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What does an aid worker do?
An aid worker is sometimes also known as a relief worker, development worker, international aid worker or humanitarian aid worker. They typically work overseas in developing countries and help people and communities affected by human-made or natural disasters and emergencies, such as war, disease outbreaks, famine, earthquakes, etc. They can also work on various projects, e.g. education, housing, sanitation, health, human rights and agriculture.
There are many areas in which aid workers can specialise. They can work in various developing countries, and there may also be positions in the UK. There are many different sectors to choose from, e.g. environment, conflict, natural disasters and infrastructure, and scope to work in various areas, such as administration, relief work, research, planning, fundraising, etc. Therefore, what aid workers do will depend on where they work, their sector and their specialisms.
An aid worker’s main aim is to provide appropriate assistance, care and aid to those in need globally to improve their lives in the short and long term. They will carry out many tasks, including organising fundraising, researching projects, assessing situations and needs, assigning resources, managing security, providing and distributing emergency aid, recruiting, training and managing staff/volunteers, monitoring budgets, etc. The role may also involve administrative and computer work, e.g. writing reports and proposals.
Aid workers will work with many people, including senior managers, team leaders, other aid workers, donors, sponsors, volunteers and support staff. They will also liaise with many external stakeholders, such as clients, people and communities, partner organisations, government bodies, NGOs, local authorities, the public, the media, etc.
Aid workers predominately work for aid organisations, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (Government department), charities, not-for-profit organisations, the United Nations (UN) and others. The Armed Forces also do aid work. There may also be opportunities to become a self-employed consultant.
Aid workers will usually work overseas, but there may also be opportunities to work in the UK, e.g. in an administrative capacity. They can work in urban or rural areas depending on where they are based. Some may be in remote places with very few facilities.
An aid worker’s responsibilities depend on where they work, their sector and their specialisms.
Some examples of common duties for aid workers can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Adhering to overseas cultures, laws and practices.
- Organising fundraising events.
- Researching projects’ needs and requirements.
- Assigning resources.
- Planning long-term strategies for development and emergency response management.
- Managing, monitoring and assessing projects.
- Assessing emergencies and the responses needed to fast-developing situations.
- Implementing, managing and monitoring security procedures in unstable areas.
- Conducting needs assessments.
- Sourcing and collecting equipment and supplies.
- Organising transport.
- Sorting and handling deliveries.
- Providing emergency aid, e.g. food, water, medical supplies and shelter.
- Distributing aid or overseeing operations.
- Monitoring and managing budgets.
- Liaising with partner organisations, public bodies, other non-governmental organisations and government officials.
- Recruiting, training and managing staff or volunteers.
- Administrative work, e.g. report writing, project proposal writing and drafting funding proposals.
- Long-term work with communities, e.g. education or healthcare programmes.
- Advocating for communities and lobbying governments, the public and sponsors.
Aid workers’ working hours are highly variable and can be long, unsociable and unpredictable, especially in emergencies. Their working hours will depend on where they work, their specialisms and what situations they have to deal with day-to-day. Some aid workers will be on call and sent on assignments at short notice.
Overseas jobs tend to be fixed-term contracts or temporary full-time roles. There may be opportunities for more regular hours and permanent employed jobs in the UK, e.g. working in an office as an administrator.
What to expect
There are many positives to being an aid worker, especially if an individual enjoys helping people in need, improving their lives and being part of an international community. Assisting people in an emergency and supporting communities can be extremely rewarding. In some cases, aid workers can save lives. They can go home at the end of the working day knowing their job makes a positive difference to people’s lives.
This role would suit individuals who love to travel and work in various locations overseas. They will get involved with communities with different cultures and customs, which can be fulfilling. They will meet and help many people during their working day. Therefore, it would be a suitable role for people who like to socialise.
Boredom is unlikely to be an issue for aid workers. There are many sectors and areas, so individuals have many specialisms to choose from, and it is a diverse field. Their daily tasks are also likely to vary as they face different situations and challenges.
