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How to Pursue a Career with the United Nations
or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organizations,
Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

credits and disclaimer

Introduction

Let's get right to it:

Your desire to help others, or your desire to travel, or your ambition, are not enough to work for the United Nations or any other international humanitarian or development organization. People do not get to be stock brokers, doctors, architects or lawyers just because they want to; for most professions, you have to work over many years to acquire the skills and expertise needed. Getting to work for the UN or any other international development agency is no different.

In addition, you need more than a good heart. People in developing countries need people with hard skills, skills they don't have (but that they want). They want to be paid to build their own schools, clean up after disasters themselves, care for their children, etc.

(see Five Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps for more on these themes)

As well, just because you have worked in the for-profit/corporate sector does not mean your skills will translate into the humanitarian sector, or that you will automatically be appropriate for a leadership role at an international NGO. You've run a software company? You've run a law office? You've worked in a corporate HR office? You've run a marketing firm? That's nice, but none of that experience means you are automatically ready to work for the UN or an international aid agency.

And, finally, finding paid work abroad as an aid worker or humanitarian worker is similar to finding a for-profit job: you must network. Ideally, you want an organization to come looking for YOU, and they will if you have created a robust professional network.

Following the advice on this page is no guarantee you will get to work abroad in international development. But you will greatly improve your odds of working for the United Nations or any other international development organization by following this advice, which is based on the experience of people who have worked for the UN or other international development organizations, including people who make hiring decisions for such organizations. The information on this page has been adapted from posts to the Aid Workers Network (AWN) by Graham Wood and Jayne Cravens, as well as various other posters to AWN.

 
Specialization

The United Nations and other international agencies prefer to hire local people whenever possible for work in a developing country. International people are brought in to fill gaps in local expertise. Even in donor countries that host UN offices, such as Germany or Switzerland or the USA, the UN often prefers to hire people from developing countries whenever possible for office roles. The UN and other international agencies see hiring people from developing countries as investment in those countries. What you exhibit as contributing to that investment in your CV and interviews increases your chances of being hired.

A candidate that has an area of specialization is more valued by the United Nations and other agencies than someone who is a generalist.

Here's an example of the HUGE range of experts sought by international development agencies, including UN projects:

midwives
civil engineers
lawyers
financial managers
IT managers
database developers
emergency response managers
weavers
sanitation experts
green builders
vocational teachers
lawyers and paralegals
  accountant trainers
police trainers
wine makers
cheese makers
nurses
car mechanic school instructors
photographers
solar energy experts
farmers and ranchers
agricultural marketing professionals
potato chop manufacturing experts
  juvenile justice experts
domestic/household engineers
nutrition experts
restaurant management trainers
regional tourism experts
university journalism teachers
fire fighting instructors
tree nursery managers
animal shelter managers
mass transit planners
logistics experts

That's just a sample of the kinds of areas of specialization humanitarian agencies are looking for.

Most (but not all) postings require people with a Master's degree in a specific area, as well as professional and volunteering experience in a particular area of expertise.

To find paid work in aid and development, you also need to have the exact skills and experience being asked for in a job posting. For instance, if the job posting says, "fluency in French", then the hiring company wants applicants who can do the job interview entirely in French, not someone who has had a few years of French classes. If the job posting says candidates who have set up HIV/AIDS education programs for teens are what's wanted, then you had better have your experience setting up such a program in your CV. If the program says you have to manage a staff, your CV needs to note when you have managed a staff. If they job posting says, "A minimum of ten years of progressively responsible experience in human rights, political affairs, international relations, development, economics, program management or related area," they really mean that!

If you have the expertise asked for in a job posting, what will increase your chances? Having the following experience (and making sure it is detailed in your CV. This experience must be honest; do NOT embellish your skills or experience:

  • experience leading, managing or being the primary facilitator of a project. This can be a project that is based in any environment: business, nonprofit, or academic. It can be anything from leading the upgrade of a computer system within a department or company to managing a literacy project to overhauling policies and procedures to introducing a new client support system to facilitating a large-scale community cleanup. Note any particular challenges you faced, such as skepticism from management, dissent among staff, distrust among customers, etc., and what you did to address these challenges.

