"Are you tough enough to cope with poverty on a daily basis?" (photo: Medecins du Monde)
Article 13 October

Get paid to travel: become an international aid worker

Expert advice to help you become an international aid worker

Improving the lives of the world’s poorest must be one of the most worthy jobs you can do. And you get to travel to the world’s remotest corners. But are you happy to live away from home? Can you deal with potentially dangerous situations, baffling native systems and political obstacles? Are you tough enough to cope with poverty on a daily basis? Yes? Then read on.

What jobs are there?

Around 250,000 people are employed in the aid sector. Projects vary from two weeks to two years and are then re-allocated – at any given time, there are 100,000 posts up for grabs.

Some find getting a job easier than others – doctors and engineers are always in demand – but consider how your skills could be used. Aid organisations have computers that need techies, offices that need managers, reports that need writers. The problem is you’ll be facing tough competition from highly skilled applicants from all over the world.

Also, most aid agencies try to recruit as many local staff as possible; World Vision’s Burma office has 200 staff, 193 of whom are Burmese. However, there are over 200,000 charities in the UK – a native first posting allows you to gain experience, plus a preview of any upcoming overseas posts.

What’s in it for you?

In Cause Celeb, her satirical novel about the sector, Helen Fielding suggests four aid worker types: the Missionary, the Mercenary, the Misfit and the Broken Heart. The reality is, motivation varies – the important thing is to figure out what matters to you. That said, all aid workers end up learning more than they impart and return home with a new perspective and more marketable skills.

How to get that job

Be dedicated: it might take you two or three years to get an overseas post.

Think about your interests and skills, contact organisations that are working on issues that interest you. Focus on specialist knowledge or experience that you already have.

Before searching for a paid position, do a VSO placement or other voluntary project. It will prove you are committed to the sector and will teach you vital skills.

Take a course in international development – full or part time. It can help you establish contacts as well as increasing your knowledge.

Aid workers are needed worldwide and the ability to communicate is key, learn another language as an extra skill.

Join associations, attend industry events, read industry publications. Ask friends to put you in touch with aid workers they know.

Looking for work in Burma, Adrian Richardson discovered that “the Red Cross throw the best parties! My wife was working for World Visions but getting to know other people in the industry helped me understand what work was available and how to get involved. Look for alternative routes in. If all else fails, marry an aid worker!”

Use contacts strategically - do your homework so that you're not asking questions you could easily research yourself. Send a thank-you note to the people who helped you – however brief the conversation.

You are more likely to get a first posting in your home country, which might lead on to overseas posts once you have proved yourself.

A word from a pro... Sian Blackwell

Sian works as a co-ordinator for an Australian development programme. How did she get her job?

“After university, I travelled through several developing countries. The experience was amazing but I couldn’t close my eyes to the poverty. I got a job teaching English to fund a masters in international development. It’s a tough route in – I studied a distance-learning course, which is really isolating – but I found local volunteer groups and made good contacts.

"In the first summer I spent three months volunteering in the Philippines. The reaction from the people I worked with was really positive but, even so, I realised that any kind of change takes time. You have to scale back your ideas and think locally to make it achievable.

"Getting my first paid role wasn’t easy – aid work is full of high achievers who are stiff competition! The key is to have solid experience – volunteer in your own community. You also need to be culturally aware so get out there and travel!”

Top tip: “Don’t suit yourself to a country, suit yourself to a position. It’s about what you are doing, not where you’re doing it.” 

Further information

Aid Workers Network: information for aid workers from aid workers, lots of tips

International Development Job and Volunteer Information: full of information on working and volunteering abroad

Red Cross: many opportunities to volunteer

World Vision: helpful, faith-based agency

Medecins du Monde (also know as Doctors of the World): specialises in medical recruitment