Let's get right to it:
Your desire to help others, or your desire to travel, or your ambition, are not enough to work for the United Nations or any other international humanitarian or development organization. People do not get to be stock brokers, doctors, architects or lawyers just because they want to; for most professions, you have to work over many years to acquire the skills and expertise needed. Getting to work for the UN or any other international development agency is no different.
In addition, you need more than a good heart. People in developing countries need people with hard skills, skills they don't have (but that they want). They want to be paid to build their own schools, clean up after disasters themselves, care for their children, etc.
(see Five Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps for more on these themes)
As well, just because you have worked in the for-profit/corporate sector does not mean your skills will translate into the humanitarian sector, or that you will automatically be appropriate for a leadership role at an international NGO. You've run a software company? You've run a law office? You've worked in a corporate HR office? You've run a marketing firm? That's nice, but none of that experience means you are automatically ready to work for the UN or an international aid agency.
And, finally, finding paid work abroad as an aid worker or humanitarian worker is similar to finding a for-profit job: you must network. Ideally, you want an organization to come looking for YOU, and they will if you have created a robust professional network.
Following the advice on this page is no guarantee you will get to work abroad in international development. But you will greatly improve your odds of working for the United Nations or any other international development organization by following this advice, which is based on the experience of people who have worked for the UN or other international development organizations, including people who make hiring decisions for such organizations. The information on this page has been adapted from posts to the Aid Workers Network (AWN) by Graham Wood and Jayne Cravens, as well as various other posters to AWN.
The United Nations and other international agencies prefer to hire local people whenever possible for work in a developing country. International people are brought in to fill gaps in local expertise. Even in donor countries that host UN offices, such as Germany or Switzerland or the USA, the UN often prefers to hire people from developing countries whenever possible for office roles. The UN and other international agencies see hiring people from developing countries as investment in those countries. What you exhibit as contributing to that investment in your CV and interviews increases your chances of being hired.
A candidate that has an area of specialization is more valued by the United Nations and other agencies than someone who is a generalist.
Here's an example of the HUGE range of experts sought by international development agencies, including UN projects:
That's just a sample of the kinds of areas of specialization humanitarian agencies are looking for.
Most (but not all) postings require people with a Master's degree in a specific area, as well as professional and volunteering experience in a particular area of expertise.
To find paid work in aid and development, you also need to have the exact skills and experience being asked for in a job posting. For instance, if the job posting says, "fluency in French", then the hiring company wants applicants who can do the job interview entirely in French, not someone who has had a few years of French classes. If the job posting says candidates who have set up HIV/AIDS education programs for teens are what's wanted, then you had better have your experience setting up such a program in your CV. If the program says you have to manage a staff, your CV needs to note when you have managed a staff. If they job posting says, "A minimum of ten years of progressively responsible experience in human rights, political affairs, international relations, development, economics, program management or related area," they really mean that!
If you have the expertise asked for in a job posting, what will increase your chances? Having the following experience (and making sure it is detailed in your CV. This experience must be honest; do NOT embellish your skills or experience:
For citizens of the USA: AmeriCorps VISTA is the American national service program designed specifically to fight poverty. VISTA members commit to serve full-time for a year at a nonprofit organization or local government agency, working to fight illiteracy, improve health services, create businesses, strengthen community groups, and much more. A year or two of VISTA service would give you skills and experience that could help get an employer's attention for working abroad. During your service, you receive a modest living allowance, health care, and other benefits. Upon completing your service, you can choose to receive either a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award or post-service stipend. You might also want to look into AmeriCorps.
You can also look for non-university-level classes (and, therefore, much more affordable than university classes) that could help build skills you would need in the field. For instance, in Portland, Oregon, the YWCA has very affordable classes regarding understanding oppression, sexism 101, transgender children and youth, teen dating violence, domestic violence 102, dynamics of poverty, dynamics of batterers, sexual assault dynamics, and safety planning, crisis intervention, advocacy skills learn advocacy skills for safety planning and supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Taking any of these classes would look great on your CV. Check with your nearest YWCA, YMCA, and United Way for such classes in your area.
Again, if you list something on your CV, it must be honest; do NOT embellish your skills or experience.
Even if you are a native English speaker, how good are your written and verbal skills? Not only does your CV have to impeccable, with perfect spelling and English, your emails must be as well.
As noted earlier, if a job posting says, "Fluency in French", then they want applicants who can do the job interview in French, not someone who has had a few years of French classes. If the job posting says, "ability to work in French" (or another language), you can expect at least a bit of your interview to be in that language. In either case, you should have a CV in that language that's asked for, to prove your language abilities. In addition, become certified in your second language by the official language body, such as DELE for Spanish.
Language skills most in demand in aid and development? French (by far the most sought-after, IMO), Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Farsi/Dari/Tajik, as well as any local language of a particular region in a developing country. That means being able to work in Chinese, Hindi, or local tribal languages also increase your chance of landing a job abroad. I found that most people I encountered in Eastern Europe spoke German, so that's a great second language to have as well. Even if your second language is not something that is in high demand among humanitarian groups (Japanese, Italian, Catalan, Flemish), having any second language listed on your CV says to a potential employer that you can function outside your native comfort zone. Spanish is helpful, but note that, if you aren't a native Spanish speaker, you are going to be competing with highly-trained, very-experienced Spanish native speakers for jobs in Spanish-speaking countries.