  • experience in training others in a specific area of specialization, such as an activity that could lead to job development for local people, an activity that directly improves local people's quality of life (in a way that will be sustained after the volunteer leaves), or an activity that raises the professional skills of local people so they are better able to administer and manage their own local projects and institutions.

    For instance, teaching an entire department to use a new, complicated database program, teaching motorcycle or tractor repair, training nurses aides, training staff in new accounting standards and best practices, training local government workers in setting policies and procedures for purchasing, training training in tailoring and sewing, teaching elderly people to use the Internet to find information they need (government pension, health, etc.), teaching a community or families about caring for people with HIV/AIDS, teaching children about good sanitary practices or peaceful conflict resolution, teaching adults to read, teaching farmers how to fight pests organically, training teachers to implement a particular teaching tool, etc.

  • experience helping or directing a large-scale, highly-specialized local community-transformation projects, such as building a canal, putting all local government public documents into a searchable database, creating a cooperative, starting and/or expanding a community technology center, etc.

  • experience working with people who are traditionally socially-excluded, such as immigrants, people with disabilities, people with HIV/AIDS, prisoners, people with low literacy skills, etc. Or, other specific populations who may have special needs, such as women, children or the elderly.

  • experience managing or facilitating a capacity-building program, such as a literacy project, or an income-generating program, like a cooperative, or a training of trainers program.

  • experience starting or managing a micro-enterprise that grew into a stable small business, and employed low-skilled people, building up their skills and granting them stable employment.

  • experience in high stress, crisis situations, such as a disaster or a conflict situation.

  • any experience teaching any subject on a high school, college or university level.

  • experience working in another language. For instance, not just that you took two years of high school Spanish, but that you have traveled extensively in Spanish-speaking countries, or that you use at least some Spanish in your job. Language skills most in demand in aid and development? French (by far the most sought-after, IMO), Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Farsi/Dari/Tajik, as well as any local language of a particular region in a developing country. More about languages later in this page.

  • demonstrated ability to work effectively under pressure and in a highly political environment.

  • demonstrated ability to navigate and work with large bureaucracies.

  • strong interpersonal skills and cross-cultural sensitivity.

  • extensive experience in making presentations and conducting workshops, particularly to diverse or non-traditional audiences.

Some of the experience listed above one would get only through a university degree and on-the-job over many years. Some can be explored or enhanced via online courses for humanitarian workers listed at ReliefWeb. But much of the above can also be gained locally, right in your own city, by volunteering. For instance:
  • volunteering or working for a few years at local nonprofit organizations that serves high poverty areas, people with disabilities, youth, the elderly, abused women, women re-entering the work force, etc.

  • taking emergency response courses and volunteering through the American Red Cross (or the Red Cross, Red Crescent Society or Magen David Adom in your local area); this is essential if you want a chance to participate in disaster relief efforts.

  • volunteering or working for organizations that help people with HIV/AIDS, or that educate people about HIV/AIDS.

  • volunteering or working in a hospice, particularly one that serves people with HIV/AIDS or cancer patients.

  • volunteering or working for organizations that provide health-related education, advocacy or care.

  • volunteering or working in a literacy program, not only in helping people learn to read, but also helping with the administration of the program and promotion of such a program to low-literate and semi-literate communities

  • volunteering or working at a job-training organization or initiative.

  • volunteering your business management skills, to help people starting or running small businesses / micro enterprises, to help people building businesses in high-poverty areas, and to help people entering or re-entering the work force.

  • volunteering or working as part of a voter-education initiative or local election.

  • volunteering in a leadership role at a public Internet access point, like recruiting, scheduling, training and supervising the volunteers who maintain your local library's computers.

  • volunteering as a firefighter, and receiving training in specialist areas, like hazardous material cleanup.

  • volunteering or working as part of an advocacy effort, such as advocating for recycling, women's rights, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, environmental regulation or education reform, particularly in a highly-political environment.

