How to Become an International Aid Worker

Find out more about the duties of international aid workers as well as their educational requirements and the work experience you need to get a foot in the door.

Career at a Glance

International aid workers are on the front line of emergency responses to humanitarian crises or natural disasters. They may work in roles ranging from medical and logistical to educational and administrative. Find out more details in the table below.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Medicine, engineering, education, information technology, etc.
Key Skills Resourcefulness, resilience, interpersonal and language skills
Job Growth (2016-2026) 8% (emergency management directors)*
Average Annual Wage (2019) $44,069 (program coordinator, non-profit humanitarian organization)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com

What Do International Aid Workers Do?

International aid workers are involved in emergency responses in countries and communities that have experienced natural disasters or humanitarian crises. Work may include planning logistics, providing medical care, helping build or repair infrastructure, managing an aid organization's IT systems, or teaching language and other skills.

The hours can be very long and unpredictable, especially during crises responses, and workers have to be willing to travel and live in conditions that may be relatively challenging compared to what they are used to. The work can also be dangerous, particularly in war-torn countries.

What Education Do I Need to Become an International Aid Worker?

People with technical skills are highly sought after in the field. Therefore, a bachelor's degree in areas such as engineering, agronomy, logistics, information technology, or a medical profession may improve your chances of finding employment as an international aid worker. To further boost your chances and ensure you can later advance toward a higher position, a master's degree is recommended.

Do I Need Additional Experience?

The field is very competitive and getting paid work is nearly impossible without substantial experience in the sector. You'll most likely have to initially work for free or little income to get a foot in the door. The best way to gain some experience is through volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps.

If this is not an option, take advantage of any opportunity to live, study, or work abroad. Employers will want to know that you can adjust to new environments, work with people from various cultural backgrounds, and learn a different language. In addition, volunteering proves your commitment to the cause and shows you are not just after paid travel experiences. However, traveling overseas and working for free isn't cheap, so if your budget doesn't stretch that far you should volunteer or apply for internships with a local NGO.

Where Can I Work?

The geographical areas you can work in depend on your qualifications. Development programs need all sorts of professionals, from engineers and doctors to language teachers and information technology professionals. It is advisable to specialize in one area and work toward gaining as much experience as you can instead of targeting particular countries you want to travel to. Most aid workers are employed in various regions throughout the course of their careers, so it's more about what you do than where you do it.

What Income and Job Growth Can I Expect?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide specific figures for international aid workers. Payscale.com reported an average annual salary of $44,069 for program coordinators at humanitarian non-profit organizations as of May 2019. However, salaries can vary significantly depending on the type of role and organization, and many international aid workers report that initial salaries can be very low or non-existent with only travel and accommodations paid.

In regard to job growth, the BLS has statistics for emergency management directors. This is a different profession from international aid worker, but as some duties may overlap during disaster responses, these statistics may reflect need in the aid sector. The projected job growth for emergency management directors is 8% from 2016 to 2026. The BLS reports that positions across emergency and other relief services should grow at a faster-than-average rate during the same decade.

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