Humanitarian Aid Worker: How to Craft a Career Assisting with Global Issues

Tables of Contents

  1. What Is a Humanitarian?
  2. How to Become a Humanitarian Aid Worker
  3. Humanitarian Aid Workers Salary
  4. Human Rights Issues Today
  5. Best Humanitarian Organizations

There is no greater calling than to work saving and protecting human lives. The number of people in need will explode in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, states that the crisis has created a “hunger pandemic” that amounts to a “humanitarian and food catastrophe.”

Farmers’ organizations and the largest food companies in the world warn that food supplies across the globe will be “massively disrupted” by the pandemic. They are calling for coordinated action by governments of the world to prevent a “food and humanitarian crisis,” as The Guardian reports.

At the front lines in the effort to prevent a global catastrophe are humanitarian aid workers skilled in helping people whose lives are impacted by natural and manmade disasters.

Humanitarian efforts take many different forms, including medical and health, education, government and public policy, and science and technology. There are many rewarding careers in humanitarian aid work for people with the skills and education in international studies that are required for success.

Two humanitarian aid workers bringing supplies to a village.

What Is a Humanitarian?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a humanitarian as a person who is “involved in or connected with improving people’s lives and relieving suffering.” However, answering the question, What is a humanitarian? from a professional perspective requires a more detailed definition.

Professional humanitarians work for organizations that are dedicated to easing human suffering and helping people in need lead more fruitful and fulfilling lives. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the role of humanitarian aid workers as assisting people who have been “forced from their homes because of conflicts or natural disasters.”

Professional aid workers are typically employed by large humanitarian organizations that have the infrastructure and resources to support their safe deployment to far-flung regions of the world. By contrast, volunteer and amateur responders are well intentioned but lack the training and skills required to be effective. Amateurs and volunteers often don’t understand the “local context,” according to the CDC, which can make bad situations even worse.

Classic and Modern Models of Humanitarianism

The birth of humanitarianism dates to the mid-19th century, when Henri Dunant founded the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded (now the International Committee of the Red Cross) after witnessing the Battle of Solferino in 1859, as the Encyclopedia Britannica describes.

The Journal of International Humanitarian Action explains that what became known as classic Dunantist humanitarianism, or classical humanitarianism, is based on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Its relief efforts are based purely on need rather than political motives or discrimination. This model emphasizes “exceptionalism” in terms of a crisis being a temporary departure from normality. It has increasingly become the source of conflict between groups offering humanitarian aid and local governments and officials in the areas receiving the aid.

By contrast, resilience humanitarianism addresses the protracted nature of modern crises, which often last for months or years. This model of humanitarianism shifts the focus of aid to enabling people, communities, and societies to adapt to and recover from tragic events and disasters on their own. It depends on the ability of local residents to create local response mechanisms as they adapt to conditions in the short term and the long-term aftermath of a disaster. Resilience humanitarianism, for example, recognizes that the international aid community cannot intervene in all of the growing number of disasters that are linked to climate change.

Humanitarianism’s Role in Addressing Global Issues

In December 2019, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) began the Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) 2020 that it calls a “comprehensive, authoritative, and evidence-based assessment of the world’s humanitarian needs.” The report identifies several emerging trends and risks:

Climate Change Causes a Steep Increase in Extreme Weather

Recent years have seen more intense storms and floods, and “protracted and repeated droughts.” Rising temperatures threaten people’s health, water and food supplies, and livelihoods, making them more vulnerable to humanitarian crises.

Economic Slowdowns and Downturns Increase Vulnerability to Humanitarian Crises

Economic downturns coincide with growing levels of hunger and undernourishment. In August 2019, 33 low-income countries were identified as being in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress. Twelve of these countries represent 40% of all people (56 million people) in need of humanitarian aid.

Infectious Diseases Exacerbate Humanitarian Needs and Strain Available Resources

Active conflicts in areas such as Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have led to the greatest cholera outbreak in history in the former country, and the second-largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola in the latter country.

