Aid Industry Career Advice

There’s been a spike, lately, in the amount of email in my inbox wanting advice for landing that sweet, aid industry career. For posterity, and to save myself copy/pasting the same email over and over, here’s the summary. I assume you agree that voluntourism is bad, and that (you think) you’re looking at humanitarian aid or development as a life career. These are my four go-to points. Take them or leave them:

For goodness sake, don’t start your own NGO: This is not the music industry, and the world does not need the humanitarian equivalent of yet another wannabe garage band. If you are turning to the Internet for advice on how to get into the aid industry, then you need to trust me—any “innovation” you think your NGO will bring to the table has already been thought of and tried.

(The rules are incrementally different for local NGOs. If you’re in NYC and you want to be an aid worker in NYC, helping beneficiaries who live in NYC, more power to you.)

Adjust expectations, buckle in for the long term: Stop looking for a shortcut, because there isn’t one. Nor is there an easy path in. I get the sense from many of you that you see aid and development work as an easy career option, and you’re quite perturbed when it turns out not to be.

The aid industry is like any other. There is no mystery around getting in: You accrue the right education and maybe some basic experience via internships. Then you start at the bottom, and work your way up the ladder. Some days are awesome, and some days plain suck, but the vast majority is the same unexciting deal-with-bureaucracy 9-5 work-a-day existence that is the Rest Of The World. No matter what you do or accomplish, you’ll encounter those who seem to have gotten farther with less qualification. For every piece of advice I or any other long-timer might give, you’ll meet or stumble across the website of someone who did exactly the opposite and is now living the aid worker dream… I suppose it’ll come down to whether you want the title and Facebook updates, or you want to really be a professional humanitarian.

Pursue an advanced degree: A master’s degree in something not totally irrelevant is a threshold requirement to be seriously considered for more than glorified admin at most INGOs these days. Yes, sure, you can find people in the industry with far less, but you should not assume that this is either good or the norm. This field is becoming more technical, more professional, and certainly more competitive, and there is daily less space and fewer career options those below the MA threshold. My very strong advice would be to abandon any notion of sort of working your way in the door with a small, not professional org. Like I said above, there are no shortcuts. If this is really, really what you want to do with your life, then commit to making the proper investments now.

Understand the Aid Industry: Over and above that master’s degree requirement, I’d recommend courses, reading, or self-education that familiarizes you with the Aid Industry, how it works, and what the issues are. The vast majority of the frustrated newbies I encounter in the workplace can hold forth for hours over obscure technical dilemmas (“OMG. Should we use a process indicator or a proxy indicator?!”) or the Easterly-Sachs debate, but they can’t explain what the inter-agency cluster system is, or how to engage with it.

Understanding local context is important, of course, but it is more and more disproportionately emphasized at the expense of understanding how the larger aid system works.

The value that foreigners (us) bring to the table is less and less about our knowledge and understanding of the details of local culture (local staff usually know organically in a few seconds those things that take us months or years of study to get right), or our ability to endure harsh conditions (the fact that we might be able to live like refugees for a few days almost never impresses real refugees), and more and more about our ability to engage with the global humanitarian system. You need prioritize learning about the aid system, about management, get good at writing, and developing people skills.


And if you haven’t done so already, read my book.