By: Ann McLaughlin, MSW, ACSW, LICSW
As Director of NGOabroad, I assist people to get into international humanitarian work, either paid or voluntary. My experience and therefore my comments below pertain to humanitarian, not corporate, work in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Eastern Europe. The comments below answer the oft asked question, “How do I get a paid international humanitarian job?”
Let' start with the challenge and then address the steps to deal with that challenge.
1. Paid international humanitarian jobs are highly competitive. There is a huge bottleneck getting into paid international humanitarian work. The majority of the grassroots humanitarian organizations in Asia, Africa, and South America are run on the commitment of their members; they do not have money to host volunteers or pay expatriates. In countries with 20-40% unemployment, the grassroots jobs rightfully belong to the people in those countries. The niche for expatriates is with the international NGOs (non-government organizations). Highly qualified candidates from all over the world-Philippines, Uganda, Tajikistan, India-are applying for these jobs with the international NGOs. If you thought the competition was fierce when you applied for a job in your town, global competition is fiercer, because there are far more people applying for only a few positions. But honestly, don’t let that stop you. Just know it takes a lot to get your foot in the door.
2. What does it take to get paid international social work? You need:
years of domestic social work experience
knowledge of the culture that you will work in
attitude: humility, resourcefulness (can hit the deck flying)
determination, tenacity for the search itself
language is very helpful but often in-country colleagues translate
3. International experience is a must. If you look at most international job announcements, they specify how much international work experience is required. They will say things like “five years experience in the Great Lakes necessary.” (Not Lake Michigan or Superior, but Lake Kivu, Tanganyika, Victoria, and Nyasa.) The Great Lakes is the tumultuous region that encompasses Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire/the Congo. You must have plenty of street smarts there. There are milder places to begin to get your first international experience!
4. Volunteering is a great way to get international experience. International volunteering that gives you pertinent experience is a great way to build your foundation for international work. You usually need 2-3 posts of volunteer work to get the foundation of experience. International experience is not just window dressing; it is essential. International work is complex. You can’t just transplant your skills into another culture. You must know that culture. Employers are looking for people who “know the ropes” and understand how international work is different from their work back home. Because most international humanitarian work is funded by projects, you must be able to “hit the ground running.”
So get volunteer experience that is pertinent to your long-term goal.
5. Cultural experience helps immensely. People who have cultural roots in the country where they wish to work are at a distinct advantage: they likely know the language, beliefs, and interaction patterns, so they know how to connect and get things done in that culture.
6. Class experience is equally valuable. If you are going to work in a poor country, then experience with poverty, hardship, and despair helps you “get” it. The biggest step that most North Americans and Europeans will make is not onto the airplane but across the class divide. One eighth of the world population consumes seven eighths of the world resources, leaving only one eighth of the resources for the other seven eighths. This is a world of Have-Lots and Have-Nots.
7. Have lots of experience and something valuable to contribute. Get your experience at home. Don’t expect to learn professional skills in another country where you will be coping with cultural differences and snafus. By bringing plenty of skills and savvy, you don’t drain their organization, but you contribute to it. Most international positions do not require you to carry out a task but require you to teach others to do it. You “download” your skills. In the terms used in international work, you partner as equals to build capacity.