What Does a Humanitarian Worker Do?

by Sheri_Oz

Is humanitarian work in developing countries for you? Maybe reading about my experience will help you decide.

I am an experienced family therapist and trauma therapist who dreamed of going to Africa since I was ten years old. An unexpected invitation came after I had retired from clinical practice and I jumped at the chance to apply my professional skills in the newest nation in the world, South Sudan.

I have been in Africa four times so far. The experience was and was not what I had expected it to be.

Let me share my experiences with you and see for yourself if this is the kind of adventure you would enjoy.

If you are considering a career (or even just a stint) as a humanitarian aid worker, you should educate yourself on how to break into the field. It is a very cliquey area of work and without personal contacts you need to work especially hard to get that first job. 

This guide - and the author's blog: Humanitarian Jobs - will give you what you need to know.

What I Found to be True of Humanitarian Work

And Did Not Surprise Me
  • You work long hours. If you are getting paid and you expect to earn a decent wage hour-wise, you should find something else to do.
  • It takes time to get used to the nuances of the culture in which you are working. Therefore you can expect to make mistakes based on simple misunderstanding of apparently simple words (such as "yes" or "no") or gestures (such as hand movements or facial expressions). So there is certainly plenty of room for sometimes quite serious misunderstandings of more complex issues, such as time, approach to planning, the kind of help being offered, etc.
  • Team members will disagree, sometimes quite deeply, even leading to serious conflicts that require quick and possibly painful compromise in order not to risk the project.
  • Not everyone will appreciate the assistance you are providing. Some will not value it and others (I have heard second-hand) may even resent you being there.
  • You learn a lot about the culture in which you find yourself.
  • You learn a lot about yourself.

What I Found True About Humanitarian Work

And Took Me by Surprise
  • You may work all day, into the evening and sometimes on weekends as well - all without much break or time to relax and digest what is happening.
  • You may be seen by the local people as someone with more money, power or influence than you actually have. People may ask you to recommend them for asylum, for example, or for money for running programs in their community. They may be happy to see you, therefore, for what they think you can give them and not for who you are. This is a jarring experience.
  • Subtle cultural differences were far greater than I had anticipated. This was fun to discover and explore.
  • Some places we worked in were far more primitive than I believed possible. This was an eye-opener to the way some members of our global society live day in and day out. It had far-reaching impact on me.
  • Hierarchy had to be respected to a degree I had never before experienced - hierarchy within my organization and within the community in which we worked.
  • Not everyone who gets involved in humanitarian work is open to truly experience another culture; some of them are downright patronizing. Not in my organization, but among some of the others.
  • Some humanitarian organizations exist to perpetuate themselves more than for the assistance they offer the recipient communities.
  • Donors often dictate the kind of humanitarian activities undertaken and continued.

IsraAID Website
IsraAID is the organization that sent me to Africa.

The Difference Between Positive and Negative Humanitarian Aid

From what I have seen, organizations remain in a community as long as donors are happy with the reports they are getting from the field. They want to see "results" from their donations and words, such as capacity building and sustainability, for example, are used freely.The former means helping the local people gain the skills required for them to carry out new tasks (as opposed to having aid workers do these tasks for them) and the latter means that projects can be maintained even after the humanitarian organization leaves the area.

However, when donors do not understand what is actually happening on the ground, they may be more interested in numbers of people who attended a workshop, for example, than in the degree to which some of these attendees actually learned how to apply what they learned. Capacity building and sustainability are not measurable by numbers alone.

Positive humanitarian aid occurs when local communities acquire the skills and education to continue to develop on their own - when you teach them to make their own fishing equipment as opposed to giving them fish.

Before you decide whether or not to work for a particular organization, you may want to inquire about how they measure success and what their ultimate goals are. Listen to the subtleties of their responses. I was lucky - I happened to "fall into" an organization that values teaching beneficiaries to develop and grow and does that at "eye level".

Diversity of Humanitarian Workers' Professional Backgrounds

There are many professions that are sought by government agencies working in foreign countries and nonprofit nongovernmental humanitarian organizations.

Social workers and psychologists may find work training mental health or counseling staff.

