International Aid Worker Career: Work Environment


Understand the work environment before you pursue in international aid

The work environment of an international aid worker is nothing like that of traditional domestic jobs, and certainly nothing to take lightly if you're planning on entering this field.


If you are serious about becoming an international aid worker, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. This career is not without its fair share of personal and professional demands and sacrifices. 


You may have to start with office work, so make the most of it

Before you are deployed on field missions, you may have to work at your aid organization’s head office for a few months, or a few years. Not all international aid workers will have to do this before a proper field job for them opens up, but many will.


Even if you have a master’s degree and a plethora of relevant experience, you may still be relegated to starting in an admin role with an aid organization. This may be because they want you to earn your keep for these competitive jobs, or simply because there are not suitable jobs open at the time.


If you are chosen for office admin work before a chance to do what you really want to do - namely get into fieldwork - then make the most of it!


Instead of lamenting the seemingly mundane admin work of a head office, own it! A quick stint at the head office of an international humanitarian or animal aid can allow you to get to know the work that goes on behind the scenes, which gives you a more comprehensive understanding of international aid overall.


It also allows you to meet and network with the right people for the next two, three, even four jobs down the line.


Are you willing to make professional sacrifices?

Many people want a job that involves being able to travel. International aid is certainly a field that involves traveling for work. This travel for work however, may disrupt an established professional life.


It’s important to consider that as an international aid worker, you will have to put your professional life on hold when called for a mission, often on short notice.


If you have another job, you have a lot to consider before leaving on an international mission. For example, your employer may take issue with an extended, or short notice absence. You also have to consider the fact that your co-workers may have to make adjustments to their workload in order to accommodate for your absence.


If you are self-employed you must be willing to risk losing business while you are away. You must also be able to prepare contingency plans in the event that you are called away on short notice, or for a long period of time.


Whether self-employed or working for someone else, you also have to keep in mind that you will likely need time to re-adjust to your old work environment upon your return. Your perspective and attitude towards your everyday work may also change once you have been in exposed to the extreme conditions inherent in international aid.


Personal sacrifice is the name of the game

Being an international aid worker involves more than its fair share of personal sacrifice. Traveling to remote locations for work, often on short notice or for extended periods of time, means you will be away from friends and family, and likely have few opportunities for contact.


Of course, this sacrifice does have its rewards. You will often have the chance to forge long-lasting and deep friendships with like-minded people.


It’s important to take a good long look at your motivation for leaving to work abroad. If you’re leaving for unhealthy reasons, such as to escape a problem, you probably won’t last long in this field. Worse yet, your lack of focus could land you in very dangerous situations while working in conflict zones and other dangerous areas.


You should also consider how those closest to you will react to your decision to leave. Will their support, or lack thereof, have an affect on your decision? 




Living accommodations for international aid workers

Although the working conditions for international aid workers can vary from one mission to the next, they often involve adapting to new living arrangements and environments.


If you plan on entering this field, you must be comfortable living in isolated surroundings with very limited contact with others of a similar cultural background. You must also be willing to live very closely to others in shared accommodations that don’t offer the same level of luxury that you may be used to.


As the internet may not be always accessible, you must be comfortable living in a situation where you may not be able to readily access the internet or contact your friends and families overseas.


International aid work can be extremely dangerous

If you plan on entering this field, it’s very important that you fully understand the risk and dangers posed to your personal safety.


Deepening political crises in a few select hot spots across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America have made it increasingly risky for aid organizations to operate in many remote and unstable locations.


Kidnappings, acts of violence and murder against international aid workers have gone from rare to relatively common occurrences in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.   


Many aid organizations now have guarded compounds that they live within, and have implemented security measures that mimic those of large corporations that operate in dangerous regions.


Despite these increased security measures, many aid organizations are being advised to leave some of these regions altogether.


If you want to become an international aid worker, you have to be comfortable working in an insecure environment where your life may be in danger. You also must be willing to adapt your daily non-working routines to situations where your movement is tightly restricted.


Physical and mental demands of the working environment

Working and living in isolated and dangerous conditions, without the conveniences of western society, can be extremely stressful and highly taxing on your mind, body and spirit. 


In order to survive your new working environment, you will need to have excellent mental and physical health, as well as self-discipline in eating, exercise, and sleep.


You will be okay in this environment if you have an optimistic outlook, a finely tuned ability to cope with stress, a healthy self-esteem and a solid sense of self.


How to Become an International Aid Worker

So, are you up to the challenge of living and working in the demanding, dangerous, stressful, yet rewarding environment that a career in international aid offers?


Check out our How to Become an International Aid Worker: Career Path Guide for information on the education and skills you'll need to break into this field!





Canadian Red Cross website - Are You Ready to Be an International Aid Worker?:

Devex website - A risky business: Aid workers in danger:



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