Even though there are positives to being an aid worker, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- Mental demands – being an aid worker can be mentally demanding. Being amidst or seeing the aftermath of natural and human-made disasters can expose individuals to harrowing sights, including fatalities, severe injuries, disease, famine and structural damage, which can be emotionally demanding and upsetting. Seeing people and communities in poverty and those in need can be stressful and may be too much for some people.
- Physical demands – being an aid worker is also physically demanding. There is lots of travel involved in aid work, so it can be tiring and lengthen the working day. They may also have to be involved with manual tasks and be on their feet for most of the day. Individuals will need a good level of physical fitness in this role.
- It can be dangerous – aid workers will face many hazards when working overseas, such as natural disasters, conflicts, political instability, infections, diseases, etc. There have been cases where aid workers have died, usually in war-torn countries. Employers must assess the risks to workers, but individuals should consider the dangers when looking at this as a career.
- Lack of job security and low salaries – most overseas aid work roles are fixed contracts, so it is not the most secure job role. Individuals can find themselves out of work between contracts unless they find other jobs. The salaries for aid workers can be somewhat low, especially as a starter. However, there is the potential to earn well with more qualifications and experience.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. It is mentally and physically demanding, and it can be dangerous. There is also a lack of job security, and starting salaries can be low. However, there are many positives too. Individuals who become aid workers love helping people and seeing them and their communities improve their quality of life.
When considering whether to be aid workers, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be an aid worker
Some of the personal qualities an aid worker requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for helping people.
- Knowledge of global issues.
- Willingness to live, travel and work in developing countries with basic conditions.
- Caring, compassionate, approachable, empathetic and understanding.
- Confident, assertive, motivated, determined, enthusiastic, honest and trustworthy.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Customer service skills.
- Thinking, analytical and reasoning skills.
- Technical skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Teamworking skills.
- Leadership skills.
- Decision-making skills.
- Networking skills.
- Planning, organisational and time management skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- Respect for different cultures, religions and ethnicities.
- The ability to work well with others and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to prioritise and delegate.
- The ability to understand people’s reactions.
- The ability to develop relationships with various people and communities.
- The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to use IT and software packages.
It is beneficial if individuals have language skills, especially in French and Spanish. However, this will depend on where they work. Being able to speak multiple languages will open up more opportunities.
Individuals are unlikely to get a paid role as an aid worker unless they have an undergraduate degree.
There are no specific subject requirements, but it may increase their chances of success if they have a degree in one of the following subjects:
- Social policy.
- Medicine, nursing or other healthcare subjects.
- Human rights.
- Engineering, e.g. sanitation and water.
- International development.
Once an individual has graduated, they could undertake a postgraduate degree to help them stand out.
Some examples of degrees are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- Disaster management.
- International development.
- International health.
- Aid management.
- Humanitarian aid.
The entry requirements will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying. They will typically need three good A Levels for an undergraduate degree or a certain number of UCAS points to get into university. Postgraduate degrees usually require a 2:1 or 2:2 in a relevant undergraduate degree. Some institutions also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
It may be possible to get into this career without a degree, but individuals must demonstrate extensive relevant experience.
For some aid worker roles, individuals may be able to apply directly to organisations if they have professional experience in a relevant field, e.g.:
- Medicine, nursing and healthcare.
- Project management.
RedR has an Affiliate Scheme that can help individuals become aid workers.
Relevant overseas work experience (paid or voluntary) is essential to become an aid worker, as it is a fiercely competitive field.
Individuals could do one or more of the following to increase their chances (this list is not exhaustive):
- Volunteer or work with a charity, non-profit organisation or community scheme in the UK.
- Find jobs that involve working with vulnerable people and those who need help, e.g. caring jobs.
- Apply for an internship or trainee scheme with a charity, e.g. Oxfam, People & Planet, British Red Cross and Christian Aid.
- Apply for a trainee position in the non-profit sector, e.g. the Charityworks Programme.
- Work overseas during summer holidays or do a gap year.
- Study or train abroad.
- Travel to countries where aid workers work and find out more about the job (not in the middle of an emergency).
- Go onto social media and follow aid organisations to hear about any opportunities.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide relevant training courses.
Some examples of courses that may be useful for individuals looking at a career in aid work include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Equality and diversity.
