Rewarding but tough: Why become an international aid worker

Shandelle Battersby
Rewarding but tough: Why become an international aid worker

Perhaps you’re a doctor a few years into your career and a little bored, or maybe you’re a builder, teacher or IT professional looking for the next step.

If you’re feeling stuck, want to push yourself to see what you’re capable of, or even just want to give something back to society, consider working for a professional or non-profit aid organisation offshore. Many of them have positions on the payroll that could be beneficial for your career, as well as roles for volunteers.

One of the most prominent and respected global health organisations is Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

More commonly known in this part of the world as Doctors Without Borders, MSF needs almost any medical professional specialisation you can think of, from HIV/TB experts to paediatricians, mental health experts, gynaecologists and infectious disease specialists, but also recruits a host of professions -- in fact, medical staff only make up about half of its employees.

Organisations such as this have many parts, and they cannot run without field coordinators, experts in engineering, construction, electricity, mechanics, water and sanitation, and backroom staff such as financial controllers, IT specialists, geo/map writers, lawyers and administrators.

HR manager Natalie Schulz took a sabbatical from her job in Brisbane, Australia, to take on a role with MSF in Iraq for a year, and went on to work for the organisation in Switzerland and Tanzania. She’s now back home for family reasons, and reflects on her time with MSF as rewarding but tough.

“I loved the experience, but it was definitely challenging. I moved from a corporate HR role in Australia dealing with absenteeism issues to figuring out
how to pay staff when roads are blocked or the banks have run out of cash (yes, this happened!). It's taught me perspective -- the national staff are often recruited from within the refugee camps and are amazingly resilient.

"They deal with so much on a daily basis, and me not having a hot shower or fresh fruit and veggies for six weeks is minor in comparison.

Giving back 3

Left: Refugees at Domeez Camp, home to over 60,000 Syrian refugees, which is just outside of Dohuk, in the north of Kurdistan, Iraq. Right: Natalie Schulz talking to one of MSF's Iraqi doctors in front of the Dabin mobile clinic in Zakho, Iraq.

“I had wanted to volunteer for years, in particular with MSF, but was put off by the selection criteria. I don't speak French and hadn't done any aid work before, so thought my application was a long shot. Two months later I was attending training in Sydney, then flying to Iraq, via Geneva for an operational briefing. I thought I was taking a year out of my life to volunteer, then I found a whole other world -- paid work in interesting locations, where you live and breathe the work you do. It's addictive. I'm now planning where to next."

As well as MSF, which is currently on the hunt for fieldworkers in non-medical professions in New Zealand, Schulz also recommends having a look at the World Health Organisation (WHO) website (, or better-known charities such as Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam and International Red Cross.

WHO employs a staggering 8,500 people in 147 countries out of its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, in a wide range of occupations, from medical to economic.

Another worthy organisation perhaps lesser known in this part of the world is Handicap International ( which does important work in 60 countries helping people with disabilities and vulnerable individuals in situations of conflict, natural disaster, poverty, and exclusion. It is also the most comprehensive landmine action charity in the world.  

Closer to home is Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA), a New Zealand agency founded by Sir Edmund Hillary that aids Asia-Pacific locations including Bougainville, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Timor-Leste.

Funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme and private and corporate donations, the non-religious, non-political and non-governmental agency focuses on building local businesses, supporting communities, looking after the environment, and fostering good governance, education and health.

Volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds and the idea is that skilled New Zealanders share their knowledge and experience with local people in the country they’re sent to. This way any changes made can be continued, long after the assignment is over.

“Our big focus is on what we call ‘capacity building’ – that’s about making sure that we’re not just filling a gap for the term of the assignment, but that our volunteers are working with locals to pass on skills and knowledge that will help develop and serve communities for generations,” CEO Gill Greer says.

“It’s definitely a two-way street. Our volunteers are extraordinary in what they achieve, but they always tell us that they got more out of their assignments than they gave. Many of them come back having worked at a level they simply haven’t had the chance to in New Zealand, and with a perspective that serves them well in the workforce here. Often their resilience and problem solving skills have grown too.”

There are both short and long (more than a year) placements available, and between 85-100 volunteers in the field at any time. Assignments can range from agriculture and law to sports development and communications, and successful applicants will have a recognised professional, trade, or commercial qualification, and at least two to three years of relevant experience.

“Often people think of development as being about the necessities of life: food, shelter, and water. VSA volunteers certainly do a lot of good work in these areas, but we’ve also got assignments including building good governance, setting up accounting hubs, and training teachers,” Greer says.

“VSA looks for volunteers with many different backgrounds and skills, and we’re continually looking for partner organisations we can work with to do further development in the Pacific.”

Volunteers get a living allowance which is enough to cover basic food, local travel, communication, etc, accommodation costs, and grants for establishment, rest and respite, and resettlement. Flights, visas, permits and insurance are all covered.

“We encourage volunteers not to view an assignment as a career “break” but very much as part of their career development.” 


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