Natural Disasters Surpass Human-Initiated Conflict as Primary Humanitarian Focus

Highly violent conflicts continue to cause widespread displacement, hunger, and death, as the GHO points out, yet “climate shocks” are also identified as a primary cause of the eight worst food crises in the world. Anticipating climate-related crises and responding early to mitigate the damage they cause will save lives and reduce socioeconomic pressures in the countries most vulnerable to climate change, yet few appeals for humanitarian aid include a climate-change component. Countries especially susceptible to the impacts of climate change include:

  • Yemen
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Ethiopia
  • Somalia
  • Afghanistan
  • Sudan
  • Haiti

Humanitarianism Merges with Development, Political, and Military Agendas

Sovereignty and nationalism will increasingly conflict with the 20th-century concept of humanitarian “universalism” as more governments vilify humanitarianism as an evil influence. The International Crisis Group reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted humanitarian aid flows, peace efforts, and “crisis diplomacy” as “unscrupulous leaders” attempt to use the pandemic as an excuse for denying human rights and tightening their grip on power.

Consequences of this trend are a disruption of humanitarian supply chains, heightened military conflict as peacekeeping efforts wane, and a sharp increase in refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). In the long term, the pandemic will likely have a “profound influence on the shape of the multilateral order” as tensions between major powers intensify. This threatens not only the ability of agencies such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide humanitarian aid, but also “basic assumptions about the values and political bargains that underpin them.”

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How to Become a Humanitarian Aid Worker

Students and others who wish to learn how to become a humanitarian may be surprised to discover the high level of competition for positions as international aid workers. Committed to Good (CTG), an organization that recruits aid workers, states that “there are a lot of people who want to help others, despite all the challenges of working in war-torn countries.”

Apart from the specific skills that aid workers must possess, the profession requires resilience more than any other single attribute. People with a passion for helping others in the greatest need and who thrive in the most challenging work environments on the planet will realize rewards like few other professions offer.

A Day in the Life of a Humanitarian Aid Worker

Humanitarian aid workers provide life-saving emergency assistance to people living in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They make great personal sacrifices and work under “immense pressure,” as CARE International describes. CARE states that working as a humanitarian professional “is more than just a job. It’s a mission and a passion.”

Nearly every day, aid workers witness the suffering of people caught in conflict areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters. They hear stories of the traumatic events that forced people to leave their homes and part from family and friends to escape catastrophic situations.

One of the seven firsthand accounts of aid workers presented by CARE describes the experiences of Mona Mubarak Al Kawkabane, who has worked for several years in the organization’s field office in Yemen. She and her coworkers begin their day at 6 a.m. and travel several hours to remote villages, passing through several security checkpoints along the way.

Once they reach their destination, they listen to the villagers describe what they need, which she describes as “overwhelming.” Before CARE was able to build a well in the village, people would walk for hours to reach the closest source of potable water. Despite their shortage of food, the villagers offer to share what they have with the workers. Often the aid workers’ day is so long they spend the night in the village and return to their field office the next day.

Humanitarian Aid Worker: Education, Training, and Skills

Qualifying for a position as a humanitarian aid worker requires a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in international studies or international relations. Many such programs now include experiential learning that includes several weeks of hands-on volunteering experience. CTG points out that employers seek job candidates who have both a relevant degree and experience as an aid worker.

Most candidates for aid worker positions have gained experience by volunteering with an international aid agency. Many types of work skills transfer to international relief efforts, including:

  • Medicine
  • Transportation and logistics
  • Engineering
  • Technology

Candidates who can demonstrate how they have responded to crises and difficult challenges in the past are most prized by employers

Tasks and Work Environments of Humanitarian Aid Workers

Humanitarian aid workers bring the skills they acquired in their profession to the work they do for aid agencies. The CDC explains that humanitarian relief deployments may last weeks or years. The work is done in the chaotic environments following natural or human-caused disasters, which requires self-sufficiency and the ability to overcome challenges in insecure and stressful situations.

