Tuesday, February 12, 2013

International Humanitarian Opportunities

Students often ask me how they can volunteer and/or work abroad. This space will be regularly updated with resources for students who are interested in gaining international experience.

One of the best way to get experience overseas is to attend talks and lectures on international topics, and make connections with people who are working abroad. You are more likely to get a job or internship if you know someone at the organization and have made a personal connection.


One of the easiest ways to work abroad is to volunteer, especially if you have not yet earned an advanced degree. As an American, I joined the United States Peace Corps, which was an experience that greatly influenced my desire to live and work abroad. If you are Canadian, and equivalent organization is Volunteer Services Overseas. There are other volunteer organizations, but unfortunately, most of them demand a fee for airfare, housing, etc. However, this is a great way to get your foot in the door. Here are some volunteer organizations that offer a diverse range of service projects throughout the world for a fee:
The International Volunteer Programs Association is an association of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges. IVPA is an association of volunteer sending organizations but does not organize or run its own volunteer programs.

If you have a specialized health-related degree (e.g., medical, nursing, social work), then you might want to check out Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders), which posts volunteer positions.


The following websites are great places to look for international humanitarian internships and jobs:
The United Nations is its own enormous ecosystem of intergovernmental agencies that are charged by UN member states with carrying out some function of international policy or implementing some treaty or other. They are diverse in their form and function, but all carry a mandate from the UN to act on behalf of member nations. You will come across organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) who are charged with special responsibility for certain groups or issues (in these cases refugees, children and hunger). UNOCHA (the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) is perhaps worth a special look because of its non-operational role in coordinating UN agencies and NGOs in the humanitarian domain.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) that is mandated by the Geneva Conventions protects victims of international and armed conflict is one part the second is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the IFRC). It is a federation of 180 or so national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies (one in each country, in the main). These national societies generally operate in their home country (running blood banks, responding to disasters etc) but some larger national Red Cross’s (notably the American Red Cross) sometimes operate under their own auspices outside of their home country.

Non-governmental organizations are private (in the sense of not representing a government) non-profit groups that act in the international arena. They typically claim to represent concerned citizenry, a religious group, or some other interest. They also often post internships and jobs on their websites:


For further reading, please check out the following books or articles:
  • Fiona Terry's book Condemned to Repeat? was one of the first books I read on the state of humanitarian aid, and it opened my eyes to the harm that aid can do in various contexts.
  • Larry Minear’s book The Humanitarian Enterprise is a good introduction to the landscape of the humanitarian system, and an analysis of some of the bigger issues it faces.
  • Peter Walker’s book Shaping the Humanitarian World is another great analytical look at the global institutions of humanitarian response.

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