So you want to be a humanitarian?

So you want to be a humanitarian?

By Reel Ahmed, January 2016


The nature of war is changing. What might have first looked like a short term emergency can become years- look at Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan. The destruction of natural disasters are also increasing as they more often begin to affect highly populated urban areas and changes in climate are increasing their frequency. These changes are making people more vulnerable and in need of urgent aid for longer periods of time. This has forced humanitarian organisations, also known as aid agencies, to adapt and change their way of working.

Organisations such as the Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross are examples of humanitarian organisations. Unlike development organisations, they are the ones that are supposed to be there when a crisis first hits, such as the earthquake in Nepal and mass displacements in Central African Republic. The focus for these organisations is the rapid start-up and distribution of life-saving food, water and shelter and less so on the long-term sustainability, capacity building and evaluation- that’s the development organisations areas, right? Not so much anymore.

Humanitarian organisations can no longer just rush in and rush out if they are to fulfil their core mission of reducing the vulnerability of people facing crises. They must design programmes that can support people for longer periods and build the capacity of local organisations- the ones that were there before the international organisations came, and who will remain long after they leave. The positive trend now in the sector is not only for programmes that are based around longer-term response, but also those that focus on minimizing the impact of crises before they even occur, known in the sector as Disaster Risk Reduction. These changes have blurred the lines between humanitarian and development organisations.

So you want to be a ‘humanitarian’?

In reality those working with humanitarian organisation are not the altruists or do-gooder going to ‘Afrikah’ to save dying babies in some makeshift refugee camp. Sure, some may be. But many are doing 9-5 office job in places like Brussels, London and Washington, writing donors reports, monitoring and evaluation frameworks, struggling to get their head round which form to fill out to make an international transfer or googling the names of the dozens of warring parties in one of their project countries.

White collar workers

Humanitarian organisations are part of a professionalised sector. To ensure the large scale, and often complicated, relief operations in places like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan are as effective as possible, significant administrative support is required from head office and that is why many of the jobs are based there. This does not mean working at headquarters is boring. Some of the most challenging and interesting work is done at head office- programme design, advocacy work and analysis to name but a few.

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