How to Become an International Aid Worker: Career Path Guide
Becoming an international aid worker is something that many good, benevolent and caring people want to do. This, combined with the fact that most international aid agencies prefer to hire local workers whenever possible, make paid jobs in international aid highly competitive.
After all, people don’t get to become doctors, lawyers and architects just because they want to; they have to study and work for many years to develop the right skills. Working in international aid is no different.
Don’t be intimidated though, a career in this field is absolutely attainable! Those that become successful in this field are able to do so because they have more than a heart that’s in the right place; they have specialized skills, education and experience in a certain area.
If you want to become an international aid worker, you will need to share some attributes with those who are currently successful in the field. These attributes include:
• An awareness of what you’re getting yourself into
• Patience and determination
• Awareness of a niche you want to focus in
• Hard skills directly relevant to the job
• An advanced education
• Related work experience
• Plenty of volunteer experience
• A network of in-field professionals
Don’t worry, we’ll elaborate on all of these attributes below. But before we do that, let’s get started with the basics: an outline of the career itself. After all, this does sound like an appealing career based on the title alone, but what do international aid workers actually do? What does this career actually involve?
Education Needed to Work in International Aid
If you are an academic, then you are in luck. A master’s degree (or a specialized or professional degree such as engineering or nursing) is considered a ‘must have’ in order to work for a non-profit international aid organization.
There are some exceptions to this of course, such as if you have extensive (several years worth) of related experience.
Your master’s degree doesn’t have to be completely focused around a humanitarian or developmental crisis, like food security. It should however, work on something applicable, either through a course of study or dissertation.
For example, a master’s degree in Human Rights might seem applicable to the naked eye, just by virtue of its general topic area, but it’s the subsequent dissertation in a focused area that will make you an exact match for certain job postings.
International Aid Worker Job Description
The job of an international aid worker is difficult to describe, as international aid is quite a broad field. In general however, international aid workers are responsible for providing everyday, and emergency, services that improve the lives of animals, people and communities in the developing world.
Work in this broad field involves projects related to governance, healthcare, education, gender equality, disaster preparedness, infrastructure, economics, human and animal rights, forced migration, security, conflict and the environment.
Emergency assistance, such as help with natural disasters and troop reinforcements during periods of political unrest is also a form of international aid fieldwork.
As an international aid worker, you could be responsible for focusing on the administrative aspects of international aid, or you could be deployed in the country receiving the aid for fieldwork.
International Aid Work - Administration
If you decide to work in the administrative side of international aid, you would likely work in your organization’s head office. You would likely be responsible for working in an administrative area such as finance, project planning, communications, management, and other administrative areas.
International Aid - Fieldwork
Fieldwork in international aid involves direct delivery of specialized services, such as engineering, agricultural development, urban planning, business development consultancy, medicine, nursing, security, and other areas of political, social, and economic direct service delivery.
If you work in this area, you would need highly specific skills and expertise in your field. Fieldwork also usually involves working short-term, rather than long-term assignments.
Job Duties of an International Aid Worker
The duties you would perform in this line of work can vary considerably, typically depending on your area of specialty, and whether you are working domestically or abroad. In general however, international aid workers are responsible for the following:
• Conducting needs assessments
• Developing and monitoring objectives
• Organizing fundraising efforts
• Researching and writing project proposals and reports
• Evaluating the response required in fast-moving emergency situations
• Managing budgets and allocating resources
• Recruiting, managing and training staff and volunteers (in-field or domestically)
• Developing relationships with partner organizations in the field or at home and encouraging capacity building
• Communicating with relevant internal and external stakeholders including volunteers, clients, partners and donors
Personal Characteristics Needed to Become an International Aid Worker
You should now have a good idea of what a career as an international aid worker might entail. Perhaps this knowledge has scared you away, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re still reading this, it’s only furthered your resolve.
So, let’s start blazing your trail to finding success in this career!
