How To Get a Job in Humanitarian Aid as a Social Worker

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Many people in social work want to use their knowledge and skills to assist people affected by conflict, poverty and disasters. Social workers can play a vital role in humanitarian responses and there are a wide range of roles within the aid sector ideal for qualified social workers.

If you’re interested in joining the humanitarian sector as a social worker or wondering how your social work experience can translate to humanitarian action, we’ve put together a full guide of the steps you can take.

Humanitarian Social Work Qualifications

If you’re looking to work in humanitarian aid as a social worker, you need the qualifications the aid sector requires. For most social workers wanting to work in humanitarian aid, there are two main stages to becoming qualified.

The first step in becoming qualified to work in the humanitarian sector as a social worker is to complete your formal training. Aid agencies will require you to have completed your degree, and likely a masters, in social work before working in humanitarian action.  Humanitarian NGOs require social workers to have the level of understanding and knowledge that a degree level education provides.

There are limited routes into social work roles within the humanitarian sector without completing a degree. However, aid NGOs will require you to be a qualified social worker before joining. This means you should aim to attain the level of education required in your home country to work as a social worker before you move to work in humanitarian aid.

The second step to becoming qualified to work in humanitarian aid as a social worker is to specialise in humanitarian protection.

Humanitarian protection is the technical area of the aid sector that social workers most often join. It is one of the eight UN clusters. Protection projects focus on mitigating the impacts of humanitarian crises on vulnerable people. If you want to work in humanitarian action as a social worker – you need to become knowledgeable about humanitarian protection.

The best way to get a strong understanding of humanitarian protection once you are qualified as a social worker is to do short courses. There is a huge range of short courses offered by universities and NGOs that will give you an extensive background knowledge of humanitarian protection work. Many of these can be done online, often for free.

By completing both your formal social work qualifications and gaining a strong academic understanding of humanitarian protection theory and practice, you are well-place to apply for jobs in the aid sector as a social worker.

Humanitarian Social Worker Online Courses

If you are looking to work in the humanitarian aid sector as a social worker, we highly recommend the online course Resilience in Children Exposed to Trauma, Disaster and War: Global Perspectives offered by the University of Minnesota. The course is highly relevant for anyone wanting to be a humanitarian aid social worker and would be a great addition to the CV of anyone applying for social worker in a humanitarian role. Click the link to enrol on the course.

John Hopkins University offers an online short course on Psychological First Aid. We also think this course is a must for anyone looking to get a job with the humanitarian NGO as a social worker. It only takes around six hours to complete and provides a broad overview of how psychological support can be given to people who have suffered trauma. Follow the link to the course’s page for more information.

If you are interested in training as a social worker with the aim of getting a job in humanitarian aid, we recommend the online short course Social Worker 101 – Basic Training for Helping Professionals. It provides a broad overview of social work and what is required of social work professionals. The link is to the course’s page.

Humanitarian NGO’s That Employ Social Workers

There are many humanitarian agencies that hire social workers. As we discussed, most social workers who join the aid sector work on humanitarian protection projects. This means you are best to focus your applications on NGOs running protection programmes if you want to work in humanitarian aid as a social worker.

Humanitarian NGOs that run protection projects and employ social workers can be broadly broken down into three categories.

The first group of aid agencies that run humanitarian protection projects are big international NGOs. Some of the largest humanitarian organisations that focus on humanitarian protection, and employ social workers are:

If you are looking to join the humanitarian industry as a social worker, these are some of the largest and most important aid agencies. As a general rule, these NGOs take social workers with some experience working in humanitarian protection. However, there will be some entry-level field roles, so regularly check their hiring pages for jobs requiring qualified social workers.

The second group of humanitarian agencies that take on social workers are the big volunteering organisations. Some of the top organisations that deploy social workers to humanitarian protection projects include:

Crucially, these organisations are not ‘volu-tourism’ companies that charge a significant price to volunteer overseas. The organisations listed above are some of the major humanitarian volunteering bodies. If you are serious about working in the aid sector as a social worker and want to volunteer, focus on organisations such as these. They are highly respected in the humanitarian sector and can give you great experience to start your career.

