Why you might want to work in relief and development (and why you might not)

This is one of the vault posts from Humanitarian Jobs, but it is totally worth it!

Some of the good things about careers in relief and development work:

A job with meaning that aligns with your values

I count myself very lucky to be able to make a living doing work that is in alignment with my values and the things that I believe in. It seems to me that a lot of people have made peace with the idea that work is something that is separate from your values, from your passions and from your interests – something that fills the work day and pays the bills, and what you really want to do happens on the weekend and evenings. I meet many people who express a level of frustration that the jobs they are in are not providing that level of fulfillment and purpose that they want in their lives. Mission driven organizations provide one way to reconcile the two elements of seeking professional fulfillment and paying the bills.
Being a humanitarian aid worker is a lifestyle (a calling, if you will) – not just a job. There is often no sharp distinction between work and the rest of your life, between your interests and passions and your job description. There is an upside to that work that you feel passionately about, and are not doing simply because you are getting paid to.

Opportunities to make a difference

On a good day, it can be the best job in the world. Really. I cannot imagine anything else being as interesting, challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding as some of the jobs I have had. Plus, every now and again, things go right, and you walk away feeling that, for some people, in some places, the world is a better place because of something you did. That’s tremendously powerful and motivating, and it’s what keeps many people doing this. This doesn’t happen every day, and the degree to which you feel a direct link between what you do and change in people’s lives depends on where you sit in the organization, but for most of us, there is a feeling that what we are doing is contributing to making the world a better place.

A community of motivated co-workers

The people I have met in this line of work are among the most wonderful friends and colleagues I can imagine. The bonds that are formed working together in intense situations are very powerful, and friendships formed over even a few days can be long lasting (although on occasion this intensity can produce equally high levels of acrimony!) I’ve known some people in the western world for years, and never got beyond small-talk, and have spent a few weeks working intensively with others who I feel I know as well as it is possible to know someone. Being a part of this community of people who share similar values and aspirations is hard to quantify, but it is definitely a positive aspect of the job.

Challenge and responsibility

You will likely have more responsibility and authority earlier in your career than you would have in the corporate world. While this can be a double edged sword, it is possible to be given responsibility for multi-million dollar programs and hundreds of staff with comparatively little experience. It can be a sink-or-swim situation, but if you swim, people will give you more and more responsibility. I remember vividly arriving in the office of a major NGO in Albania just as millions of refugees were fleeing war in Kosovo, and being put in charge of a major part of the logistics of supplying the food for hundreds of thousands of people. I tried to explain that I was new, and didn’t know how to do this, and was told that I would have to figure it out, because no one else was there on the ground to do it. I swam, just about, and you likely will too – it’s not that there is no support and training – there is certainly more than there used to be, it’s just that you need to be ready to step up to challenges and expect to be given tasks that are overwhelming. It’s part of the nature of the work – the problems we face are enormous and extremely challenging, and there is often no choice but to attempt to address a problem, even though the skills and resources available are not sufficient.

See the world, experience different cultures

Living and working in cultures other than your own can be fascinating and very rewarding. It is quite different from tourism, and lets you get to know a society and understand more about it than other types of travel. There are very few other careers that give you such an opportunity to experience a range of different countries than relief and development work. You will also see things that no one else will see (not all of them will be good, mind you, but they will be fascinating, challenging, and sometimes exciting!) You’ll be there along side the best and most inspiring examples of people working to overcome apparently impossible odds. You’ll find yourself constantly inspired by the determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people with whom you are working.

Things that cut both ways:


While there is a huge range of salaries and benefits, ranging from agencies that only really ‘employ’ volunteers to organizations that pay extremely well, the pay even at the top end with the United Nations and some contractors is generally less than the equivalent in the corporate world. Furthermore, for most people working in the non-profit world, it is decidedly mediocre compared to careers in the private sector.
It’s very hard to generalize, but most of the larger international NGOS have pay-scales that allow their employees to live comfortably, and, if you are working overseas the equation changes again.