The first step in getting started in this career, is finding out if you have the right personality and interests for work in this field. Do the following attributes describe you? If not, you could have some long days in this field. If so, success is just around the corner!
• You thrive when working in a multi-cultural environment
• You can accept the challenge of adapting to different cultures and work styles
• You can work live with people whose heritage, values, and beliefs are different from your own
• You are ambitious, but set realistic goals
• You can handle failure, as well as success
• You can stay focused on the tasks at hand when faced with many other unmet and compelling needs?
• You work well in a team, respect the role every member plays, and work cooperatively
• You have the ability to work long hours on a continual basis
• You are willing to go without everyday comforts to which you may be accustomed
• You are willing to be away for friends and family for months at a time
• You are willing to observe strict security measures, and only go out when instructed that it is safe to do so
• You are willing to put other commitments on hold at very short notice
• If you are self-employed, you are willing to lose business to work overseas for an extended period
• Your personal motivations for leaving are healthy, not an escape
International Aid Worker Job Opportunities
Experience Needed to Become Successful
You’re almost there! Having the right skills as outlined in the job posting means you’re on the right track. What can make you leap ahead of the competition and become the ideal candidate? Answer: having plenty of relevant work experience.
Catch 22: Gaining Work Experience Without Work Experience
Have you ever noticed that job postings require X amount of work experience, but you don’t have any? How are you supposed to get that job without work experience…and how are you supposed to get work experience without a job?
Even with a master’s degree, it is close to impossible to land your first paid job in international aid without some experience on your resume.
So what’s the way around this? Volunteering! You often have to do unpaid work to start gaining this experience. However, if you are drawn to working in international aid, then volunteering is right up your alley.
Volunteering or working for a few years at local nonprofit organizations that serve high poverty areas, people with disabilities, youth, the elderly, abused women, women re-entering the work force, elections, or other areas that need volunteers, is a great way to gain this experience.
Eventually, you will be able to volunteer for positions that directly align with the experience needed to work a paid job in international aid.
For example, you may have your eyes on a job posting that required experience working for organizations that provide health-related education, advocacy or care. If you have plenty of volunteer experience in this area, and you are educated in it to boot, then voilà! You are qualified for the job!
Work Environment for International Aid Workers
If you are serious about becoming an international aid worker, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. Some people find the idea of working abroad to help others quite romantic, until they actually get the chance to do it. Many people will talk like superheroes, but few will actually stay the course when push comes to shove in this generally harsh working environment.
There will be drawbacks to your work, regardless of whether it is domestic or abroad. You need to be aware of what these are before you commit yourself to this career.
Although living conditions can vary drastically from one mission to the next, you might find yourself in isolated accommodations or living in close quarters with a number of other people.
In addition, you may be without the everyday comforts to which you are accustomed. Security restrictions will likely limit where you can go, what you can do, and when you can do it.
If you crave the international aspect of the work, you may be lamenting the idea of domestic work at your organization’s head office. If you prefer it, then you’re in luck!
Depending on the level of demand for positions for which you are qualified, you may have to tolerate spending years working domestically, waiting for an international position to open up.
Skills Needed to Become an International Aid Worker
Although it is a good start, having the right personality for the job is not enough. People in developing countries need workers with hard skills. As an international worker, you will be there to fill a gap in skills that local people do not have.
To find out exactly what skills you’ll need, it’s best to browse job postings for international aid workers. You will quickly see that many jobs require expertise in certain areas, such as medicine, nursing, nutrition, agricultural engineering, project management, and other areas.
Regardless of what area of expertise you have, you will need to be sure that your skills are an exact match for the job posting. Because of the nature of international aid projects, aid organizations tend not to just send people out on deployment missions who aren’t a perfect fit in every way. They will often wait to fill a position until they have a perfect match for the job.
For example, if the job posting says the employer is looking for a candidate who had, "fluency in French", then they want applicants who can do the job interview entirely in French, not someone who has had a few years of French classes.
Who Creates Jobs for International Aid Workers?
