How to become an international aid worker in 5 steps
Updated 31 July 2023
International aid workers help communities in need around the world and assist in various ways. These individuals utilise their strong interpersonal skills to communicate and serve in underdeveloped regions that may be dangerous or actively engaged in war. You might consider becoming an aid worker if you enjoy playing an active role in the international community and improving the quality of life of those in need. In this article, we discuss how to become an international aid worker, the different types of work, what they do and the necessary skills to become one.
What is an international aid worker?
Also known as humanitarian workers, international aid workers travel to turbulent and sometimes dangerous countries to provide emergency relief in various ways. Some may respond to natural disasters and help affected families with temporary shelter and food, whilst others may provide medical assistance to civilians in war-torn countries. Some aid workers may reside in a foreign country for longer periods to help develop and establish sustainable infrastructure and solutions to assist the local community. This is a multifaceted job and includes a variety of duties and responsibilities, depending on the hiring organisation and afflicted country.
How to become an international aid worker
If you're wondering how to become an international aid worker, there are no specific courses that can fast-track you through the process, but specific actions can help you acquire a job in the field. Here are some steps to help:
1. Obtain your bachelor's degree
Although there are no specific degrees associated with international aid, you can study related courses to assist you when you enter the international humanitarian field. Subjects such as economics, languages, medicine, social studies and sustainable engineering can boost your CV. Acquiring an entry-level position without a degree is unlikely unless you have substantial relevant work experience. You may also opt to pursue a master's degree, further developing your CV to seem more favourable to employers. Master's degrees are optional and many hiring organisations might value work experience instead.
2. Develop key skills and knowledge
Working in the humanitarian field often requires experience in relevant skills and in-depth knowledge of specific political, geographical, medical or social topics. A university degree can help you develop these skills and grow your knowledge by allowing you to work in team scenarios and learn relevant theoretical concepts that you can apply to your job in the future. You may also opt to take extracurricular courses to help expand your CV, such as learning a new language or supplementary subject.
3. Volunteer for non-profit organisations
One of the most beneficial steps to expand your professional CV as an international aid worker is volunteering for non-profit organisations. During your time as a volunteer, you can develop valuable connections through networking, learn how organisations operate and obtain the necessary qualifications for your entry-level application. Volunteering experience can equip you with the knowledge and familiarity to solve problems you may face in real-life scenarios. Many organisations look for volunteers and you may be able to apply for these roles even without a degree or further education.
Related: How to find volunteer work
4. Travel or study abroad
Although it's not a requirement to travel abroad as some may not have the chance to do so due to financial constraints, it can be beneficial if you're familiar with different countries and cultures. Many international aid workers have a unique perspective on local communities and may adapt quickly to new environments due to previous travelling experience. Studying abroad can be equally beneficial and many universities have study abroad programmes you can apply for that assist you in the transitioning process. Studying abroad can help familiarise you with immersing yourself in new cultures and languages.
5. Gain relevant work experience
Once you've obtained your degree and developed your CV, you can start looking for opportunities to expand your work experience. Since the role of a foreign aid worker is fluid and includes many different skills and factors, you can gain work experience in secondary positions, such as finance internships, social work or labour jobs. The vital aspects employers consider when looking for recruits is their ability to work in a team environment and their excellent interpersonal and organisational skills.
Types of humanitarian aid work
The humanitarian aid role is vast and includes many different categories, making the job accommodating to applicants with diverse backgrounds. Having experience in governance, administration, consulting, planning and relief work can help you significantly in the following fields:
natural disaster relief
environmental or sustainability infrastructure
healthcare and frontline medication
economic stability assistance
human rights support
domestic violence support
immigrant integration programmes
What does a foreign aid worker do?
A foreign aid worker has many responsibilities depending on the type of assistance they provide, where they're located in the world and their specialised skills. Your qualifications and work experience contribute to the type of humanitarian work you might do. For example, if you have a bachelor's degree in economics, you may do accounting and administrative work. Other responsibilities may include:
organising fundraising events and marketing efforts
planning and creating long-term strategies for local development and implementing sustainable solutions
researching and writing project reports
managing budgets and delegating resources and funds to the necessary departments
working on the ground and assisting with labour efforts or frontline emergency responses
organising and evaluating fast-moving responses to emergency situations
developing and maintaining key relationships with partner organisations, stakeholders and governmental bodies
communicating with and reporting to internal and external stakeholders
devising and implementing security measures to ensure the safety of ground staff whilst providing humanitarian aid
identifying and evaluating developing global situations
Necessary skills for international aid development workers
Due to the fluidity and scope of international aid work, there are a few core skills and traits that are valuable to employers. These skills may include:
Whether you're working as a frontline assistant or in an administrative capacity in your organisation's office, interpersonal skills are extremely important. Having strong interpersonal skills such as leadership, compassion and therapeutic consultancy helps you provide direct assistance to those in need. Emergencies can cause mental or physical trauma, which may require you to provide therapy and emotional support. Having strong interpersonal skills can enhance your professional success in an administrative position since the humanitarian field requires teamwork and collaboration.
Communication skills can help you in many areas in the international humanitarian field. The success of humanitarian aid depends on how well you can work in a team to provide long-term and sustainable solutions to problems. Some employees may require knowledge of the local language to converse and consult with locals, which involves a combination of communication skills and language knowledge. Others may liaise and negotiate with third party organisations, government bodies or internal and external stakeholders, all of which require confident communication ability.
Your work as a foreign aid employee may involve many activities that require strong organisational and administrative skills, such as organising fundraising events and marketing efforts, planning and executing aid relief, deploying fast-response units for emergencies and delegating the necessary funds and resources for daily activities. An organisational ability is important in international relief efforts, as departments are often located across the globe with centralised headquarters to delegate information and tasks. To help, organisations may implement a host of tools such as cloud drives, spreadsheet tools and digital communication applications.
As a relief worker, you may operate within small groups or large teams to complete a variety of tasks, requiring you to possess the ability to contribute and work productively in these environments. Teamwork is especially important for frontline workers as they may collaborate with locals and other direct response units to provide immediate and emergency relief for those in dire need. These situations may be dangerous or urgent, requiring a coordinated effort from all team members to complete the tasks efficiently.
Since emergencies require urgency and diplomacy, international aid workers can utilise their problem-solving skills to navigate these situations. Employees in the office negotiate with third parties, organise and plan disaster relief efforts and implement safety measures to protect frontline staff members during their activities, all of which require an ability to solve problems. If you're responsible for more direct relief efforts, the sensitive and sometimes dangerous environments you work in require immediate and appropriate problem-solving skills.
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