  • Many ex-pats are able to pay less income tax (or even avoid it entirely) in their home country while they are living overseas (you should consult a tax advisor on the specifics of this as tax law changes frequently and is different in each country). This can make a huge difference to your take-home pay, and you should get professional tax advice to make sure you take full advantage of it.
  • While it is possible to live extremely expensive lifestyles in capital cities like Jakarta and Nairobi, many postings are in relatively affordable locations where the currency you are earning in will go a long way. In more remote postings there may simply be nothing to spend money on!
  • Many international organizations have generous packages of housing, insurance, education for dependent children etc, reducing expenditures further.
  • There are sometimes ways to have some student debt deferred or forgiven if you work for a non-profit. You need to look into the specifics of your loans and your university to see what programs are available.

While you probably won’t make the kind of money you could in the private sector, it is perfectly possible to do very well and not be on the breadline if you are working for a relatively large agency, and possible to make a very good living with the UN or contracting.

Some of the less good things:


Pec, Kosovo, 1999

Pec, Kosovo, 1999

I’ve been posted in some truly fantastic places, but the reality is that much relief and development work takes place in some of the more challenging locations in the world. In emergencies you may occasionally be called on to live in a tent or share a small room with co-workers, more frequently in insecure environments you may live in the same house or compound as colleagues. You may not have reliable access to the normal amenities of the western world like electricity, hot and cold running water, reliable heat and cooling, and the freedom of movement to explore at your leisure. While aid agencies very rapidly find solutions for providing many of these things to their staff (through generators, water purification systems etc) the conditions in some postings can be distinctly primitive.

Conditions are not always harsh

Conditions are not always harsh

How big a deal this is to you will determine how long you want to spend in some of the more remote and inaccessible locations. I don’t want to suggest that it was the main reason I left the Balkans, but the idea of facing yet another winter of snow in Kosovo with no reliable heat and power was something that certainly factored into my decision to look for work in South East Asia!
Think seriously about how you feel about access to reliable medical care, social life with people from your culture, speciality food and drink, and other creature comforts, and pick your postings accordingly. Bear in mind that, when you are starting out, you have far less choice. A very informal system of seniority tends to reward those who have ‘paid their dues’, and more senior positions are usually based in regional headquarters offices in more connected capital cities with better amenities.


The flip side of a values and passion-driven business that is focussed on changing the world is that the employees are often expected to work hard and make personal sacrifices. Long hours and unpaid overtime are often the norm, and many jobs in the field are ‘meat-grinders’ – they are emotionally and physically exhausting and people tend to ‘burn-out’ in a few years. This is not to say that organizations themselves are always unreasonably demanding of their staff, but that they often have cultures and work-ethics that are very demanding.
This is particularly true in emergency postings, where the first few months can be especially hectic and sleep-deprived. Some organizations try to mitigate this by providing additional vacation time or rest and recuperation (R&R) for their teams in particularly stressful locations. You need to make sure that you take personal responsibility for managing your workload and stress levels.

It’s not always a feel-good business

Some people want to work in this line of business because they want to help people and feel good about what they are doing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not always a feel-good job. In places with high levels of need and suffering where resources are insufficient, neither you nor the beneficiaries of your work will likely feel particularly uplifted by the amount you are able to do. You may spend a lot of your time refusing requests because of inadequate resourcing, deal with donors who are unsympathetic, officials who are uncooperative, or combatants who are unwilling to help. Don’t expect to get a high level of recognition or praise for your efforts, or to feel that you are able to solve all of the problems you will encounter.

Relationships and roots

While it creates intense bonds between colleagues, the business can place enormous strains on marriages and relationships. The pace of work, the upheaval of constant and unpredictable travel, separation from loved ones, and other stressors can make stable relationships difficult. Go into it with open eyes, and talk early and often about what is going on. As Jan Davis and Robert Lambert succinctly point out “emergency relief work is frequently carried out in situations where there has been massive breakdown in civil society and where great evil has been perpetrated. Against this background, the immediate benefits to be gained from a comforting, supportive sexual relationship may seem to outweigh the long-term costs of dealing with the consequences of such a relationship when returning to normality. How you deal with these issues is a personal matter, but it is important to be prepared1.
Think seriously about the strains that this kind of work will place on your family relationships and friendships – not only will you be away for long periods of time, but your experiences will change you, and may make it more difficult for you to fit back into old relationships. It’s not impossible by any means, but go into it with your (and your partner’s) eyes open.
1 Engineering in Emergencies – Davis and Lambert.

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