Educators may find positions developing curricula or providing on-the-job training for local teachers. Teachers of English as a Second Language are highly sought out.

There is work for program developers, program managers, financial managers, accountants, fund raisers, etc. Some of these jobs will be carried out in the organizations' country of origin and some will be located at field offices in beneficiary countries.

Doctors, nurses, paramedics and those in allied fields can find humanitarian positions more easily than many other professionals.

Lawyers may find work in fields involving human rights, women's rights or other related areas.

Agriculturalists, water resources specialists, geologists, climatologists, etc may also find interesting positions in third-world countries.

Students in any of these fields may have access to work-study programs that involve overseas placements.


If you want to see if your profession is required in humanitarian work in other countries, go to one website specializing in job search for international development work.

Qualifications Required for International Development Work

While there are some voluntary organizations that accept young people who have energy, time, flexibility and are looking for adventure but have not yet acquired a profession, most organizations are looking for professionals who also have field experience. It is the old "Catch 22" where you need experience to get experience. Therefore, to find out more about how to begin a career in humanitarian aid, check out the blog on getting started as a humanitarian worker.

In general the basic educational minimum requirement is a BA, while in many cases a masters or even a PhD degree is needed. Your degree may be in law, medicine, social sciences, social work, agriculture, biology, water management, etc.

If you want to work as a program manager or developer in the humanitarian and development field, you would be well advised to study this topic directly. There are degree programs in human rights law, international law, humanitarian studies, international cooperation, humanitarian policy, international conflict resolution, women's studies, etc.

Emotional Preparation for Humanitarian Work

The aspect of humanitarian work covered least is the emotional and relational impact on the workers' lives. For anyone considering entering this field, it is essential to prepare oneself for the life-changing experiences one undergoes when encountering, unfiltered and up-close, individuals and communities torn apart by poverty, national disaster or war.

You cannot work in these environments without challenges to your values, perspectives on the world and humanity and your sense of self. The organizations that send people to the field do not provide the social and emotional supports that are necessary for coping well and people are left on their own to devise their own ways of keeping themselves sane, some better and some worse.

Three friends, who met on such a journey, came together to write this book in which they describe how they fared. This is an important read.

Humanitarians on the Web

Information on the Internet for the Potential Humanitarian Worker

Humanitarian Work and Psychology
Find information on combining an interest in psychology, community development, and humanitarian aid.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
An article describing the work of three humanitarian workers working for the UN in South Sudan.

Toward Better Aid
Harvard experts on the past and future of humanitarian work

What Does it Mean to be a Professional Humanitarian?
Academic paper describing the history and process of providing humanitarian aid.

Interview with Carine Jonckheere
Interview with a Belgian humanitarian aid worker who worked as a programme officer in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Humanitarian Volunteers
Website providing information about volunteering as a humanitarian worker in developing countries.

Website that provides up to date information on humanitarian work around the world. It includes a list of nonprofits working around the globe which you may contact to inquire about possible work or volunteer positions.

The Vacation Part of Humanitarian Work

Some Articles I Wrote After Returning Home

Juba, South Sudan, in Photos
Sample photos I took during my time in Juba. This is no small accomplishment since, while photographing anything but official buildings and security workers is no longer illegal, the police and army apparently have not heard that and they will confiscate cameras if they see you taking pictures.

Risks to Humanitarian Aid Workers in Sub-Saharan East Africa
Describes the dangers an aid worker in East Africa may face and the ways to keep safe. These dangers include poisonous insects, spiders and snakes, disease, violent crime and emotional distress.

The Turkana Tribe of Northern Kenya
A fascinating tribal peoples of Northern Kenya, with a related tribe in Eastern South Sudan. I have just begun to explore the nature of these people and their culture.

Kakuma Refugee Camp, Safe Haven or Human Warehousing?
Built 25 years ago to help those fleeing the war in South Sudan, this camp now houses refugees from many African states, some of whom have not found asylum and some children born in the camp are still there as adults.

Traveling South Sudan Roads
The decades of war have prevented this country from establishing the infrastructure most countries take for granted. It is definitely a challenge to travel the roads of South Sudan.