The final group of aid agencies that hire social workers for humanitarian projects are local NGOs.

In developing countries, many small and medium sized organisations hire social workers locally to work on their protection projects. Often these hire nationals from their country. However, it can be possible to join some local NGOs internationally.

If you are a national of a country with local NGOs working in humanitarian protection, check local job boards and websites for open social worker roles. If you are looking to work internationally, reach out to local NGOs and enquire about open jobs or volunteering opportunities.

In developed countries there are also many jobs for social workers assisting refugees who are resettling. These are often advertised on the NGOs websites or well-known job boards.

Humanitarian Social Work Roles

There are a wide range of jobs that social workers do in humanitarian responses. Let’s go over some of the main ones.

As we discussed before, most social workers in the aid sector work on protection projects. These are interventions by humanitarian agencies aiming to protect vulnerable people during crises. Certain groups, such as women, children, people living with disabilities or sexual minorities become more at risk during a humanitarian disaster as the normal support networks of communities are disrupted.

The first type of roles that social workers take on in humanitarian responses is of project coordinators. These are senior jobs that oversee the implementation of protection projects. For example, social workers could take on the role of GBV Coordinator – overseeing projects protecting women from gender-based violence and assisting survivors. Social workers could also be in the role of Child Protection Coordinator – managing the implementation of emergency projects for children and young people.

The second type of job that social workers often do in the humanitarian sector is in capacity building. This is where NGOs deploy experts to assist local partners to increase their knowledge, understanding and technical abilities in key areas of humanitarian responses.

The third area that social workers often work in within a humanitarian response in what is known as MHPSS – Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support. This sits within the health function of a humanitarian response (as opposed to protection) and is within the UN Health Cluster. Social workers are often on the front-line of MHPSS projects assisting people affected by crises with mental health needs.

These are just a few of the job types social workers do within humanitarian aid. There is a huge range of roles for qualified social workers as their experience and expertise can be vital in many areas of a humanitarian response.

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Applying for Humanitarian Social Work Jobs

There three main ways that social workers can apply for jobs in humanitarian aid. The first is by applying directly to NGOs looking to recruit social workers for their projects. The second is by applying to emergency rosters and third is applying for volunteer placements.

Let’s go over each one.

Applying to jobs with humanitarian NGOs that require qualified social workers is the main method for securing a role within the aid sector. You can browse the job pages of most large NGOs on their websites. As we have said, jobs in humanitarian protection, and MHPSS, are likely to be good options for qualified social workers looking to join the aid industry.

You can also look for social worker and related jobs in humanitarian aid on the main job boards for the sector. Some of these are:

When applying for jobs in humanitarian aid it is important to meet, or at least come close, to the specific requirements. You may need some years’ experience working as a social worker within the aid sector to join some of the largest humanitarian organisations. However, smaller NGOs are more likely to recruit less experienced staff.

The second good way to apply for social worker roles in humanitarian aid is through emergency rosters. Aid agencies retain rosters of staff so that they have a pool of ready, qualified and verified candidates they can deploy when emergencies hit.

Applying and getting on an emergency roster does not guarantee you a job, but it can be a good way to get noticed by a humanitarian NGO when you are looking for your first social worker positions in the sector.

The third way to get a job working in humanitarian aid as a social worker is to do a volunteer placement.

When looking for positions abroad as a social worker doing humanitarian work avoid ‘volu-tourism’ companies that charge you a big fee to volunteer. The aid sector is turning away from these as their impacts of local communities are becoming better understood. If you are serious about working in the aid sector as a social worker, apply for volunteer placements with the large humanitarian volunteering schemes (like the ones we listed above).

If you want to know more about how to get a job in humanitarian aid, including as a social worker, explore our page on the top humanitarian online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.