It's never too late to pursue a second language or improve your language skills. Take intensive language courses and seek local opportunities to use your language skills.
Your CV needs to be explicit about your experience. Just because you worked at an immigration support center, for instance, don't assume multicultural experience is implied; spell it out! Just because you have worked as a firefighter, don't assume emergency response experience is assumed; SAY IT.
If you want a job that requires providing policy and technical guidance, spell out when you have done this. If the job you want is to develop, coordinate, implement, monitor and evaluate anything, show when you have done this, explicitly; agencies don't want to know you can do it, and they won't assume you can do it unless they can see on your CV that you have done it.
As was stated earlier: if the job posting says candidates who have set up HIV/AIDS education programs for teens are what's wanted, then you had better have your experience setting up such a program in your CV. If the program says you have to manage a staff, your CV needs to note when you have managed a staff. If they job posting says, "A minimum of ten years of progressively responsible experience in human rights, political affairs, international relations, development, economics, program management or related area," they really mean that!
Emphasize when you have facilitated interagency collaboration and decision-making, when you have successfully navigated or mobilized a bureaucracy, provided leadership and supervision, motivated team members and supported organizational or project excellence.
Use action-verbs and results-oriented-verbs to describe your volunteer and professional accomplishments. See this excellent, very long list of action verbs relevant to describing most middle to senior level management jobs.
For an idea on what is looked for in international work, have a look at the job postings on ReliefWeb.
Look at the wording of a job you want; can you find that same wording in your CV?
One thing your CV won't always reflect, but which you will also need to work internationally, is a very stable emotional and financial state. If you find yourself easily frustrated or having trouble dealing with stress, daily activities or people you view as uncooperative, if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed, if you find yourself saying "I don't have time to do this or that because of my children or my spouse or my parents," or if you are facing financial problems and debt, working abroad with the UN or another international agency is not something you should consider right now. Even if you are not going to be in a low-infrastructure environment for your work (for instance, say you will be based in Geneva rather than Kabul), work at an agency dealing with humanitarian and development issues is dynamic and often highly stressful. You may not be dealing with a conflict situation or disaster in your physical location, but you will be dealing with people who do regularly, and can't get away from it by going home at the end of the day.
There are very few short-term assignments out there (six months or less). If you want to work abroad, be prepared for at least a year commitment.
Another thing your CV won't reflect, but which you will also need to work internationally, is a knowledge of current international events and the context in which those events are happening. You don't have to have a PhD in history or international relations, and you don't have to know absolutely everything about, say, the entire continent of Africa, but you do have to be up on the latest conflicts and crises. And there's an easy way to get up-to-speed: spend at least three hours a week listening to or watching international news. For instance, spend at least an hour or two watching Al-Jazeera, another hour or two watching or listening to BBC News World Service Radio, and another hour or two watching CNN International (make sure it's the international version, not the USA version!). Just 30 minutes a day, six days a week, will get you up-to-date - and this knowledge will help you write appropriate cover letters and, hopefully, do well in an interview.
A key to finding a job in ANY profession is networking: meeting people who can influence hiring decisions where you want to work, and will better ensure your candidacy is better ensured. You want these people to know you and what your areas of specialization are. However, note that there's absolutely no guarantee that meeting someone at an organization, even the CEO, will land you a job there.
Networking is a long-term strategy. It takes months, even years, not days or weeks. Networking also involves building your professional reputation, so that when connected people hear your name, they know who you are, or when connected people look you up on the Internet, they easily find information that affirms your expertise.
Ways to network:
Some international humanitarian organizations and local NGOs will host unpaid interns to work in their offices for three-to-six months. Some have official programs, like these listed at this web page listing Humanitarian and Developmental Internships. Far more agencies have no official internship program, but may be willing to host an unpaid intern.
Internships can be great ways to get work experience on your CV. They can be great ways to network with humanitarian professionals and to learn firsthand about how agencies coordinate humanitarian and development efforts. Note the words can be. Internships can also be exercises in frustration, if the person in charge of the internship is not focused on giving the intern a quality learning experience.
When looking for an internship:
Applying for Jobs
The more jobs you apply for, the less time you have to spend on each application. The more jobs you apply for, the weaker each application. In addition, some UN agency HR offices black list frequent job seekers (someone who applies for most every job posting at a duty station). Only apply for jobs where you have a chance, where you meet at least most of the criteria for the job.
Make sure the cover letter does exactly what is asked for. Usually this means saying how your skills and experience match their requirements, and since each job has different requirements, it means EACH cover letter must be different. Keep the letter as short as possible and address the job requirements specifically. One page is nearly always enough for a cover letter. Avoid emotion in your cover letter; if you write something like “I want to use my skills to help people, to make the world a better place” I would not interview you. When you write a sentence think how it would be in the opposite. “I don’t want to use my skills to help people and I want to make the world a worse place.” If the opposite sounds silly, then you are not communicating well.
