Is Being a Humanitarian a Job? We Explain

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The concept of humanitarianism – helping people in need through neutral and impartial assistance, has been around for centuries. However, in recent decades the aid industry has grown to employ thousands of people worldwide. How does this reconcile with the original ideals of humanitarianism? Can being a humanitarian actually be a career?

Humanitarians by definition work to promote human welfare. This does not have be as part of their job. However, many people work professionally as humanitarian workers and so for them being a humanitarian is their job. There are also volunteers who do humanitarian work but not as their career.

Now we’ve gone over the basics, let’s explore the history of humanitarianism as a career and explain how being a humanitarian can be a job…

The Origins of Humanitarian Work

The modern concept of humanitarian work is generally believed to come with founding of the Red Cross. In 1863, Henry Dunant created the Red Cross with the aim of improving medical assistance to victims of war. Dunant’s Red Cross included volunteerism as one of its core principles and so modern humanitarian work began as volunteer service, not paid employment.

During the 19th century, humanitarian work was seen very much as a charitable cause and at that time being a humanitarian wasn’t a career. In the Victorian-era there was a significant enthesis on the ideals of charitable service and volunteering, but it was seen as a way to assist the poor and give back to society, as well as a Christian duty. It was not seen as a job.

With the creation of the Red Cross, the idea of humanitarian work – providing neutral, impartial and independent assistance to people affected by conflicts and crises, was established.

However, being a humanitarian wasn’t a job. Organisations relied on volunteers, or instilled humanitarian principles in soldiers or medical staff.

The view that humanitarianism was something done by volunteers continued into the 20th century. During the First World War, humanitarian work was undertaken by the Red Cross, as well as civil society organisations such as medical volunteers or religious groups.

Humanitarian work at this time was not done as part of a career but was seen as moral duty to help people in need.

The inter-war period saw an increase in the number of humanitarian organisations. Major NGOs were established in this period including Save the Children (1919) and the International Rescue Committee (1933). A gradual shift was being made in how humanitarian work was seen. However, although jobs managing charities were growing, field humanitarian work continued to be done by mainly by volunteers.

The Second World War saw further increased focus on the need for humanitarian work. The establishment of the United Nations saw the first major shift towards professional humanitarianism.

Humanitarian work was still not commonly thought of as a job, however growing numbers of professionals began working in international organisations at both HQ and field-level.

Humanitarian Aid Online Courses

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Humanitarianism as a Career

Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, the humanitarian sector progressively professionalised. Many major humanitarian organisations we know today were established in this time, including, Oxfam (1942), Norwegian Refugee Council (1946), World Vision (1950) and Médecins Sans Frontières (1971). With the creation of NGOs such as these, more people began working in humanitarian aid as a career.

The major shift in the view of humanitarianism as a job came in the 1990s. Until this time, many humanitarian organisations still relied on a mixture of volunteers and employed staff. A lot of field work was still under-taken by volunteers on short-term missions, supported by professional staff.

However, major events throughout the decade drove the sector to professionalise.

The 1990s were a significant decade for how humanitarianism was viewed. Firstly, humanitarian failures in Rwanda and Bosnia highlighted how the original ideas of Dunant – impartiality, neutrality and independence were no longer able to carry humanitarian work in the face of armed actors committing mass atrocities.

Professional or not, the case began to be made for reform of the aid sector.

The same decade also saw the rise of humanitarian interventions. This is where military action is used to try and prevent humanitarian crises or relieve human suffering. Military actions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone were seen as successes, but the failure of the US intervention in Somalia in year raised significant questions about whether humanitarian interventions could achieve their aims.

The response to these events included calls to professionalise the aid sector – to make being a humanitarian a job. It was seen that aid workers required a set of skills, experiences and competencies and that the humanitarianism of the 21st century would require people trained in humanitarian work. This led to significant changes in the aid sector and the real beginning of humanitarianism as a career.

The professionalisation of the aid sector saw the creation of a wide range of university degrees, diplomas and training programmes specialising in humanitarian work. As humanitarianism became more commonly seen as a job, an increasing enthesis was placed on formal qualifications and accredited trainings.

By the mid-2000s, being a humanitarian as a career became the norm in the sector.

Working in humanitarian aid today is seen as a prestigious career. The sector is competitive, with the need to complete relevant degrees and often internships as key steps to working as a humanitarian. Many humanitarians today dedicate their entire career to aid work, moving between responses and often specialising with a technical area of humanitarian assistance.

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Humanitarian Volunteering Today

Although the modern humanitarian sector is dominated by professionals, volunteering still plays a key role in the aid sector. Many NGOs rely on volunteers, both at HQ and field-level, to assist with the running of their projects.

Generally, humanitarian volunteers today work on projects overseen by professional humanitarians.

Nowadays, most humanitarians do aid work as their job. This means the view of humanitarians has changed and most people consider it a professional career. However, there are still significant numbers of volunteers within the aid sector and volunteers can play a key role in many areas of humanitarian responses.

Volunteers in the aid sector mainly are mainly in two types. The first are professionals from developed nations, often with specialised technical skills, who deploy into humanitarian responses to assist. An example of these type of volunteers are medical doctors working in their home countries health systems, who join an NGOs roster and deploy short-term in emergencies.

For these volunteers, humanitarian work is not their job.

The second main type of volunteer within the modern aid sector assist on the front-line of responses and are often recruited locally. An example of these volunteers is Community Mobilisers. These are local people from the affected communities who assist NGOs with ensuring their project is supported and works directly with local society. This type of front-line local volunteers also does not do humanitarian work as their career.

If you want to learn more about how to become a humanitarian worker, explore our list of the top humanitarian aid 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.