID has a series of training modules on how to work with them as a donor – if you want to work with large NGOs, you’ll need to know this.  Many people get started working with NGOs.   Familiarize yourself with the NGOs who have a solid track record in the areas that most interest you.  Follow their vacancies and see where they are having a hard time recruiting people.   If you take that six month assignment in Eastern Chad that they are having a hard time filling, and do a good job, that will likely lead to more postings.   Reliefweb is full of vacancies from around the world as well as other resources.  On the development side, DEVEX has vacancies and discussion groups.   Some international organizations have Young Professional Programs for recruiting new talent.

6) Networking:  If we’re talking about job-hunting, we also have to talk about networking.  Networking is very important even if doesn’t come naturally to the introverts amongst us.   I have my current position because I struck up a conversation with someone at a job fair who had a colleague needing a public health specialist.  Months later, that conversation led to my first job in humanitarian assistance.   I had international experience but had to scramble to catch up.   Hopefully these tips can give you a head start.  Take advantage of any networking events in your area, or if necessary, travel to cities where there are networking opportunities.  There are also an abundance of networking opportunities online.   For example, if you are interested in mental health in emergencies, then you would want to check out MHPSS.Net.   If interested in reproductive health in emergencies, then the Interagency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises.   You may even find some relevant meetup groups – Washington DC has one for Young Professional in International Affairs.   Also in Washington DC is the Society for International Development that hosts various networking events throughout the year including an annual conference.

7) Other Resources:  On the humanitarian side, IRIN is a very good and newly independent organization that provides analysis on humanitarian situations around the world.  The Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) periodically releases excellent open-source analysis on specific emergencies.   Interaction releases interesting reports throughout the year and has an annual conference.   Sign up to the UN Foundation’s “UN Wire” to receive a daily email with coverage of international events and issues.   Check out other blogs such as Humanitarian Jobs  – especially the posts “Who is Who and Who Should You Work for in Relief and Development  andWhy You Might Want to Work in Relief and Development – And Why You Might Not”.  

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is helpful.  If you have thoughts or anything to add, especially regarding tips for international development, please contact me.  Thanks.