By Jennifer Vibert
I have worked in the humanitarian sector (both development and emergency contexts) since 2010, for organizations in the UN system, the Red Cross Movement and small NGOs. Making the transition from academic study to work in the humanitarian field requires a mental shift; as one can imagine, there are a huge variety of issues which crop up in programming and implementation which international relations or development theory does not prepare you for. You may find yourself spending a lot more time thinking about how to literally and figuratively circumvent road blocks while adhering to your organization’s security rules, than you do about positivist theory. However, the humanitarian field is one where I have certainly seen a clear connection between theory and practise – where things that I studied and debated at university are actually reflected in programming. And there are increasing numbers of blogs and publications which provide great insight into what it’s like to work in the humanitarian field (tinged with more or less cynicism depending on the author).
In the interests of not being disingenuous, let me say this up front: The humanitarian sector is a challenging one to get into. While jobs are available, competition is fierce, and job insecurity is a frequent concern. The adage “You need experience to get experience” was, during my own career development, very accurate; even some unpaid internships require more than one year of experience. (It took two of these before I landed a paid job for a humanitarian organization). Hands on, practical skills and experiences are highly valued and a very necessary complement to academic achievements. The UN system, for example, largely requires at minimum a Master’s degree to apply for international jobs, but positions also regularly require years of field experience. However, there is very good reason for this – there is truly no substitute for the knowledge field work brings, not only in terms of programming but also in terms of one’s ability to work in different cultural, linguistic and security contexts.
All of this said, it is definitely possible to build a career in the humanitarian world, provided you are driven and dedicated. For those who are interested in breaking into this field, here are a few tips from my own personal experiences:
- Field work is extremely important. If you have the opportunity over one summer or through your program of study to do an internship or volunteer program, this is a very good way to get field experience. (Be sure to do your due diligence on the organization you go with).
- Networking matters. As in every sector, personal connections and contacts can be very important for your career development.
- Be prepared to make sacrifices. Whether missing family milestones for a three month surge emergency posting, or not seeing your partner for an extended period of time, this field will demand you make trade-offs.
- Be persistent. It can be easy to become discouraged, especially when applying for jobs. But if this field truly is your passion, find a way to stay motived to keep searching and pursuing opportunities.
All in all, the humanitarian field is an extremely rewarding one, and although it took a lot of effort to build my career, I could not imagine doing anything else.
Jennifer Vibert, MA (Queen’s)
Manager, Emergency Programming, Canadian Red Cross.
 See for example the “Secret Aid Worker” blog from The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/series/secret-aid-worker, formerly “Confessions of a Humanitarian”; or Devex International Development site, https://www.devex.com/.