- Work-related stress.
- Work-related violence.
- Manual handling.
- Hazardous substances.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- FGM awareness.
- Modern slavery.
- Administering medication.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Workplace first aid.
- Data protection and the GDPR.
- Infection control.
- Customer service skills.
- Time management skills.
- Resilience training.
- Business management.
- Team leading.
Professional bodies, charities and associations, such as RedR UK, Aid Workers Network, Bond, Aid Worker Support, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) and other organisations, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become aid workers and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for roles. Jobs are on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, CharityJob, DevNetJobs, ReliefWeb, Bond, Disasters Emergency Committee, medair.org, UN Careers and others
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities for individuals. Refresher training is also advisable as it is a legal requirement and keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Aid workers must undergo an enhanced background/criminal record check, as they will have contact with children and vulnerable people. A criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, employers should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role. Having a record does not automatically mean being excluded from jobs.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Aid workers will typically need a driving licence, as they will travel extensively as part of their role. They may need additional qualifications/experience for driving overseas.
Medical checks and vaccinations
Some aid workers will need medical checks, and certain vaccinations will be required to travel and stay in some countries.
Where do aid workers work?
Aid workers can work for various employers, such as:
- Not-for-profit, religious and voluntary organisations.
- Non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
- Major international organisations, e.g. the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Private trusts/foundations.
- Government agencies.
- The Armed Forces.
They can also be self-employed and do consultancy, but these opportunities are uncommon, and there is a lot of competition.
Aid workers working in the UK tend to be office-based, and some roles may combine this with overseas work. UK jobs tend to be in London. However, there may be opportunities in other cities and larger towns.
When working overseas, aid workers can be in urban and rural areas, e.g. cities, towns, villages, camps and remote locations. Conditions can be very basic and also a risk to personal safety. In some cases, organisations may post aid workers to numerous locations.
Frequent travel is a requirement of the job, especially when working overseas.
How much do aid workers earn?
The salaries for aid workers vary considerably, and very little salary information is available. How much they will earn will depend on their role, their employer, the size of their employer, their working hours, their qualifications/experience and their specialisms.
Some examples of salaries include (these figures are a guide only and are from the National Careers Service):
- Starter – £17,000 a year.
- Experienced – £29,000 a year.
According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for a Humanitarian Aid Worker is £34,568 in the UK.
Types of aid work to specialise in
There are many specialist sectors and areas and far too many to mention here.
Here are some examples of the sectors that aid workers can work in (this list is not exhaustive):
- Emergency response, i.e. natural disasters and famine.
- Education and teaching.
- Infrastructure development.
- Climate change.
- Gender equality.
- Youth development.
- War and conflict.
- Logistics and transport.
- Human rights.
Aid workers can also work in different areas, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Relief work.
- Information technology (IT).
- Social media.
- Project management.
All specialist roles require different knowledge, skills, experience and qualities; some may need specific qualifications/training. All aid workers must have a degree and the right personal qualities. Any other areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for and the type of work an aid worker wants.
If aid workers do not do their roles effectively, safely and competently, an emergency could get out of hand, and people could be injured or worse. Incorrect decisions could also be critical for people in poverty or poor health. Therefore, whatever the type of role, aid workers must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
The world is constantly changing, whether it is politics, the climate, laws, technology, conflicts or people. Therefore, aid workers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to ensure they carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives aid workers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers.
Joining a professional body, charity or association, such as RedR UK, Aid Workers Network, Bond, Aid Worker Support, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), and others, can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is an opportunity for career progression for aid workers. With more qualifications, training and experience, they could become a senior manager or an adviser or move to different organisations. They could specialise in specific areas, such as the environment, climate change, human rights or emergency response. Alternatively, they could become a self-employed consultant.
Knowledge, skills and experience in aid work can also lead to a career in different areas. It will depend on an individual’s qualifications and specialisms, but they could move into education, social work, mental health or immigration. Some aid workers choose to become counsellors and provide counselling to people involved in aid work.
Get started on a course suitable for becoming an aid worker
Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 2£20 + VAT View course
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