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How To Become An International Aid Worker

International aid consists of short-term and long-term projects in places around the world. Aid workers provide support following war, natural disasters, famines, and other issues. They also contribute setting up sustainable solutions in education, health, agriculture, and more. This career comes with many rewards and challenges. Interested in pursuing this field? Here’s how to become an international aid worker, including what kinds of responsibilities you’ll have, what qualifications you’ll need, and what skills employers look for.

What are the types of international aid?

International aid is any type of assistance given to one country by another country. This encompasses a range of both short-term and long-term projects and responsibilities. Workers occupy fields like research, fundraising, relief work, medical care, administration, training, engineering, and planning. They work on issues like human rights, climate change, education, disaster preparation, infrastructure, security, gender equality, and much more. As an international aid worker, responsibilities vary significantly based on your specific field, position, and location. Some examples include:

  • Researching and developing project reports
  • Organizing fundraising
  • Developing strategies for disaster management
  • Monitoring and evaluating the success of projects
  • Managing budgets
  • Working with NGOs and public institutions

What educational qualifications are required?

Most international aid workers need a higher education degree. If you look at humanitarian NGO job listings, you’ll see that a bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum qualification for an entry-level position. That said, most NGOs want job candidates with master’s degrees. What degree is best? It depends on the field you want to focus on. If you want to work on engineering projects, you’ll need an engineering degree. If you want to focus on administrative work, a degree in logistics, finance, HR, or administration is the best fit. Other relevant degrees include international development, foreign affairs, human rights, humanitarian action and international law.

No matter what you focus on when getting your bachelor’s and postgraduate degree, seek out courses in international affairs, international development, aid management, and other global-focused topics. Schools will also likely host relevant workshops, lectures, and other educational opportunities that give you a chance to learn more, talk to experts, and connect with other students on the same path as you. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can while you’re still studying. Those years in school offer you a unique learning setting that’s difficult to replicate later on.

How much experience do international aid workers need?

As with most humanitarian-oriented careers, experience is just as important, if not more so, than a degree. While you’re in school, take advantage of study abroad or work abroad programs. You’ll gain essential skills and practical experience studying or completing an internship/fellowship in another country. Bear in mind that not all programs are paid. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations Office for Project Services, CARE USA, and SaferWorld offer paid internships mostly based in the United States. Most internships last between 6-12 months. Always check to see if organizations want candidates at a certain year of their education. If you’re not from the country where the internship is held, make sure you know what the application process requires.

Volunteering with an international organization is another great way to build experience and professional connections. In addition to volunteer opportunities, many humanitarian NGOs provide training programs (sometimes free, sometimes with a fee) for people interested in international aid. Many of the trainings are provided online, so they’re easily accessible for anyone with an internet connection. You can also take humanitarian courses online on platforms like Coursera and edX to learn about topics like public health, international law, and children’s rights from leading institutions. Certificates are usually available for a fee. With a CV of paid or unpaid internships, volunteer work, and extra education, you’ll be equipped to begin international aid work.

What skills do international aid workers need?

International aid is a challenging field that requires practical skills (like speaking another language) and soft skills (like emotional resilience). Knowing which skills are most important helps you sharpen them and highlight them when you’re applying for jobs. Here’s a breakdown:

Speak a second language

While there are careers in international aid that don’t require knowledge of multiple languages, you’ll be eligible for more opportunities if you speak English along with French, Arabic, or Spanish. If you have a specific country you’re committed to working in, you’ll need to speak that community’s language. The more languages you speak, the more places you can work and travel to.

Have strong teamwork skills

Teams perform international aid work, so as a worker, you’ll need excellent teamwork and team-building skills. You’ll often find yourself in stressful, fast-paced environments with complex projects. You’ll work on diverse teams that come from different cultural backgrounds. Teamwork makes or breaks the success of work like this.

Have strong problem-solving skills

Every job requires good problem-solving skills, but in international aid work, the stakes can be very high. Assisting in crises like natural disasters and war comes with problems that shift and evolve quickly. International aid workers also travel or are relocated as their skills are needed. You’ll be constantly faced with problems that need solving. Adaptability, innovative ideas, and quick thinking are all necessary.

Have a deep understanding of global issues

To become an international aid worker, you’ll need a passion for global issues. That means understanding the root causes of global events, the history and politics of different areas, and the different cultural environments. You’ll build a lot of knowledge through your education, but organizations want workers committed to ongoing learning and deeper thinking. You can continue your learning journey through studying the media, listening to experts, conducting research, taking courses, and more.

Build emotional resilience

International aid workers deal with high stress. Not only is the work itself challenging, but it can be very competitive. As you begin your career, you’ll need strong emotional resilience when applying and interviewing for jobs because rejection will most likely occur frequently. Then, once you have a job, you’ll need emotional resilience to manage the stress that comes with your work. You might have to travel a lot and be away from home and the people you love. You might live in places where your security is at risk or your access to housing, certain food, and other resources is limited. Organizations want aid workers who are emotionally strong and adaptable. Emotional resilience is built through things like connections with other people, negative thought management, and relaxation techniques like meditation.

What organizations hire international aid workers?

Many types of organizations provide international aid. Many workers spend their careers working for different NGOs, often traveling and living in many countries over the years. There are some careers within the public sector, as well, while workers with more experience can work as consultants for different organizations. Here are some examples of international aid organizations:

Doctors Without Borders

Also called Médecins Sans Frontières, this humanitarian organization responds to emergencies like conflicts, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and more. It primarily provides medical care. Around 11 million people are helped every year.

Action Against Hunger

Founded in 1979, this international nonprofit provides food assistance, healthcare, and training to farmers. Action Against Hunger has a presence in over 50 countries.

International Rescue Committee

Working in over 40 countries, IRC provides water, sanitation services, shelter, and education to refugees and people displaced by war, persecution, natural disasters, and other crises. The organization also helps with self-sufficiency skills and resettlement.

UNICEF

The children’s rights agency of the UN, the United Nations Children’s Fund programs focus on childhood nutrition, education, food assistance, maternal care, and more. It has a presence in over 190 countries.

International Federation Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

As the world’s largest humanitarian organization, the IFRC has 192 national societies around the world. It provides water, food, and medical assistance, as well as disaster relief, health training, and more.

Direct Relief

Founded in 1948, Direct Relief provides disaster relief and emergency medical assistance around the world. The organization also supports partners in high-need areas, so communities can access child and maternal health services.

How much do international workers earn?

Your specific salary depends on your field, your level of education and experience, where you’re based, and what organization you’re working for. According to ZipRecruiter, a humanitarian aid worker in the United States (per 2022 data) makes an average of $39,279 per year or $18.88 an hour. The website Shmoop, a student and teacher resource, lists $30,000/year as the average salary for international aid workers. Many organizations (like the United Nations) offer danger pay for workers based in risky areas. Full-time international aid workers also often get stipends for insurance, housing, utilities, and their children’s education, which can help make up for relatively small salaries. Small salaries can also go much further in certain parts of the world.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.