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52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers

52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers

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 ‘52posts, 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 actualldetermine 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.

It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

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.

22. Be cautious of personality-driven NGOs. Exhibit A; Exhibit B.

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.

36. If there’s a lull in conversation, bring up the topic of whether aid workers should lead comfortable lives, or muse about your NGO opening a pool. This will keep the conversation going for hours.

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.

This was recently posted by a UNICEF Ambassador.
This was recently posted by a UNICEF Ambassador.

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! | buy instagram followers cheap | Tape in extensions

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WhyDev Team

The WhyDev writing team consists of Brendan, Megan, Zoe and Clemency. Check out more about the team on the "About Us" page.

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13 thoughts on “52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers

  1. […] interesting reading Elsewhere on the internet, the Australian blog WhyDev has 52 excellent pieces of advice for aspiring development workers (only marred slightly by their claim that aid does not elicit […]

  2. Marlys

    #23: If going to Zambia…. do not take Benedryl with you….it’s illegal to bring it into the country. Instead…. wait until you arrive, go to the chemist and buy some…. no Rx needed.

  3. Anne

    Fantastic read. May I add a #55; always remember that there are cynical people such as Gerard, who still see themselves as superior to the communities they are helping even after “8 years in Africa”.

  4. […] at WhyDev they’ve produced a long, bleak, amusing list of advice for aspiring humanitarian […]

  5. “Foreign aid doesn’t stimulate economic growth. Best read up on your macro- and micro-economics.”

    I don’t want to be the sort of nerd who spoils a very good and very funny post but…to the extent we can trust the evidence on this (which is not much) it appears that aid has a small positive impact on growth, on average: &

    Nits picked.

    Thanks for the funny, insightful post.

  6. […] 52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workersBy the folks over at, a succinct list of all the pieces of advice you need as an aspiring humanitarian worker. […]

  7. Gerard

    Good advice that after 8 years in Africa I can certainly associate with. There can be a lot of latent anti white sentiment in Africa. They certainly do not value the work we do and are often only interested in using NGO’s as money cows to be milked at every opportunity. There is often politically motivated advancement of token locals who invariably become obstructive and are rarely sufficiently qualified for the role. The appearence of capacity building is more important than actually doing it. If you build something useful it will be usurped by locals and wrecked in very little time. Now that they think they have capacity they will get rid of you soonest. You will meet deeply flawed colleagues and mind blowing levels of deceit and dishonesty. Psychopathic narcissism is not infrequent. All in all do not waste your education and skills on natives that would slit your throat if there was a coup. Stay at home and help your own country folk in a culture you understand and where logic and intelligence are valued. G

  8. this is splendid and truthful

  9. Loks

    #54: where possible (try to) actively engage and work with government ministries/agencies. It’s not glamorous, it’s frustrating as hell, and often riddled with corruption, but no country has ever made lasting, nation-wide developmental gains on the backs of NGOs and IGOs alone.

    Also, a small amendment to #5: You will spend 90% of your time sitting behind a desk – sometimes sweating and being eaten alive by mosquitos, alone, in a dark room with no a/c when the power supply to your office is cut.

  10. […] 52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers | WhyDev From tampons to Tinder, the WhyDev team give some very honest advice about what it’s […]

  11. Donna

    LOVE this! And may I take the liberty of suggesting a #53 …. Think you’re having a bad day? Just remember the people you serve are having a bad life except their still happy. Get over it, get over yourself and start practicing gratitude.

  12. Bec

    A reminder of how much I have yet to learn. A good reality check!

  13. This is brilliant. Nicely witty and very much to the point -each point:) Thanks for the good insight:)

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