Inspirations from South Sudan
The optimism and energy of the South Sudanese people is contagious. Their pride and determination to build a healthy nation are inspiring. It affected me personally.

Juba, South Sudan, for the Intrepid Traveler
South Sudan is not yet set up for tourists. It is not yet set up for its own inhabitants either. But the adventuresome traveler, who is prepared for difficulties and primitive conditions, can have an amazing experience here. Let's just start with the capital city, Juba.

Safari in Nimule National Park, South Sudan
Not set up for tourists, the only people who come to the park so far are humanitarian workers in various organizations. You will not see many animals, but it is an experience worth having - you WALK in the park!

Ten Reasons and More to Visit Nairobi National Park
I was surprised at the large number of animals it is possible to see in this park. It is actually in Nairobi, but open to the animals' natural migratory routes. If you cannot get out to one of the larger parks, this is a definitely "must-see" site.

Kazuri Handmade Beads From Kenya
A factory set up to provide employment for single mothers, the Kazuri factory is a great place to visit for a couple of hours. This article shows you the process of bead-making as you will see on a free guided tour of the factory.

Have You Ever Visited a Maasai Homestead?
Determined to see close-up how the Maasai live, I actually managed to do it! With a driver from Nairobi who was doubtful, we made contact with a young Maasai man who took us to his family's homestead.

Updated: 01/23/2015, Sheri_Oz
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Comments and Questions

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Sheri_Oz on 03/01/2014

Thanks so much for this vote of confidence in my article and responses to readers. Much appreciated.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/01/2014

Such an interesting bird's-eye view of this career -- a career which easily is idealized, until one actually is there, elbow- and knee-deep in the moment-to-moment realities. Humanitarian work can be a very fulfilling career, and your commitment is clear.
I also noticed all the comments from those interested in pursuing humanitarian work as a career. Your succinct presentation and helpful responses surely are appreciated.

Sheri_Oz on 02/25/2014

I agree with you fancytoughboots. Unfortunately, even having had Peace Corps or similar experience when young, when in that fancy apartment with a fat salary, that previous sensitivity can be lost as a different kind of pragmatism takes over.
Thanks for your comment and for sharing.

Sheri_Oz on 01/05/2014

Thanks, Jess. It's always fun meeting others who do what we do.

Sheri_Oz on 01/04/2014

Thanks, VioletteRose. It is me who is the privileged one being able to have adventures and be useful at the same time.

VioletteRose on 01/04/2014

I really appreciate you, it is really challenging. Thanks for sharing this great article.

Sheri_Oz on 12/09/2013

No problem, pastrani - you can find my private message button on my profile page.

pastrani on 12/09/2013

Hi Sheri,

I grew up in the world of development and relief and I have always intended on working in it so I studied and traveled as much as possible and now I am really trying to make a push for a job. I am looking specifically at South Sudan as my point of entry (which brought me to this article) and I was wondering if I could contact you privately somehow? I have a BA (Economics), a Bachelor of Business, a PG Dip in Development Studies and a Grad Cert in Social Anthropology and I have lived 15 of my 29 years in Asia, South America and Europe (with the rest in NZ). I have a small amount of savings and I am considering the possibility of flying to South Sudan and trying to find my feet.....

Sheri_Oz on 06/14/2013

@Kavish W. I'm glad you found the article helpful. If you want to work in humanitarian aid professions, I suggest you explore the website: http://www.devnetjobs.org/ because they list qualifications for the variety of jobs available. You can also talk with a careers adviser at your college who should be able to give you more ideas.
Good luck in your studies.

Kavish W. on 06/14/2013

Hi Sheri. Brilliant article. (hopeful) future aid worker/ humanitarian here and I was looking for a resource like this.. especially about the downsides of the field. Anyway, I'm going to be starting College next year. I still haven't decided on a Major yet, although I am considering a few such as; International Relations, development, Social Anthropology or something in the ICT field. Those are all interests of mine and will (hopefully) allow me to take managerial positions/ desk jobs (don't really see being in the field forever)
Any suggestions or pointers?

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