  • volunteering or working at an organization focused on micro-financing and financial education for people from low-income communities, immigrants/migrants, etc.

  • helping at a youth center that is focused on at-risk young people, and develops positive, worthwhile activities for the youth to engage

  • volunteering online with organizations focused on the developing world. The Online Volunteering service is where organizations working in the developing world recruit online volunteers to design web sites and publications, build databases, research information, translate documents, prepare presentations, moderate online discussion groups, etc.

No matter what country you are in, there are opportunities for you to create and lead, or co-lead, your own community initiative that will both benefit people and/or the environment and will build your skills for employment elsewhere. This is a list of community leadership projects that might lead to a sustainable, lasting benefit to a community or cause, that one could create, as a volunteer. The list was created for young people seeking certain certain service awards, but the reality is that any adult that undertakes such a project successfully - and has the photos, media coverage, blogs and letters of endorsement to prove the activity happened/is happening - is going to get the attention of a humanitarian organization that sees your CV.

For citizens of the USA: AmeriCorps VISTA is the American national service program designed specifically to fight poverty. VISTA members commit to serve full-time for a year at a nonprofit organization or local government agency, working to fight illiteracy, improve health services, create businesses, strengthen community groups, and much more. A year or two of VISTA service would give you skills and experience that could help get an employer's attention for working abroad. During your service, you receive a modest living allowance, health care, and other benefits. Upon completing your service, you can choose to receive either a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award or post-service stipend. You might also want to look into AmeriCorps.

Again, if you list something on your CV, it must be honest; do NOT embellish your skills or experience.

 
Languages

Even if you are a native English speaker, how good are your written and verbal skills? Not only does your CV have to impeccable, with perfect spelling and English, your emails must be as well.

As noted earlier, if a job posting says, "Fluency in French", then they want applicants who can do the job interview in French, not someone who has had a few years of French classes. If the job posting says, "ability to work in French" (or another language), you can expect at least a bit of your interview to be in that language. In either case, you should have a CV in that language that's asked for, to prove your language abilities. In addition, become certified in your second language by the official language body, such as DELE for Spanish.

Language skills most in demand in aid and development? French (by far the most sought-after, IMO), Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Farsi/Dari/Tajik, as well as any local language of a particular region in a developing country. That means being able to work in Chinese, Hindi, or local tribal languages also increase your chance of landing a job abroad. I found that most people I encountered in Eastern Europe spoke German, so that's a great second language to have as well. Even if your second language is not something that is in high demand among humanitarian groups (Japanese, Italian, Catalan, Flemish), having any second language listed on your CV says to a potential employer that you can function outside your native comfort zone. Spanish is helpful, but note that, if you aren't a native Spanish speaker, you are going to be competing with highly-trained, very-experienced Spanish native speakers for jobs in Spanish-speaking countries.

It's never too late to pursue a second language or improve your language skills. Take intensive language courses and seek local opportunities to use your language skills.

 
Your CV

Your CV needs to be explicit about your experience. Just because you worked at an immigration support center, for instance, don't assume multicultural experience is implied; spell it out! Just because you have worked as a firefighter, don't assume emergency response experience is assumed; SAY IT.

If you want a job that requires providing policy and technical guidance, spell out when you have done this. If the job you want is to develop, coordinate, implement, monitor and evaluate anything, show when you have done this, explicitly; agencies don't want to know you can do it, and they won't assume you can do it unless they can see on your CV that you have done it.

As was stated earlier: if the job posting says candidates who have set up HIV/AIDS education programs for teens are what's wanted, then you had better have your experience setting up such a program in your CV. If the program says you have to manage a staff, your CV needs to note when you have managed a staff. If they job posting says, "A minimum of ten years of progressively responsible experience in human rights, political affairs, international relations, development, economics, program management or related area," they really mean that!

Emphasize when you have facilitated interagency collaboration and decision-making, when you have successfully navigated or mobilized a bureaucracy, provided leadership and supervision, motivated team members and supported organizational or project excellence.