The risks to their safety, security, health, and well-being take a toll on aid workers. The CDC cites a study that found greater than 35% of humanitarian aid workers report that their personal health deteriorated during their mission. More aid workers die due to accidents and violence than because of disease or natural causes.

Most humanitarian aid workers understand the challenges they face in their work, but many are unprepared for the level of stress the job entails. Aid organizations are focusing on professionalism to ensure aid workers are skilled in their specialty, whether as a medical professional, truck driver, or economist. However, they are also making a concerted effort to minimize burnout in the profession, as Devex explains.

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Humanitarian Aid Workers Salary

The number of jobs in the nonprofit and private groups that provide emergency and other relief services more than doubled between 1990 and 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), reaching 184,200.

PayScale reports the median annual salary in humanitarian organizations is about $60,000. This compares to a median annual salary of about $56,000 for employees of human rights organizations. By comparison, the BLS states that the median annual salary for emergency management directors as of May 2018 was $74,590, while community and social service specialists earned a median annual salary of $46,900 as of May 2019, according to the BLS.

Four Stages of Humanitarian Relief Work

International aid workers are responding to populations in dire need of life’s necessities: clean water, food, shelter, and security. The primary concern of humanitarian relief work in trouble spots is preserving life by responding to emergencies. However, response is only one part of a comprehensive plan for providing humanitarian relief.

Humanitarian aid worker duties and salaries vary based on which of the four stages of relief work the person is engaged in. Good360 explains that each of the four phases of the “disaster life cycle” entails unique strategies, stakeholders, tools, training, and responses from aid organizations.

1. Mitigation

In the earliest phase, the community determines the steps it must take to make it less vulnerable to disasters. The goal is to limit the potential for mass destruction or loss of life. The steps may include upgrading infrastructure and strengthening buildings, as well as promoting social justice, healthcare, education, and environmental protections.

2. Preparedness

The focus of this phase is improving the community’s ability to respond to a disaster by promoting education, training, and outreach to individuals, families, organizations, and community leaders.

  • Have ready access to food, water, and medical supplies
  • Ensure emergency responders are properly trained and equipped
  • Maintain emergency-response equipment
  • Develop and test a communications plan

Pre-positioning emergency supplies and equipment in strategic locations in a community, a country, or around the world reduces the time required to respond when disaster strikes.

3. Response

Most people’s image of humanitarian aid work revolves around this phase of the disaster lifecycle, because a fast response saves lives when the situation is at its most chaotic. A timely response also minimizes damage to property and ensures people affected by the disaster have the food, shelter, and medical attention they require.

Preparation and organization are critical at this phase, because this is when the risks to lives and property are at their highest. Resources and efforts may be wasted or do more harm than good if they are not applied correctly.

4. Recovery

The last of the four phases of a disaster is also the longest, extending months or years after the situation has stabilized and threats to safety have been addressed. It begins with a strategic plan to meet the long-term needs of inhabitants, including housing, employment, infrastructure, and economic development.

The recovery phase circles back to the community’s mitigation efforts by identifying vulnerabilities that may arise in the wake of subsequent disasters. The goal of a disaster preparedness plan is to build resilience so the population is healthier and stronger than it was before the disaster struck.

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Humanitarian aid by the numbers

Human Rights Issues Today

The battle against COVID-19 dominates international humanitarian efforts today. However, The Guardian reports that some governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to make a grab for power by extending indefinitely emergency authority to enforce restrictions that threaten human rights.

Today’s human rights issues make it more difficult for international aid organizations to ensure the security of aid workers and the effectiveness of the assistance the organizations provide.

Climate Change

The top global challenge remains climate action. The United Nations Foundation states that to avoid a climate catastrophe, global emissions of greenhouse gasses must be halved by 2030, yet global economies representing 90% of all such emissions haven’t committed to cutting carbon outputs at sufficient rates to meet this goal.