As an international aid worker, you would likely be employed by a charity or non-governmental organization (NGO), as these types of organizations employ the vast majority of international aid workers. These organizations may range in size, structure, region of focus, area of focus, and capacity to employ paid staff.
You may be able to find some jobs with other non-profit and not-for-profit organizations, such as governmental agencies, although these jobs are much more rare.
Depending on the current needs of the employer, and your area of specialty, you can find many different types of jobs with organizations that hire aid workers.
For example, some organizations have jobs for domestic, head-office based positions in administrative areas such as finance and project management. Others may have jobs for fieldwork in different areas of specialization, such as nutrition, engineering, medicine and other areas. Some organizations may be hiring for both types of job.
Types of International Aid: Areas of Specialty
Very few people with general skill sets earn the opportunity to work in international aid. This is because international aid agencies prefer to hire locals whenever possible, as it is a form of investing in the country being assisted. International workers are typically only brought in to fill gaps in expertise.
Common types of specializations include (but are not limited to):
• Agricultural and civil engineering
• Health and healthcare delivery
• Intergovernmental relations
• Micro-business development
• Project management
• Rural business development
• Security and law enforcement
• Water sanitation
Success Tip: Having expertise in one of the areas listed above is a great way to become more valuable in the eyes of international aid agencies.
International Aid Worker Jobs
Our job board below has "International Aid Worker" postings in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
International Aid Worker Salary
You may be curious to know how much you may be able to earn as an international aid worker. The truth is, the amount you could earn as an international aid worker varies quite widely, depending on the following factors:
• The size and type of your employer
• The ability of your employer to support paid staff
• Your specific area of skill and expertise
• Whether or not you are going to be working abroad
• The length of your employment term
There is no salary information available from reliable sources for international aid workers. However, browsing job postings related to your specific area of interest in international aid can give you a good idea of what employers are offering.
As you browse international aid job postings, you may notice that many employers are non-profit organizations. Because of this, they typically cannot offer the same level of salary as an employer in the for-profit sector for similar jobs.
This may seem obvious, but not many people become international aid workers for the money. Generally, their career ambitions have altruistic roots. You will find this reflected in the salary level offered by employers during your job search.
Keep in mind however, that salaries that would be small in Canada, the UK and the United States can go a long way when you are living abroad. Many employers may also offer stipends and cover certain living expenses.
Careers Similar to International Aid Worker
Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to International Aid Worker, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.
NGO Area Coordinator: An area coordinator for and NGO is responsible for developing strategies and programs in support of the NGO’s mandate, which are usually aimed at uplifting society.
Fundraiser: Fundraisers are responsible working closely with work closely with volunteer committees to raise awareness and financial support for the organizations that employ them.
Project Manager: Project managers are responsible for managing the strategic, financial, operational and technological aspects of projects in a variety of industries. They must ensure projects are completed on time, to specification and within budget.
Volunteer Coordinator: Volunteer coordinators are responsible for furthering the mission of non-profit, voluntary and public sector organizations by providing volunteers with effective leadership, and by effectively managing volunteer programs.
References: International Aid Worker Career Information
To find out more about what an international aid worker does, how much they earn, and other details of this career, please consult the following resources:
Prospects website - Seven Tips for Becoming an International Aid Worker: www.prospects.ac.uk
Forbes website - International Aid/Development Worker: www.forbes.com
Red Cross website - Are You Ready to be an International Aid Worker?: www.redcross.ca
Scholarships for Becoming an International Aid Worker
Looking for Canadian or American scholarships to help you on your way to becoming an international aid worker? We’ve got you covered! Here's how to find the best-suited scholarships:
• On academicinvest.com, our scholarship listings are sorted by major
• The “Applicable Majors” section below shows majors that apply to this career
• Visit our All Scholarships by Major page to find scholarships sorted by those majors
Applicable Majors for Becoming an International Aid Worker
The university majors below are applicable to a career as an international aid worker, as they can teach you relevant skills and competencies. Click on the majors below to find other careers that you can pursue!