Use action-verbs and results-oriented-verbs to describe your volunteer and professional accomplishments. See this excellent, very long list of action verbs relevant to describing most middle to senior level management jobs.

For an idea on what is looked for in international work, have a look at the job postings on ReliefWeb.

Look at the wording of a job you want; can you find that same wording in your CV?

 
But Are You Really Ready?

One thing your CV won't always reflect, but which you will also need to work internationally, is a very stable emotional and financial state. If you find yourself easily frustrated or having trouble dealing with stress, daily activities or people you view as uncooperative, if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed, if you find yourself saying "I don't have time to do this or that because of my children or my spouse or my parents," or if you are facing financial problems and debt, working abroad with the UN or another international agency is not something you should consider right now. Even if you are not going to be in a low-infrastructure environment for your work (for instance, say you will be based in Geneva rather than Kabul), work at an agency dealing with humanitarian and development issues is dynamic and often highly stressful. You may not be dealing with a conflict situation or disaster in your physical location, but you will be dealing with people who do regularly, and can't get away from it by going home at the end of the day.

There are very few short-term assignments out there (six months or less). If you want to work abroad, be prepared for at least a year commitment.

 
Networking

A key to finding a job in ANY profession is networking: meeting people who can influence hiring decisions where you want to work, and will better ensure your candidacy is better ensured. You want these people to know you and what your areas of specialization are. However, note that there's absolutely no guarantee that meeting someone at an organization, even the CEO, will land you a job there.

Networking is a long-term strategy. It takes months, even years, not days or weeks. Networking also involves building your professional reputation, so that when connected people hear your name, they know who you are, or when connected people look you up on the Internet, they easily find information that affirms your expertise.

Ways to network:

  • Create a LinkedIn profile and make sure it is complete and up-to-date. Then link to people you have worked, volunteered and studied with over the years.

  • Make sure all of your colleagues from your international experiences know you are looking for work abroad and are ready to forward your LinkedIn profile to their colleagues

  • Have business cards. These should have at least your full name, your phone number and your email address. Something else, such as a title or a professional focus, is good too. But not too much "clutter"!

  • Look for public events in your immediate area where there is a potential for you to meet people who work in international aid and development. These can be conferences, workshops, lectures and open houses. Don't just walk in, hand around business cards and walk out. Talk to people, listen to the program, discuss with attendees what you are hearing and seeing, and be there primarily as a professional colleague, NOT as someone desperate to work.

  • Look for online communities on YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, Ning, LinkedIn and other fora that are focused on areas you specialize in (human rights, HIV/AIDS education, women's issues, etc.). Read the posts, compliment posts you agree with, ask your own questions, and note your own resources that you think might be helpful and are easily available.

  • Participate in online events by UN organizations focused on areas you want to specialize in (human rights, HIV/AIDS education, women's issues, etc.). These are usually text-based, and you find them by subscribing to the email newsletters or RSS feeds of various UN agencies. Read the posts, compliment posts you agree with, ask your own questions, and note your own resources that you think might be helpful and are easily available. Make sure your signature on all posts link to your LinkedIn profile, your professional web site or your blog.

  • Consider creating a blog and using it to promote your areas of expertise, by linking to UN resources and events you come across, by talking about your own experience in that particular area, etc. Post about it on places like LinkedIn and the Eldis Community and online communities focused on your area of expertise.

  • When you come across a fantastic report or resource written by someone at the UN, find that person's email, write them and say, "Wow, that's a fantastic report, etc." That's a great way to meet people from the UN -- lauding them for their work. Be sincere. Write as a professional colleague; do NOT mention that you are looking for work, but feel free to encourage them to read your LinkedIn profile, your web site or blog to learn more about you.
  • Join your nearest United Nations Association chapter and or your local World Affairs Council chapter., and follow them online (Facebook, Twitter, email newsletter, etc.). Go to events whenever possible - chapters have lectures and events that will both educate you about humanitarian and development issues and bring you in contact with people working in such.
Internships

Some international humanitarian organizations and local NGOs will host unpaid interns to work in their offices for three-to-six months. Some have official programs, like these listed at this web page listing Humanitarian and Developmental Internships. Far more agencies have no official internship program, but may be willing to host an unpaid intern.

