A recent post on AJE gave some very reasonable advice to those graduating in the northern hemisphere about working in the humanitarian sector. We’d like to give some unreasonable advice.
In the great tradition of our ‘52‘ posts, we present a comprehensive list of every. single. piece. of. advice. you’ll need to outwit, outplay and outlast the humanitarian sector. Shout out to @rishie_ for suggesting we do this. It may be the most ridiculous form of link bait in the global development blogsphere, but you clicked through didn’t you? Enjoy.
1. Ladies, pack tampons, because unless you have a cushy posting in Geneva or Phnom Penh, they don’t have them.
2. Learn to play office politics; every office has them, especially NGO offices.
3. Went through your university studies looking at history, IR, politics and cultural studies? Go back, do not collect $200 and do a technical degree. Education, engineering or economics. Get technical.
4. Went through your university studies with deep technical knowledge of education, engineering or economics? Go back, study history, IR, politics or cultural studies. Get deep.
5. You will spend 90% of your time behind a desk.
6. You’ll spend the other 10% of your time trying to use LinkedIn to get another job.
7. Getting a job has more to do with luck than hard work, intelligence or capability.
8. You know less about poverty than a small farmer in northern Ghana, who has zero years of formal schooling.
9. You know nothing, humanitarian worker.
10. Get field experience to gain valuable grass-roots knowledge and insights, and witness how programs and projects are actually implemented.
11. Get HQ experience to gain valuable upstream and advocacy knowledge and insights, and witness how policy and politics actually determine funding and priorities.
12. National aid budgets around the OCED are being butchered, shrinking the job market. What’s your plan B?
13. There are more and more social and online tools to help you manage your long-distance relationship.
14. Your parents will always, always say to their family and friends that you work for ‘charity’.
15. You can check your privilege, but you can never, ever out run it.
16. Foreign aid doesn’t stimulate economic growth. Best read up on your macro- and micro-economics.
17. Economic growth doesn’t address inequity. Best read up on your Marx and Piketty.
18. UN staff can claim business class on an airline for any trip of nine hours+, including a stopover. Wait until you see the per diem. That’s the ticket.
19. What few studies there are have been found aid workers have higher than normal levels of stress, anxiety and compassion fatigue. At worst, they can present symptoms of PTSD and are rarely supported by their organisations.
20. Drinking alcohol is not self-care.
21. The moment you think you are becoming fluent in the language of your host country is the moment you won’t understand your landlord telling you something simple like: it’s hot today.
23. Pack some diphenhydramine or Benadryl before you get on that bus. I don’t care if you’ve never been carsick before in your life.
24. Indeed, feel free to self-medicate after you’ve self-diagnosed, and ignore your doctor’s warning to take those anti-malarial drugs because let’s face it, you’ll ignore anything we say about seeking medical advice anyway.
25. Can’t get a position overseas? Work in community development at home. The lessons you’ll learn will be invaluable in future.
26. Do not underestimate the value of good data and good GIS.
27. Be kind to your interns – they were you not too long ago.
28. Joseph Kony is still on the run despite almost 100 million YouTube views.
29. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
30. Humanitarian sector is increasingly dominated by women, resulting in a lack of eligible bachelors.
31. The average humanitarian worker is a 30-something, single, white female. Except in senior management positions, where it’s mostly old white men.
32. You are not trying to work yourself out of a job. That’s ridiculous.
33. Don’t go and volunteer at an NGO that runs orphanages if you are not a social worker.
34. Don’t go and volunteer to teach English if you are not a teacher.
35. Advertising your humanitarian status on Tinder is a bad idea.
37. It does not matter if you are posted in Ethiopia or India; bring a cardigan, because your definition of hot and cold are going to change.
38. Though it will be difficult, try not to become the cynical kind of expat whose main objective is to avoid being mistaken as a tourist.
39. You don’t get jobs by going in the front door. Everyone tries to go in the front door but it’s not wide enough. Always go backdoor.
40. Related to above, even if the word itself turns you off, learn how to network.
41. Just because people work in the “caring sector”, it doesn’t make them nice people. You will meet as many assholes* in the humanitarian sector as in finance. (*non-scientific, anecdotal evidence).
42. You will see alarming disparities in resources between the haves (UN) and the have nots (local NGOs). You’ll probably never get over it.
43. If you spend years in one country and never learn the language, you’re missing out. Learning languages opens doors.
44. You may have lofty dreams of improving lives, but if you can’t be good to those in your immediate vicinity, you ain’t going to improve nothing.
45. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
46. By all means, play the poor humanitarian worker card with your friends back home, but never forget that compared to colleagues in country and those you’re helping, you’re the equivalent of John D. Rockefeller.
47. If you talk about helping people in an overly simplistic way, you’re doing a disservice to everybody. Helping people is never simple.
48. Always remember the principle of non-maleficence (The Anti-Angelina Jolie way): “Sometimes, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”
49. If the founder of an NGO says something like, “I was sitting at the market when a local boy, who couldn’t have been older than 8 came up to me…” followed by “…I was shocked and realised I had to do something about it,” get skeptical.
50. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not, once you work in the humanitarian sector, you represent it. Don’t be a dick.
51. Be good to yourself. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and its triggers, before it happens. You’re no good to anyone if you’re already burnt out.
52. You can learn as much on blogs like WhyDev as you can after years at university. Listen to what your peers are saying and join the conversation!
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