How to launch a career in the humanitarian sector

Carlos Hinojosa

Two of the most frequent questions that we receive daily from users of the ReliefWeb jobs section are "Where can I send a job application?" and "How can I help or collaborate with you?" Many of these messages come from university graduates seeking to make positive contributions to the world and looking for an entry point.

The first challenge: work experience

Many recent university graduates seek to dive in head first in the humanitarian field, but in many cases their job applications are rejected due to lack of work experience.

"There are many junior vacancies that require a minimum of two years of experience, but it was really difficult for me to get the experience I needed," said Ladina Schlatter, Program Assistant at ReliefWeb, who was recruited through the ReliefWeb site.

"I think that gaining experience was not only the most important step, but also the most difficult one," said Schlatter.

However, another common obstacle is the very manner in which applicants apply, although it is almost never mentioned.

Building an effective CV

"Recent graduates don’t know how to showcase their short work experience on their CV... sometimes they don’t come across as passionate [for the humanitarian sector] and simply lack the necessary knowledge," said Mbia Eloundou Boris, an employee of Shelter Center, based in Cameroon.

But these requirements should not discourage anyone: although it seems there are increasingly fewer available positions that don’t require experience, there are several ways to acquire the skills necessary to immerse yourself in the humanitarian sector.

Shabiti Mike Sevenska, another employee of the Shelter Center, who has more than eight years of experience, affirms that the "lack of guidance" when writing their CVs and failure to read the terms of reference decrease the chances for recent graduates to find a job.

On that subject, Alice Duvert, recruiter of Doctors without Borders, based in Brussels, Belgium, points out that there are no magic formulas for building a successful CV. The important thing is that the skills of the candidates are compatible with the profile required by the organizations.

“We look for CVs that fit our criteria [experience, languages, etc.], that are not too long or too short... the best is a CV of one or two pages that provides details of each of the experiences they have had and that these are relevant to the position to which they are applying," comments Duvert.

However, a good curriculum does not solve the lack of experience of recent graduates. How can you obtain this expertise?


College students or recent graduates can take advantage of their free time or vacations to do volunteer work (there are lots of opportunities on the ReliefWeb jobs site).

"I think doing volunteer work during university or high school is very important for you to gain knowledge of the humanitarian sector ... it does not have to be a job, just helping is enough," said Schlatter.

Whether within your community or abroad, this will give you key work experience. And although there is usually no remuneration involved in volunteer work, it helps students understand the basic operational aspects of an organization.


Nevertheless, volunteer work is not enough to get a job. It must be understood that humanitarian work has a direct impact on communities, which is why recruiters err on the side of caution in their selection processes.

So the next recommended step is to do an internship, either before or after graduation. In fact, in some cases, working as an intern can help you get a job right there if the opportunity arises.

Schlatter was no exception, as she also began her professional career as a volunteer and worked as an intern at the Shelter Center. Her biggest challenge was financial.

"Many internships are not paid; you're lucky if you live in a city where it's easier to get this kind of opportunity," said Schlatter, alluding to the challenges of starting a career in the sector.

Another option is remote work. Although it is not the most attractive for those who prefer to gain field experience, telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular.

Once you accumulate some experience (one or two years between volunteering and internship), you are almost ready to try to place yourself in the ranks of a humanitarian organization.

The importance of languages

While it is true that accumulating experience is the basis for starting a career in the sector, there are other necessary tools. Learning other languages is one of them.

Many might think that proficiency in English is enough to open the path, but the reality is different.

The African continent is a perfect example of how much it can help to be multilingual since many vacancies require fluent French as well as English, and in some cases they ask for knowledge of regional languages such as Kiswahili and Arabic.

This does not mean that if you only master one language you cannot work in the sector, but not expanding your horizons would certainly limit your chances of success.

If you already have the degree, experience and languages on your CV, here is how to maximize your work prospects through ReliefWeb.

How to take advantage of RW?

We recommend you use the various filter options available on our jobs section, in particular:

  • Use the Filter Results menu first and choose Type to search for Internships or Volunteer opportunities
  • Job location filters vacancies according to location
  • The Experience option allows you to refine your search according to the required years of experience (0-2 years, 3-4, 5-9 or 10+)
  • The Career Category option is used to search for opportunities in specific professional areas.

In addition, jobs can be filtered by region, type of organization, closing date and subject (Education, Health, Gender, etc.).

Need further guidance? We recommend that you read our blog "How to find the most suitable job on ReliefWeb".

You can also subscribe to receive information about vacancies, as well as reports, infographics and information about disasters.

If you have questions, comments or want to share your experience as ReliefWeb users, don’t hesitate to contact us at or

This blog was originally published in Spanish. Read the original.