Internships can be great ways to get work experience on your CV. They can be great ways to network with humanitarian professionals and to learn firsthand about how agencies coordinate humanitarian and development efforts. Note the words can be. Internships can also be exercises in frustration, if the person in charge of the internship is not focused on giving the intern a quality learning experience.

When looking for an internship:

  • Write in your introduction letter that you are looking for an internship for at least three months, and no more than six months.
  • Be clear if you are looking only for paid internships, or if you would be willing to take an unpaid internship.
  • Say by what date you could start if you are accepted as an intern.
  • Be clear that you understand you are responsible for your own accommodation, both to find it and to pay for it.
  • Say what you want to do as an intern. What department do you want to work in? What type of work are you hoping to do? What kind of activities are you hoping to learn?
  • Emphasize the skills and experience you have that the organization might find valuable.
  • How many hours a week can you provide? You will need to give at least 20, but no more than 40.
  • Do not say you will do anything the organization wants you to, how you will work more than 40 hours a week, more than eight hours a day, for more than six months, etc. In short, don't sound desperate, and don't degrade yourself.
  • Do not say that you hope the internship will lead to paid employment at the organization.
If you are lucky enough to get a call back regarding your interest in an internship, ask the person
  • how he or she thinks you might benefit from this internship
  • with whom you will work if you get this internship (just one person? several people?)
  • if you will get to sit in on staff meetings,
  • if you will get to shadow a person during his or her meetings over the course of a day,
  • if you will get to get to undertake a project, however small, from start to finish, so that you have an accomplishment to put on your CV
  • if they have had interns before and if those interns had a positive experience
If you are lucky enough to get an internship, treat it just as you would paid work. 

Applying for Jobs

The more jobs you apply for, the less time you have to spend on each application. The more jobs you apply for, the weaker each application. In addition, some UN agency HR offices black list frequent job seekers (someone who applies for most every job posting at a duty station). Only apply for jobs where you have a chance, where you meet at least most of the criteria for the job.

Make sure the cover letter does exactly what is asked for. Usually this means saying how your skills and experience match their requirements, and since each job has different requirements, it means EACH cover letter must be different. Keep the letter as short as possible and address the job requirements specifically. One page is nearly always enough for a cover letter. Avoid emotion in your cover letter; if you write something like “I want to use my skills to help people, to make the world a better place” I would not interview you. When you write a sentence think how it would be in the opposite. “I don’t want to use my skills to help people and I want to make the world a worse place.” If the opposite sounds silly, then you are not communicating well.

Do you know what your competencies - your core skills and attributes - are and how to sell them? Are you thinking about them and presenting them in a different way for each application, since each job is unique? What key words are you using to describe yourself and your skills?

Some people try to imply in their applications that because they want to work for an aid agency and because they care and have good hearts, they should be given a job. It really isn’t like that. As one of the authors of this document said, "If I had to choose between a person who cares passionately about poverty etc but is not focused and doesn’t present well and a person who can get a job done dispassionately, without being very concerned about he bigger picture I would nearly always choose the latter." Work hard on selling your skills and abilities, not your desire to help.

Also see Starting a Career in International Development, from Development Ex

Also see humanitarianjobs.info, a blog "about getting your first job as a humanitarian aid worker."

Also see: ICT4D Jobs and Career Forum, a series of resources and discussion forum.

 
Jobs Web Sites

These are the web sites aid and development workers use to get jobs at the UN and other agencies. And, yes, people DO get hired from applying to jobs they find on the job boards below. The authors of this web page are but two examples.

    Official Jobs Web Site by the United Nations.

    UNjobs is NOT the official web site of the UN, but the jobs are official UN jobs. Some people prefer it to the official web site, because they find it easier to navigate.

