If we’re going to talk about the oddities of aid work, then the process of actually becoming an aid worker is probably a good place to start. In the normal world – bear with me on this one; as we stare down the still smoking barrel of the 2008 financial crisis I know job seeking for many people around the world is no longer ‘normal’. Suspend your disbelief for just a short period of time – the process goes something like: person wants job; person searches for said job; person finds and applies for job; person is interviewed and is successful; person rejoices briefly, then comes to realise this is not what they expected at all and the process begins again.
So you want to be an aid worker? Great! Start your search… except there is no job listing on Total Jobs for ‘humanitarian aid worker’. So where do you start?
A large part of getting into the humanitarian sector is navigating the ‘Catch 22’ situation. The Catch 22 situation is explained thus: you want a humanitarian job, but all the roles require you to have experience. You can’t get any experience because no one will take you on in a humanitarian organisation without any. When I first tried to enter the mystical world of humanitarianism, I was fairly confident about my transferable skills; I had managed people, I had managed projects, I had worked as part of an international team, I’d even done the whole volun-tourism thing, god damn it! But there was never any biting when I cast my rod into the humanitarian jobs pond. I was undeterred; I had previously worked for recruitment companies and so I pestered every organisation I applied to for feedback on my applications and where I was going wrong. Luckily, one replied and set me straight. ‘Humanitarianism is a very professionalised field,’ they told me, ‘most of our applicants have undergraduate or masters degrees in a subject related to the sector, such as development studies or international relations.’ On my last check, a BA in Media Studies wasn’t going to cut it. Strike 1.
Then there is the route of the – usually unpaid – internship. When I finally plucked up the courage to leave my secure job and head back to university to study the thing I actually wanted to do, the hot topic between classmates was how to get an internship at an organisation that could inch you closer to the elusive field. One discussion we often had was around how the majority of humanitarian internships were unpaid or poorly paid, and located mainly in London, thus pricing a lot of students (who had just spent all their available moola on a hugely expensive degree course and therefore were looking to lessen the figures behind that minus sign on their overdraft as quickly as possible) out of the market. We discussed how those students that were being priced out – typically from more working class or lower middle class families, typically northern, typically bright, able and ambitious – from getting that first step into the humanitarian sector by the lack of remuneration and the high costs of living in London. Strike 2.
Then there is the old chestnut, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ and in my case this turned out to be my golden opportunity. Having helped people previously to find their dream job as a recruitment consultant, I knew that networking could play a big role in helping to get a foot in the door. And I networked my arse off, even with people that didn’t want to be networked with (quite a lot actually). I spoke to everyone and anyone that might know of an opportunity and then one day, after a conference, I sat stuffing a muffin into my face and chatting absent-mindedly with one of the presenters. Apparently my muffin stuffin’ abilities impressed, or perhaps a little of what I said between mouthfuls, because after a few weeks, she contacted me and offered me a trial field role. Home run.
Speaking to a friend of mine recently, he told me the thing that annoyed him most about telling people what he did was that their reaction was typically, ‘I’m thinking of doing what you do, you know? I’d really just like to go out there and help people.’ It annoyed him, because he, like me, had worked, studied, scrimped and saved for years to finally get into an international humanitarian job, and that for people to think it easy was utterly infuriating. So, if becoming an aid worker is what you want to do, excellent, I applaud you, come and join this crazy ship, but just be sure you want it enough to jump through the hoops to get there.