17 (bad) things you should know before choosing a humanitarian career

Marielys Padua Soto originally posted a list of “10 things you should know” in a post on LinkedIn and she kindly expanded the list and allowed me to repost it on the blog.

I think her list is a good primer for discussions about the humanitarian industry in classrooms, but also at home with your family or inside humanitarian organizations.

Marielys' list also shows the frustration that many well-qualified professionals, with the right qualifications and mindset the sector needs, have and that we need to continue to address throughout the institutions that shape humanitarian practices.

1. You will get paid poorly. Peanuts, for lack of a better word. Humanitarian work is poorly remunerated despite the important work we do. We can barely cover our living expenses, but the CEOs make millions.

2. You will never have job security. Because of funding, what you get is a six to ten months contract subject to renewal at best. You will notice that many professionals in this field are involuntarily "job hopping," trying to find stability.

3. You will find a saturated marketplace because many people with "useless degrees" in the social sciences don't have better job prospects. Thus, an average of 1,000 applicants for a single position.

4. You will find many people in this field "virtue signaling". People who do not really possess a calling for this work and who like to flaunt their good human nature and generosity on social media, but who deep down don't really give a sh*t.

5. Following up on that point, you will find many psychopaths and narcissists who detect fertile ground in this field to prey on the kindhearted. They usually occupy high level positions and, if you report any kind of abuse, you will get fired. Beware.

6. You will have an impossibly high workload. Humanitarian work often involves long hours and high levels of responsibility, which threatens work-life balance and can make you border on malpractice. I remember one time when I had around sixty immigration cases in a single week and I was going crazy.

7. You will experience stress and burnout. You will often be exposed to difficult and traumatic situations, which can take an emotional toll on your well-being. A 7-year-old immigrant girl once shared with me that she and her 2-year-old sister were raped by four men (yes, you read that right) during their journey to cross the US border. Needless to say, I couldn't sleep that night.

8. Tied to that point is the fact that you will probably not be provided with resources for self-care. You will not be provided with mental health support or Trauma-Informed Response Training, which will increase your risks of developing mental health issues and providing poor customer service. Kudos to the few organizations that provide this!
(TD: Alessandra Pigni who passed away in 2018 was one of the pioneers of introducing the issue of self-care into the humanitarian sector)

9. You will experience a lot of entitlement from clients that think you have to be on call 24/7. People that because, let’s say, have refugee status, deserve some kind of special treatment, and will make demands in hostile ways, especially if you are a woman and he is a man. Remember to enforce your boundaries!

10. You will experience a lack of recognition and reward for your good work. You will be treated like a cog in a machine and if you ask for a pay raise, it will be denied under the guise of "budget issues." Oh, and they will replace you in the blink of an eye.

11. You will face pay discrimination if you're a national compared to an international worker. There is a HUGE wage gap between international and national staff. Local staff in countries of operation are paid, on average, four times less than international staff, in spite of having similar levels of education and experience. I swear I'm not making this up.

12. If you are a foreign worker looking for opportunities abroad, good luck. You will have a hard time finding humanitarian organizations that offer sponsorship support. They pride themselves in advocating for diversity, but then deny non-nationals and people without valid work permits the opportunity to work with them. Go figure.

13. If you're looking for an internship, you will find that it is probably unpaid. Who would have thought that the organizations that fight against slavery and abuse precisely promote exploitation? Free labor, a 9 to 5 job without paying you a single penny, while making you believe it will increase your chances of landing a job (but not within their own organization😂). What a joke! UNpaid labor is UNfair, UNjust, and UNacceptable. Period.
(TD: The Fair Internship Initiative advocates for accessible internships in the UN system and publishes a list of UN organizations that (now) offer paid internships)

14. You will experience ageism. For example, the United Nations restricts jobs based on age, like the "Young Professionals Programme," which is reserved for people 32 years old or younger. What exactly is a young professional? To me, it is anyone starting a career regardless of age. Michael Butler graduated medical school at 62. He is a young professional because he will begin his professional journey as a doctor at 62. Make it make sense.

15. You will roll your eyes at the hypocrisy of philanthropists. They make everyone believe that they are donating out of the kindness of their hearts, but what they are really after are the tax cuts they get by giving to charitable humanitarian organizations. Powerful corporations and super-rich individuals exploit a rigged system that allows them to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, but these donations will never be reflected in your salary.

16. You will see white supremacy and classism running rampant. White people usually occupy the highest positions in humanitarian organizations as directors and typically hold degrees from expensive universities like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, or Oxford. In contrast, there are very few refugee-led organizations, for example. Need I say more?

17. You can get killed on the job. Just recently in April, two humanitarian workers were killed in Ethiopia while on a field mission for Catholic Relief Services. You can be exposed in high risk areas and get targeted by hostile and violent actors. Is it worth risking your life for poorly remunerated humanitarian work to be called a "hero"? I don't think so.

After reading this list, would you still consider a career in the humanitarian field?


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