Do you know what your competencies - your core skills and attributes - are and how to sell them? Are you thinking about them and presenting them in a different way for each application, since each job is unique? What key words are you using to describe yourself and your skills?
Some people try to imply in their applications that because they want to work for an aid agency and because they care and have good hearts, they should be given a job. It really isn’t like that. As one of the authors of this document said, "If I had to choose between a person who cares passionately about poverty etc but is not focused and doesn’t present well and a person who can get a job done dispassionately, without being very concerned about he bigger picture I would nearly always choose the latter." Work hard on selling your skills and abilities, not your desire to help.
Also see humanitarianjobs.info, a blog "about getting your first job as a humanitarian aid worker."
Also see: ICT4D Jobs and Career Forum, a series of resources and discussion forum.
These are the web sites aid and development workers use to get jobs at the UN and other agencies. And, yes, people DO get hired from applying to jobs they find on the job boards below (I have - twice). Many of these web sites require you to fill in an online profile, and it takes a long time to do it - but it's worth it if you are serious about working abroad.
UNjobs is NOT the official web site of the UN, but the jobs are official UN jobs. Some people prefer it to the official web site, because they find it easier to navigate.
ReliefWeb is a favorite among aid and humanitarian workers, and a favorite UN recruitment tool -- as well as a favorite of other agencies looking to recruit. It is perhaps the best-used site for jobs in emergency humanitarian relief with international agencies and NGOs.
Dev Ex is a very popular site for senior management and high-level jobs.
Development Aid is another popular site for management-level jobs, as well as paid internships.
Devnetjobs lists jobs and consultancies in the international development, NGO and environment sectors.Dev-Zone is a New Zealand-based resource centre on international development and global issues. It has a jobs database at www.dev-zone.org/jobs.
AlertNet, at www.alertnet.org, has a good jobs section. Also have a look at 'Alerting Services' - there's a link on the home page. You can get job vacancies, news, maps and even satellite images delivered to your email address.
The University of Sussex has an enormous list of websites relevant to jobs in international development, at www.sussex.ac.uk/cdec/careers_path.php?carpath=15&carsection=4.
cinfoPoste is a Swiss-based register of vacancies for information, counseling and training professionals. The site is in German, English or French - look for the link on the home page. www.cinfo.ch/cinfoposte.
BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) says it is the United Kingdom's broadest network of voluntary organisations working in international development, and have a job list. www.bond.org.uk.
Job listings for various agencies, mostly in Europe, complied by World Service Enquiry (WCE)
Hacesfalta is a Spanish site with international jobs and volunteering opportunities. www.hacesfalta.com.
OneWorld lists jobs in human rights, environment and sustainable development worldwide. www.oneworld.net/jobs.
The Eldis gateway of development information lists jobs at www.eldis.org/news/jobs.htm.
Action Without Borders lists a large number of jobs at www.idealist.org. Free daily email service. It also lists every nonprofit job site or directory it could find on the web, at www.idealist.org/career/morejobs.html.
jobs4development.com, a database of jobs and consulting in international development
The Australian Aid Resource and Training Guide gives advice and information for people interested in aid work in Australia and internationally. Click here.Mango (www.mango.org.uk) provides a specialist register of accountants, to work with NGOs in the field and at HQ, full-time or on a consultancy basis.
InterAction (www.interaction.org) is an alliance of US-based international development and humanitarian NGOs. You will find a jobs link on their home page.
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) focuses on opportunities for Canadian citizens but includes links to international NGOs based in Canada and general advice of wider interest. www.acdi-cida.gc.ca.
Yellow Monday is a weekly newsletter from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Sussex, including a listing of internal and external job vacancies in the development sector. It is available online or by email. www.ids.ac.uk/ids/news/ymonday/index.html.
The Economist newspaper (www.economist.com) includes senior jobs in relief and development organisations (not only for economists). The UK's Guardian newspaper, at jobs.guardian.co.uk, also frequently lists humanitarian vacancies in its jobs section.
The US Foreign Policy Association lists jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities in relief and development organisations. Offers free e-mail notification for new postings. www.fpa.org/jobs_contact2423/jobs_contact.htm.
Overseas Recruitment Services is a Nairobi-based specialist recruitment service for qualified personnel in the relief and development sector in Africa. www.oresrecruitment.com.
If you found this page helpful, let others know:
I have screened résumés and served on hiring committees for a variety of aid, relief and development agencies and nonprofits, and with this experience, I have helped many professionals, from people just getting started to seasoned professionals, to improve their résumés and overall presentation, with excellent results. I can use this background to help improve your résumé - for a fee. Using your answers to a variety of questions, a review of your current résumé, and a review of the jobs you feel you are qualified for, I can work with you to greatly improve your résumé -- and, ultimately, improve your chances of being hired.
Details on volunteering abroad (volunteering internationally).
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Humanitarians & Aid Workers
Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip.
How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad
How to Find Volunteering Opportunities, a resource for adults who want to volunteer
Careers Working With Animals (for the benefit of animals)
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Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering (The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work)
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