A study published in Science Advances found that past research on how human activity influences extreme weather events underestimated the influence of global warming on such disasters. The five greatest global risks identified in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 all relate to climate change:

  • Extreme weather
  • Climate action failure
  • Natural disaster
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Human-made environmental disasters

Sustainable Development

The Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice explains that a phase-out of carbon emissions by 2050 is possible only if all people have a right to health, education, economic growth, and poverty reduction. As the core of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has issued a Call to Action for Human Rights 2020 that outlines a seven-part protocol in commitment to human rights. The elements of this protocol include:

  1. Rights at the core of sustainable development
  2. Rights in time of crisis
  3. Equal rights for women
  4. Rights for public participation and civic space
  5. Rights of future generations, especially regarding climate justice
  6. Rights for collective action
  7. Rights on new frontiers, including in digital technologies

Migrants and Refugees

The UN International Organization for Migration’s World Migration Report 2020 states that in 2018 and 2019, climate change and weather-related hazards were responsible for large-scale displacement of populations in the U.S., China, Mozambique, the Philippines, India, and other parts of the world. The UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration is a legally nonbinding agreement that calls for efforts to mitigate the impact of climate-related disasters on migration.

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9% of the global population, 21% of people in poverty, and 33% of people in extreme poverty live in countries with current humanitarian crises.


The UN reports that global poverty rates have declined by more than half since 2000, yet approximately 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty and struggles to meet basic needs for health, education, and access to clean water and sanitation. Poverty rates are high in countries affected by conflicts, especially in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Eradicating poverty is at the top of the UN’s list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) described in the organization’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Improving the living standard for the world’s poorest people is the best way to make them more resilient and minimize the damage that results from natural and manmade disasters.

Human Trafficking

Wars and natural disasters are major contributors to the rise in the trafficking of children and women, along with poverty and political corruption. UNICEF USA states that when humanitarian emergencies strike, trafficking is frequently overlooked or is perceived as being a preexisting condition. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime describes examples of trafficking that are exacerbated by humanitarian crises:

  • The forced recruitment of child soldiers
  • Opportunistic trafficking of displaced persons
  • The enslavement of persecuted ethnic minorities
  • The demand for sexual services by armed groups

However, the agency notes that in the chaos of a humanitarian crisis, the most aid workers can hope for is to identify groups at risk and to provide monitoring and referral pathways as a way to protect them.

Women’s Rights

The OCHA reports that 67 million women and girls are in need of humanitarian aid, which puts them at “heightened risk of gender-based violence and trafficking, unintended pregnancy, maternal morbidity and mortality, unsafe abortions, and child, early, and forced marriage.” The group states that opportunities to reverse gender-based discrimination are missed in emergency response and recovery efforts.

New policies and standards that promote and protect the rights of women and girls must be implemented by public and private humanitarian relief efforts, according to the OCHA. The best way to achieve this goal is by giving women more meaningful roles in creating and implementing humanitarian programs, and by holding humanitarian actors accountable.


The humanitarian crises that continue in Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo demonstrate the link between disasters and authoritarianism. Yet democracies in all parts of the world are threatened by natural and human-caused disasters.

The rise of nationalistic, anti-democracy politicians in many European countries is driven in large part by the influx of refugees, many of whom are victims of natural and human-caused disasters, according to Helena Dearnell on Medium.

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Best Humanitarian Organizations

Human suffering doesn’t recognize political boundaries, social class, religion, or any other demographic characterization. Transparent Hands, which provides free medical and surgical care to people in Pakistan, highlights a core belief of nongovernmental humanitarian organizations: that human life and rights should be considered equal everywhere, and that the suffering of people in dire need must be eliminated.

The best humanitarian organizations are those with a reputation for serving the needs of populations experiencing the worst effects of disasters and crises, regardless of the cause or the location.

