So, you want to save the world. You envision yourself as Mother Teresa, only better-looking (and possibly male), bringing food and medicine and hope to less developed countries and peoples.
Well, you wouldn’t be the first. Much of the idea of the modern international aid worker came into being in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in the hopes that young Americans would contribute their time and talent to people in need abroad. And, boy, have they: more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries over the last fifty years.
What do international aid workers actually do? In this career (which you won’t break into without multiple degrees and years of experience, by the way), you’ll be sent to places where folks need help. Maybe you’ll go to a community that’s been decimated by HIV/AIDS and the opportunistic diseases that accompany it. Maybe you’ll go to a war zone. Maybe you’ll go to an overcrowded city where your mission is to get people to use latrines properly so they don’t contaminate the local water supply.
At any rate, you will be sent abroad…and then you will help. The help you’ll provide will depend on your background. Perhaps you’ll serve as a translator, a teacher, or a program administrator. Perhaps you’ll treat patients or build houses, roads, and bridges. Perhaps you’ll dig wells and distribute food.
Wherever you end up, you’ll be there for several months or a year at a time. There probably won’t be much in the way of modern conveniences, and you may even have to skip out on things you take for granted, like sleep and clean underwear. The site where you work may not be dangerous in the least…or it could be incredibly dangerous, like wear-a-bulletproof-vest-to-work violent.
If you go into international aid work, it won’t be just because you believe in helping others. You can do that from the comfort of your suburban neighborhood. You’ll go into international aid work because you also crave interesting experiences. You want to see the world and do something about its manifold problems.
You’ll also be smart, hard-working, and ambitious, because getting into this career field is hard. Everyone wants in, which means aid organizations can afford to be choosy. You’ll need to be fluent in more than one language and in possession of a set of practical or technical skills that set you apart from the pack. You’ll need experience, gained either at home or abroad, in helping people. You’ll also probably need a graduate degree.
The amazing thing about international aid work is that there is a variety of organizations out there that you can go and work for. Do you want to help women in central Africa who’ve been raped overcome their trauma? There’s an aid group for that. Do you want to help children who’ve lost their parents in Syria find food, medical assistance, and a safe place to live? There’s an aid group (or twenty) for that. Do you want to teach rural farmers in Central America sustainable farming techniques? There’s an aid group for that.
In other words, if you have a cause you care about and a place in the world where you really want to work, you can likely find an aid organization that will place you there. You probably won’t get paid much; there are, however, other benefits, like not having to pay taxes, you can look forward to. You won’t get to see your family and friends for months at a time, but you’ll bond with your colleagues on-site and maybe have a chance to take a vacation or two to some seriously exotic locales.
And, of course, you’ll get to help people, which is what international aid workers are all about. You’ll have this amazing feeling at the end of the day that you—you!—made a dent in world hunger or poverty or injustice…
Unless you don’t get that feeling. You may discover that some problems are too big to solve. You may discover that corruption is so deeply rooted in the country you’re working in that your aid organization can’t even get its initiatives off the ground. You may find that people back home don’t care in the least about what you care about. You may also be stopped in your tracks by an encounter with malaria or an angry mob that has no regard for your good intentions.
If, at this point, working in the field doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t worry. There are alternatives. You could choose to work in the headquarters or a branch office of an aid organization, so that you’re doing some good without having to leave the comfort of your cubicle. You could choose to work with an aid organization in your own community – there are lots of people in the U.S. who need help, too. Sure, you won’t get to see the world and you may feel like less of a hands-on do-gooder, but the pay is a bit better and your life will be stable enough for you to have a significant other, or at least a pet cat.