Breaking Into the International Humanitarian Field

Chef’s Table is a new section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.  


In a post-recession economy, the supply of “world-saving” jobs with an illustrious international organization cannot meet the demands of the starry-eyed college graduates. After four years of classroom debates on structural social problems and the unjust nature of our world order, some of these graduates find themselves disillusioned with their degree after realizing their passion for challenging the status quo can only land them an unpaid internship. What I have found most troubling about this predicament, however, is not the shortage of jobs for these hopeful graduates but rather, the lack of knowledge these graduates have about a career in their prospective field.

For example, an international relations (IR) degree can teach you about the different power struggles that are currently tearing Syria apart, but what are you taught about constructing emergency shelters for internally displaced civilians when Jordan and Turkey have refused to take in any more Syrian refugees? If you’re interested in aiding the millions of innocent civilians who are bearing the brunt of humanitarian disasters around the world, it is going to take more than an IR degree to know exactly how to effectively empower these disadvantaged populations.

I spent my undergraduate career learning about countries spiraling into violent conflicts or falling victims to tyrannical rulers and on the day of graduation, I found myself wanting to defend the human rights and dignity of all those who were being oppressed in the world but had no idea where to start. Since then, I have found that although there is no direct path to “saving the world,” there are a few critical questions that you should ask yourself before dedicating your life to the humanitarian field.

Why exactly do I want to go abroad to help make a difference?

This is a query most often overlooked among recent graduates, especially those who have romanticized the idea of working in a refugee camp in Africa or aiding impoverished youth in a rural South Asian village. It is critical to know what motivates you to want to travel halfway across the world to help the “less fortunate.” By questioning your motives, you engage in a critical dialogue that could help prevent you from merely contributing to the disheartening white savior complex. The all-too-common images of a white international volunteer surrounded by African tribal children serves as a vivid portrayal of the misconception that disadvantaged populations around the world need to be “saved,” and us from the global north need to save them.

The world order is not just made of the “white savior” but of “saviors” from industrialized countries who are taught that developing nations are helpless. Such was my realization after I spent three months volunteering with impoverished youth in Costa Rica. Being brought up in a working class, immigrant community, I had never considered myself as privileged. Once I was placed in a shantytown outside of Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, however, I learned that my American passport, my English, and my education all contributed to my “privileged” identity working with these youth. There was no practical experience I had fresh out of college that could have improved the lives of these Costa Ricans in a fundamental way, but I left the country with a (naive) sense of accomplishment for doing volunteer work in a developing country.

What skills does a recent American college graduate with minimal language skills have that could benefit Sudanese refugees? How could a middle class experience be used to relate to poor indigenous populations in Guatemala? Is your presence in a developing country really going to help empower the local community or simply serve as an experience of personal fulfillment and enrichment?

These questions are not meant to dissuade recent graduates from wanting to do humanitarian work with populations with whom they have no linguistic or ancestral ties. They are simply part of an effort to bring awareness to the core reasons why you would want to work with a particular population and to ensure that you are cognizant of your privilege as a degree-holder from an industrialized nation. For even the way aid workers view themselves as expats, as opposed to migrants, reinforces an unbalanced power structure of misplaced good intentions.

Am I really ready to live my life abroad, indefinitely?

With countless articles and blogs portraying the benevolent expat life as the lifestyle to aspire to, it is no wonder that humanitarian hopefuls are gunning for an adventure-filled life abroad. The idea of living in a new and exciting country while providing aid to those in need may seem like a dream come true. As the shine of a new city begins to fade, however, life abroad can become very isolating. You begin to rack up holidays spent alone, thousands of miles away from your friends and family. You become so consumed by your work that you start to lose track of birthdays or regular check-ins with your loved ones, and not to mention the exhaustion of having to start your life from scratch every time you’re stationed in a new country! At the same time, conflict zones or war-torn countries can become an obsession. As I’ve seen former colleagues jump at the chance to be sent wherever the next major armed conflict is occurring, it becomes apparent that they become addicted to the smoke that needs clearing, the rubble that needs lifting, the broken that needs mending and the lives that need saving.

The residual effects of being an aid worker abroad is rarely ever talked about in the field, much less within circles of people hoping to get into the field. A recent New York Times article helped to shed some light on just how pervasive the psychological traumas of a humanitarian really are. It is completely understandable that someone who has to hear direct accounts or perhaps witness accounts of rape, physical abuse, and severe trauma on a daily basis is personally affected by these atrocities. It does not help that non-profits and international organizations are constantly short on resources so professional help for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression is hard to come by.

Over time, if you can muster the strength to build an emotional wall to protect yourself from vicarious traumatization, and then grapple with the irony of distancing yourself from the very emotions that drew you to this field in the first place, then perhaps you can handle the tumultuous international humanitarian landscape.

What tangible skills do I have to offer to the international field?

While simply holding a bachelor’s degree, the most common answer for recent college graduates is: none. International aid organizations are not going to waste their limited resources sending a 21 year-old college graduate off to a country they’ve never visited. Despite the myriad of criticisms one may have of inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations or the International Organization for Migration, one thing they do relatively well is recruit talented employees. These organizations look for individuals who are specialized, have Master’s degrees, are at least fluent in 2-3 languages, and have at least 2 years of experience in their field.

For example, if your dream is to work with Palestinian youth in refugee camps, your senior thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not suffice to even get your foot in the door. You have to show that you speak Arabic almost fluently, have done volunteer work in the region a few times, and have insight on an aspect of the Palestinian plight that is relevant to the current landscape. A master’s program is one way of obtaining this level of experience. If you are part of the group of college graduates who wants field experience right after graduation, then there are entry-level programs like the Peace Corps or UN Volunteers.

You can also gain domestic experience in your area of specialization working with non-profits or public interest organizations that can translate into a humanitarian job abroad in the future. For example, by spending almost two years interning and learning about refugee issues with organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), I was able to land a position at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) headquarters in Geneva. Similarly, you could focus on child protection with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) or women’s rights advocacy with Tahirih Justice Center and find yourself in a war-torn country doing protection work with international organizations like UNICEF or Church World Service. What matters most, is developing a demonstrated interest and/or specialization in a particular issue before trying to look for work abroad.

Regardless of whether you think a career as a humanitarian is right for you, the only way to really know is to go out and experience it. A career path is built through trial and error but along the way, you must always reevaluate your position in the world relative to those who you wish to help in order to remind yourself that you are not a savior, you are a global citizen.

Christina Avalos currently works with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a non-profit organization aiding unaccompanied minors fleeing from Central America. Her views are solely her own and do not necessarily represent the views of KIND, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Heb / CC BY-SA 3.0


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