So...You Want to be an Aid Worker?

Are the Odds Stacked Against Me?
I took an amazing course this year on humanitarian aid and politics taught by one of the best professors I will ever have (and that isn't just because he worked for MSF!). Towards the end of the course we discussed our futures in aid work and what paths we can choose from as soon-to-be college grads. At the end of class, we were shown the video above.

I have a love/hate relationship with this video (but mostly love). I like it just because my cynical self enjoys the naïveté of the aspiring aid worker (which slightly reminds me of myself two years ago, I must admit). Aid work is sometimes portrayed as a glamorous career with celebrities like Bono, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie giving face-time in areas like Darfur. With people like these as the unofficial spokesmen for aid work ("celebrity fauxmanitarians" as I like to call them - excluding George Clooney who actually does something awesome - the Satellite Sentinel Project), many forget the dangers of humanitarian work. Humanitarian aid work is the 5th most dangerous job behind a fisherman, lumberjack, pilot, and steelworker1 (after lumberjack...really?!). Aid workers are being increasingly targeted in conflict zones where they are far too often seen as a potential enemy as a result of military humanitarianism (refer to The Road Daily for up-to-date reports of aid worker kidnappings and killings). So as idyllic as it would be to think that aid workers heroically sweep into crisis zones and with a Harry Potter-like swish of the humanitarian wand (or bag of rice, MUAC band, and vicious rhetoric) are able to resolve the conflict, that isn't so. 

I also love this video because it presents alternatives for those who want to help "end poverty" and make a difference in the world, but on a more tangible and local level than becoming a full-blown aid worker. Aid work is not a career to be chosen lightheartedly. Fortunately for those who want to make a difference, but don't have the stomach for war-zones, there is a happy medium!

But despite the many reasons I enjoy this video, I must admit, it scares the crap out of me. I have a gnawing fear inside me all the time of my potential failure. I chose to take the path of becoming an aid worker for reasons I'm still discovering every day. The road won't be easy and I know that. I work my butt of everyday so I can reach my goal, but will all my hard work actually pay off (not in the literal sense of course...I know I will be making a pittance in the beginning and I've accepted that)? This video mentions that most aid work jobs are at desks in headquarters doing fundraising - is that what I'm condemned to? I dream of the 'cowboy' aid work - I want to be in the front lines of fighting in Somalia, DRC, or Sudan, wherever it may be - not at a desk in DC calling potential donors or sharpening pencils! With graduation fast approaching, I'm reminded that I've got a fight ahead of me, but I'm ready to fight to the death. There's a big risk that I won't get what I want upon graduation, but if I want to be an aid worker enough, the risk, no matter how large, is worth it. 

Please, remind me that I said this a year from now because I might not believe I was once this optimistic. 

1 Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.


  1. Karen, I just wanted to let you know I follow/read your blog all the time. I LOVE LOVE LOVE how you always break the issues down for those of us who don't follow aid work and humanitarian crises like you do! So much useful information is available for me here! You rock!


  2. Hey Carly! Thanks, I appreciate it :) I'm still learning too so that probably helps! Thanks for the support!


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