I’ve received a great deal of email inquiry lately from many of you, hoping for a career in the aid world, asking my advice about how to make that happen. And one thing that the majority of you seem to have in common is that you want to do “hands-on” work. You’ve made it very clear that you’re not so interested in sitting at a computer with spreadsheets or Word documents open in front of you, tasked with making sure that the cells are calculating properly or meeting a reporting deadline. By contrast, you are very interested in working “with the people” “on the front line” “in the field.”
I get it. If you’re the kind of person who’d seriously consider a career in humanitarian aid or development, you’re probably not the kind of person who aspires to a 9-5 office job where the dress code is “business casual.” But as Alanna once wrote, “Most development work is office work”, and in another post, “we can go days without seeing anyone who is helped by our work.” She may have been writing about expats working on development programs, but let’s not quibble about terminology: these are absolutely true for relief workers, too. I flew in to Port-au-Prince in a 6-seat plane on day 10 after The Earthquake, but for most of the first month I was chained to a desk. And while of course there are some expat roles which inherently include more need for field time than others (being the M&E coordinator typically gets you out to the field more than being, say, the finance manager), you need to prepare yourself for this, too.
There are posts and posts and even books which could be written about why this is the way that it is. For now, I’ll briefly point out a few of the more obvious reasons:
More and more is being done by qualified locals. And rightly so. They’re the ones with language and cultural skills. It takes years and money for a foreigner to become competent just on the language and culture (to name only a few crucial skills).
More and more of the hands-on work is highly specialized. (As I read your email, I infer that when many of you use the term “hands-on”, what you really mean is “interact directly with beneficiaries.”) The work of interacting with beneficiaries is increasingly around specialized skills – things to do with people’s health or medical well-being, things around livelihoods or economics, very sensitive areas like human reproductive or safety and protection issues, to name just a few. Most NGOs now require that those who engage in this sort of interaction have degree backgrounds which qualify them to do it. We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods, here. It makes no sense and it’s unethical to put an inexperienced person on these tasks.
More and more of the hands-on work is casual labor. It’s somewhat paradoxical, given my point above, but it’s true. Much of the work that many, perhaps even you, envision doing when you envision humanitarian work is more or less menial labor. Building buildings, schlepping bags from the warehouse to the truck or from the truck to the distribution zone, cleaning up rubble or debris, distributing food or NFIs. It makes zero sense to send internationals to do this work, and not because the work is menial and it’s below internationals, but because there’s simply no need. Local people depend on this work for their livelihoods, too.
I’ll say it again: Most aid, development and relief work is office work. Even in “the field”, the majority of the actual work that needs doing is around managing data and information and the flow of resources. This is the real “front line” “hands-on” work office work – just often in places where the offices aren’t as nice or where connectivity is poor or where it might be dangerous to walk outside. I won’t try to put a percentage on it, but as you consider a career in the aid world, you do need to understand that you will do a lot, if not mostly, if not almost exclusively office work. And while humanitarian aid and development can for many be an intensely rewarding career, I very strongly recommend that you adjust your expectations according to this reality.