Amnesty International

Founded in 1961, this group investigates and exposes abuse by the powerful against the weak. Its goals include fighting human rights abuses worldwide, ensuring that torturers face justice, and overturning oppressive laws. Amnesty International is active in promoting the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, many of whom are the victims of global crises.

Human Rights Watch

This organization employs researchers who work in more than 100 countries to investigate human rights abuses and share the stories of victims with the world. Recently the group has reported on the heightened risk of COVID-19 infections in refugee camps in Greece, Bangladesh, Yemen, Syria, Nepal, and Burundi.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

This group was founded in May 1919 as the League of Red Cross Societies. In 1983 it was renamed the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and in 1991 it took its current name. The organization’s work in responding to disasters and crises includes a global disaster management system. It also provides leadership in establishing global disaster and crisis management policies and strategies based on the Principles and Rules of RCRC Humanitarian Assistance.

American Red Cross

From house fires to hurricanes, this organization responds to more than 60,000 disasters each year, providing overnight shelter, hot meals and snacks, emergency supplies, health services, and mobile response vehicles. It also helps victims of emergencies and disasters reunite with loved ones, offers short-term and long-term financial assistance, and provides grants for community recovery projects.

Refugees International

As advocates for the millions of people displaced by war, persecution, and climate crises, this group is dedicated to ensuring that emergency resources go to “those who need it most.” Refugees International accepts no funds from the UN or any government as a way to maintain its independence and promote its credibility. Its staff members travel to refugee camps in all parts of the world to assess conditions and the responses of governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local and international aid agencies.

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)

Operating in more than 70 countries, this organization sends teams of health professionals and logistic and administrative staff (many of whom are hired locally) to tend to the medical needs of people impacted by conflicts, disasters, epidemics, and a lack of health care. To date it has provided 11.2 million outpatient consultations, treated 2.4 million cases of malaria, and assisted in more than 300,000 births. Its services are based on medical ethics and the principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality.

United Nations Foundation

This group was founded in 1998 by media mogul Ted Turner with the goal of helping the UN promote its Sustainable Development Goals. It attempts to establish broad-based initiatives that are able to tackle problems at scale and influence government and nongovernment decision-makers. Its five core capabilities are to convene, champion, communicate, collaborate, and channel financial resources to the areas where they are needed most.

Global Rights

This organization was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1978 and now operates out of Nigeria, where it works with local activists in African countries to “promote and protect the rights of marginalized populations.” Among the issues the group supports are women’s rights, access to justice, and governance of natural resources.

The Future of Humanitarian Work

Demand for humanitarian aid workers shows no signs of abating as the world addresses growing threats to the environment and basic human rights. By serving people in the greatest need, international aid workers help all of society become more civilized and human. No matter what the future may bring, the health and well-being of all of the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants depends in large part on the preparation, fast action, and mitigation efforts of the people who rush to the fore when disaster strikes.

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Recommended Reading

How to Work for the U.N.

Workforce Trends of Today and Tomorrow: A Changing Landscape

Top 16 Skills Needed in 2020 and Beyond

American Red Cross, Career Opportunities

CARE, Careers

Committed to Good, “How to Become an International Aid Worker”

Conscious Career Connections, Humanitarian Career Paths

Doctors Without Borders, Career Opportunities & Benefits

FINCA International, Careers

FundsforNGOs, The World’s Top Ten Human Rights Organisations

Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2020”

International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, Humanitarianism

Life In Charge, “6 Humanitarian Careers That Actually Pay”

Relief International, Work with Us

United Nations, “Human Rights”

United Nations Careers, Working in the Field

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Job Opportunities

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “How to Launch a Career in the Humanitarian Sector”

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “The State of Humanitarian Professions: Providing a Reference Tool to the Aid Community”

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, List of Human Rights Issues

Universal Rights Group, “What Are the World’s Human Rights Priorities in 2019, and What to Look Out for in 2020”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Careers in Disaster Relief

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social and Human Service Assistants

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