    ReliefWeb is a favorite among aid and humanitarian workers, and a favorite UN recruitment tool -- as well as a favorite of other agencies looking to recruit. It is perhaps the best-used site for jobs in emergency humanitarian relief with international agencies and NGOs.

    Development Ex is a popular site for management jobs.

    DevJobs (www.devjobsmail.com) is an Internet service that provides international job announcements on various development fields.

    DevNetJobs, at www.devnetjobs.org, lists jobs and consultancies in the international development, NGO and environment sectors.

    Dev-Zone is a New Zealand-based resource centre on international development and global issues.  It has a jobs database at www.dev-zone.org/jobs.

    AlertNet, at www.alertnet.org, has a good jobs section.  Also have a look at 'Alerting Services' - there's a link on the home page.  You can get job vacancies, news, maps and even satellite images delivered to your email address.

    The University of Sussex has an enormous list of websites relevant to jobs in international development, at www.sussex.ac.uk/cdec/careers_path.php?carpath=15&carsection=4.

    RedR/IHE (www.redr.org) and Bioforce (www.bioforce.asso.fr) maintain registers of qualified candidates whom aid agencies can recruit at short notice during an emergency.

    cinfoPoste is a Swiss-based register of vacancies for information, counseling and training professionals.  The site is in German, English or French - look for the link on the home page.  www.cinfo.ch/cinfoposte.

    BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) says it is the United Kingdom's broadest network of voluntary organisations working in international development, and have a job list.  www.bond.org.uk.

    Job listings for various agencies, mostly in Europe, complied by World Service Enquiry (WCE)

    Hacesfalta is a Spanish site with international jobs and volunteering opportunities.  www.hacesfalta.com.

    OneWorld lists jobs in human rights, environment and sustainable development worldwide.  www.oneworld.net/jobs.

    The Eldis gateway of development information lists jobs at www.eldis.org/news/jobs.htm.

    Action Without Borders lists a large number of jobs at www.idealist.org.  Free daily email service.  It also lists every nonprofit job site or directory it could find on the web, at www.idealist.org/career/morejobs.html.

    World Service Enquiry, at www.wse.org.uk, provides information and advice about working or volunteering for development.  Experience Development (www.experiencedevelopment.org) has a jobs section.

    jobs4development.com, a database of jobs and consulting in international development

    The Australian Aid Resource and Training Guide gives advice and information for people interested in aid work in Australia and internationally.  Click here.

    Mango (www.mango.org.uk) provides a specialist register of accountants, to work with NGOs in the field and at HQ, full-time or on a consultancy basis.

    InterAction (www.interaction.org) is an alliance of US-based international development and humanitarian NGOs.  You will find a jobs link on their home page.

    Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) focuses on opportunities for Canadian citizens but includes links to international NGOs based in Canada and general advice of wider interest.  www.acdi-cida.gc.ca.

    Yellow Monday is a weekly newsletter from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Sussex, including a listing of internal and external job vacancies in the development sector.  It is available online or by email.  www.ids.ac.uk/ids/news/ymonday/index.html.

    The Economist newspaper (www.economist.com) includes senior jobs in relief and development organisations (not only for economists).  The UK's Guardian newspaper, at jobs.guardian.co.uk, also frequently lists humanitarian vacancies in its jobs section.

    The US Foreign Policy Association lists jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities in relief and development organisations. Offers free e-mail notification for new postings.  www.fpa.org/jobs_contact2423/jobs_contact.htm.

    CharityJob.com International Development Jobs in England.

    Overseas Recruitment Services is a Nairobi-based specialist recruitment service for qualified personnel in the relief and development sector in Africa.  www.oresrecruitment.com.

 
If you found this page helpful, let others know:

Also see

 
© 2010 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.

 

 
 
 
 
Suggested books:

 
International Jobs: Where They Are and How to Get Them, Sixth Edition  
Making a Living While Making a Difference: Conscious Careers in an Era of Interdependance, Revised Edition  
How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas

 
The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go

 
Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities, 12th Edition

 
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others

 
The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life

 
Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World (Lonely Planet)


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