If you’re looking for a guide titled ‘10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Humanitarian Worker,’ you can stop now because you won’t find it. What’s great about working in development is in most cases you can bring your previous qualifications and experience with you. You’ll find that many humanitarian workers have been teachers or journalists in a past life and have used their love of people, sharing knowledge and building relationships to help them move into the development sector.
So, to kick off the new year, and to get those of you starting out in development to think ahead, here are 8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development.
1. There’s no one way to become a humanitarian worker
If you are keen to break into the industry it’s great to have a relevant degree or Masters in International Development, to have volunteered either in your home country or abroad and to know another language/s. These will help you get you noticed, but more importantly they will help you hone in on what excites, motivates or inspires you about development. And, you can use your findings to land the ideal position in the right organisation for you.
2. It’s important to be a generalist
While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.
3. Learn about the country before you arrive
There’s nothing worse than arriving in a country and realising you have no appropriate clothing, you can’t speak the language/s and you aren’t sure if shaking hands is an acceptable form of introduction. Mmm… probably should have read the brief notes or done a bit of Googling. While you may be able to initially get way with ‘I’m new around here,’ this safety net won’t last forever. Understanding the political, cultural and social nature of the country you are visiting and/or working in should be a high priority. Knowing these will inform you about: who to talk to; how to conduct yourself; and allow you settle into your role quicker and help keep you safe. Although this may sound like common sense, you’d be surprised how many people make a cultural blunder in the first few days of their placement. Don’t worry, in most cases it ends with both parties crying with laugher.
4. Building relationships in a cross cultural setting takes time
Working in development is all about relationships. You’ve got your partners, colleagues, supporters and recipients just to mention a few. Both business and personal relationships take time to establish and can be hard at first. There are time differences, cultural norms and taboos, not to mention language barriers. It might sound a bit too hard but it’s worth hanging in there because once you finally understand each other you’ve made a friend for life. It’s important you take the time to nurture these relationships because working together is the only way to job can get done.
On another note, leaving friends and partners behind can be really hard too. Thank god for the Internet! Although you could get lucky and find yourself someone special (it happens more than you think) while your on placement so it can work both ways.
5. You will make tough decisions that affect lives
This is probably the hardest thing to accept. At some point in your career you may find yourself responsible for deciding who receives your help and who doesn’t. The reality is you can’t help everyone. You are always limited by time, resources, laws and money. One day, you will realise you’ve made mistakes, maybe big maybe small. The development sector, like other industries, learns from its mistakes and has measures in place that limit them from happening. You will be working in complex environments and sometimes things happen that you can’t plan for and wouldn’t have expected. This is the hard truth of being a humanitarian worker. However, there is no need to fret as you’ll be trained and coached on how to handle these situations and you aren’t alone. Your team will become your extended family. Everyone’s family in the development sector; cherish and support them and they’ll do the same for you.
6. Listen to project participants
One thing you will learn quickly when starting in development is that you don’t have all the answers. No one does! That’s why it’s crucial you listen to your participants’ feedback. Everyone has a preconception; that’s normal, but be willing to change your mind. You need to be able to see a situation for what it is, not what you want it to be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and give participants, partners and colleagues the chance to answer and ask questions, too. That way you won’t be kicking yourself when you build a new health clinic only to find out you could have refurbished the one already being used by the community around the corner.
7. You will find yourself in the office at some point in your career
Most of us think of working overseas, but development work happens in your home country too. Not everyone gets to experience the dry and dusty Harmattan or eat Mohinga in Burma. I’m sorry to tell you that during your career you will find yourself in the office. Work in the office is just as important as the work on the ground and as exciting! It’s good to know this up front because so many people get into development work because they want to ‘see how they are helping people abroad’. Enjoy your time in the office and if you’re missing the personal contact why not volunteer in your home country’s programmes or find out other ways you can be involved with the work on the ground.
8. It’s really addictive
Being a humanitarian worker is really addictive! The late nights; brain storming sessions; team bonding; the travel and meeting so many amazing people. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs. The downside is it can be hard to adjust to your old life when your placement has ended, especially when you’ve seen things you wouldn’t wish on anybody. It’s good to have a mentor or coach that can help you through your ups and downs and generally just listen when you need to talk. Overall, being a humanitarian worker is challenging, inspiring and rewarding. This explains why so many people dream of working in the development sector.
What is the ONE thing you wished you knew before you started to work, study and/or volunteer in aid and development?
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