Voices from… International Development & Humanitarian Aid

Wednesday, 14th October 2015
Written by: Jennifer Evans


Joining the Careers Services for the next session of the Voices from… series this week were Selina Donnelly, Policy Officer for Trocaire, Mary Jelliti, Logistics Co-ordinator for GOAL Global, Chris Pain, Deputy Head of Strategy Advocacy and Learning Department, Concern, and Ronan MacNamara, Irish Aid Rapid Response Corps and current PhD student.

The terms ‘international development’ and ‘humanitarian aid’ can scare some students first entering the world of work. We often hear “volunteer” and “charity” alongside them and we’re unsure where that can fit into a career. Many students came to the panel with the same concerns about what exactly they could do, with their degree in Sociology, English, Geography, or Medicine, and the Voices from… speakers were there to make things a bit clearer.

Q: Can you think of anything you feel you did wrong, or wish you had known before going into this field?

Ronan MacNamara: I would not go to Sri Lanka when I did.

Straight after university, Ronan went to volunteer in Sri Lanka. This was right after the tsunami in 2004, so his work was difficult and many hands were needed. Just out of his degree, and with no practical or specialist skills, Ronan felt like he was more of a hindrance than help. “I was just in the way,” he said. Mary Jelliti warns of taking someone else’s place in a job you’re not really qualified for, especially if that someone lives where you’re going. Field experience is necessary and valuable, but if you’ve painted an orphanage for six months when the man next door to the orphanage could have been paid to do the same job, you’re not going to be ahead.

Selina Donnelly: I would have learnt a new language, either French or Arabic.

Chris Pain tells us of the benefits of knowing a second language, particularly those two – French and Arabic. Why those? West Africa, of course, and the Middle East. That’s where a lot of this work is. Spanish is also incredibly helpful, of course, particularly if you want to work in South America. Chris, who works for Concern, advocates for learning these languages. Your application will soar above others with it, and you will be far better equipped if you can speak the language of the people you’re working with.


Q: Volunteer opportunities: How do we know we are not just getting in the way?

That’s a great question, and one that Mary answers simply: internships. Mary believes in the power of internships. Unlike the other panelists, she doesn’t have a Masters degree, but she instead has powerful experience out in the field. She came into this job through volunteering, too. After working in Waterstones for 8 years, she looked for a change in career paths, and came across a very rare volunteer position at Save the Children. After six months of that position, Save the Children began an internship position in logistics, and Mary applied. She was sent to South Sudan – her first time in Africa and in any position like that – and it was a huge learning curve for her. She was working part-time during the volunteer position, and then given a stipend for living expenses when on the internship in South Sudan.

If you don’t have technical expertise in a specific field (accounting, medicine, engineering, etc.), then field experience is extremely helpful. For Mary, the volunteer position helped her get her foot in the door and now, as a Logistics Coordinator, she has found a job that is flexible and varied, giving her both hands-on experience and office work.

Look for volunteering and internship opportunities… and talk to people in the industry. Ask them about the opportunities and the positions available, in order to figure out what you’re suited to and what might fit your interests and skills.


Q: Aren’t most of these internship positions, and all volunteer positions, unpaid? Isn’t it difficult to take one an unpaid position when you have living expenses?

Yes, they admit, it is difficult and can be elitist. This aspect of the field does not sit well with any of the panelists, who all believe that workers should be paid for the work they are doing, at any level.

Mary Jelliti was able to work part-time while volunteering, which gave her a low but steady income, and her stipend in South Sudan was enough to live on. Many other internships also give a stipend to live on, especially when living abroad, although the amount can vary heavily depending on the living expenses in that country.

Chris tells the students that Concern stays away from unpaid internships, so there are many paid opportunities even for entry-level positions. If they ask for 1-2 years of experience, that doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same field, and that experience could be made up of different volunteering positions taken up over 3 or 4 months each year. There is an initial hump period, usually 1-3 years, where finding opportunities and funding is more difficult, but after that period opportunities are far more widely available, and almost never unpaid. As Ronan adds, interns are often paid, while volunteers are not, even if they are doing the exact same job. This can come down to the level of competitiveness when applying to the role, and the skill or education level necessary.

Don’t stay away from volunteering entirely, because it can be highly useful especially for gaining early experience, but internships may pay better. Get involved, too—prove you are willing to volunteer by being part of a group on campus (SUAS, for example, which Selina was a part of when she was a student) and dedicating your time to that work. If you can prove that you are a dedicated and serious volunteer, then when you apply to jobs after graduation you will have more ground to ask for a paying position rather than voluntary.


Q: Would you suggest any specific subject for a Master’s degree?

Mary: I would suggest you stick with what you’re interested in.

All the others agree. Master’s are expensive, as Selina notes, and getting some experience before doing your Master’s can help you narrow down your interests. A Master’s isn’t always necessary, as Mary is an example of, but they are increasingly helpful. Ronan says that he has seen all applications without a Master’s degree ignored, and had colleagues enter into positions completely different from their degree subject, so it is often just about the completion of the degree.


Q: Have you ever felt at risk in the field?

All four panelists say that they have, of course, but at different levels and for different reasons. The security levels are extremely high on these programmes, and safety measures are in place to ensure your personal wellbeing. You will always come across different cultures and potentially risky situations, but you will be pulled out of a place that puts you in too much danger. Larger companies are also more likely to provide better safety measures, especially ones that have been running for a long time, whereas you may have to use more of your own common sense when working with smaller agencies.

If you’re nervous about risks, too, there are many places to work which have high poverty rates and need humanitarian aid, but aren’t places of high crime or war zones. Workers are just as necessary in these places as those with far higher threats. You should always feel comfortable in the job, too, and ask questions. Think about things that you wouldn’t always consider a risk—traffic and traveling are often the most dangerous issues, as the rules and conventions differ so much by country. Don’t be naïve and underestimate the risk, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.

General vs. Specialist skills: which is more valuable?

Both are extremely valuable—if you have strong skills in accounting or engineering, then you’re bound to find a job that needs you. If you are studying Geography and know how to make maps, your skills are also invaluable. But many roles don’t rely on specialist skills, but more on general or “soft” skills. Networking can be very important, and interpersonal skills will get you a long way. You also need to be flexible and independent in positions out in the field, and those are things that can be proven with experience.

Adaptability is also key – you don’t know where you will be needed or what job you will be needed for. You will help the countries you’re working for and the mission of your agency far more if you are able to adapt to what they need. What the speakers seem to be saying is that there are jobs for everyone – paying jobs! – if you are willing to put the time and the work in. When you do, the benefits of travel, experience, connections, and making a difference in people’s lives will outweigh the hard work.

Some Resources mentioned:

Logistics related:

Also see Finding Work in International Development and Humanitarian Aid delivered earlier this week


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