Working in the humanitarian or development sectors

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This article provides a realistic overview of the practical and ethical considerations when seeking to work in the sector.

Introduction

Many structural engineers are strongly motivated by the good they can do with their skills, and aspire to a career in which they feel their work contributes to public good, whether that is social, environmental or otherwise. Although this article mentions structural engineers specifically, the advice given is equally valid for all engineers regardless of discipline.

Many wish to help those in need, or suffering the effects of poverty and exclusion, in poor countries or regions around the world, and as a result seek opportunities or a career in humanitarian response or international development. 

There is a wide range of careers and roles that suit structural engineers, from financial and project management to hands-on construction. There is a real shortage of the skills that engineers bring in humanitarian and development work. 

There is also a serious global shortage of engineering capacity. Many lower and middle income countries have underdeveloped engineering professions, and many poor and marginalised communities are unable to access expertise in engineering, often despite living on precarious land or in inadequately designed and constructed buildings. 

This means that the provision of structural engineering expertise in the right way can have a transformative effect on people’s lives and their resilience to shocks. However, although there is the potential for great positive impact, actually achieving this impact is very complex and difficult. 
 

This guidance gives an overview of the practical and ethical considerations for civil, structural (and other) engineers or built environment professionals who wish to embark on such a journey. It is not intended to put engineers off, but is intended to provide a realistic context for something that for many is an idealistic aspiration.

The guidance is split into two sections. The first encourages you to think about what you want to do and why, and to consider the pitfalls, ethics and responsibilities of international development and relief work. The second gives practical guidance and advice on what opportunities there might be, and proposes how to take them. 

 

 

Part 1: The ethics of doing good and working internationally

 

Before going to another country (or even to another part of the same country) to help people, you should carefully consider the value and skills you have to offer as well as the impact you could have - and will be aware that you could do harm as well as doing good.

In most professional structural engineering contexts there are robust systems for supporting staff, checking work, and assuring quality, but this is often not the case when working in humanitarian response or international development.

Structural engineers working in charities, especially small ones, and even in UN or governmental organisations, are likely to be expected to be able to work independently with little technical support.

Reliance on professional judgement, experience, and appropriate rules of thumb, rather than rigorous calculations based on codes, is much more prevalent in humanitarian response in particular, but also in some longer-term development situations.

In many contexts codes and (material) standards do not exist, or are not widely in use. Budgets and human resources are typically highly constrained, and specialist expertise such as geotechnical engineering might be impossible to come by.

Structural engineers working beyond their competence can do serious harm. In many professional contexts colleagues and construction workers are protected by insurance and legal rights, but this is often not the case in the situations in which aid and development workers might be operating.

Accidents and oversights can condemn people, and their dependents, to a lifetime of destitution, with no compensation or assistance. Poor design and construction may have no remedy, leaving people with substandard infrastructure for decades.

 

Provision of technical expertise alone, without the resources, capabilities or will to capitalise on that expertise, is ineffective.

Because international aid work is fundamentally about addressing injustice, it is important to understand some of the root causes of that injustice. Because it is about making the lives of vulnerable, disadvantaged people better, it is important to understand what causes the vulnerability and disadvantage. This means structural engineers must go beyond their comfort zone of purely technical solutions and must also have an understanding of the environmental, cultural, socio-economic and political aspects of their work.

Structural engineering does not exist anywhere in a neutral, apolitical space, and those seeking to use their engineering skills for good must accept having to work in and around the political, financial, environmental, cultural and social realities that the people they are seeking to help also live in. It is vital to recognise that problems in other countries and places can seem easy to solve from afar, but in reality are always highly complex.

One aspect of working internationally that can be personally very challenging, but is very important, is to consider your own motivations and background, and how they will affect the work you want to do.

While international work can be highly rewarding, if your motivation is really only about yourself and your experiences, about recognition and prestige, and not about dedicating your skills and privilege in service of enabling the choices and decisions of others, then there are alternative ways that you can make a worthy and positive impact, for example you are better off just going on holiday and spending your money in those communities – and there is nothing wrong with doing that.

For volunteering in particular, it is important to consider who the intended and real beneficiaries of the particular project or undertaking are. Many international volunteering opportunities are in reality much more about giving exciting experiences to volunteers than they are about benefiting the people they purport to be supporting.

Perhaps even more challenging, when working in other countries and cultures (and sometimes even in different places within a country), it is important to understand the impact of your identity, and the identity of others involved in what you are doing.

If you are considering this work, it is likely you are from a comparatively wealthy, privileged background. The people you want to help probably aren’t. There are inherent power imbalances in aid work, and it is all too easy for aid work to be disempowering, with powerful outsiders undermining local choice and control. It is furthermore vital to be aware of and think about countries’ histories and of the present impact and influence of colonialism and how the aid work you are doing sits within that.

This requires careful consideration of the power imbalances of your relationship as an aidworker with the people you seek to help and the partners you work with. Make sure you have the humility and understanding to serve people according to their wishes.
 

Understanding intersecting identities and power

All people have a number of different identities which intersect and combine to make them who they are. These identities include class, caste, ethnicity, education, gender, sexual orientation, religion and more. They also include professional status, such as being an engineer. These identities are closely linked to the agency and power an individual person has. Intersectionality is a framework for understanding the effects of this.

The more powerful and privileged someone is, the more they get to be seen as an individual shaped by their own actions and choices, and the less aware they are likely to be of the effect of their identities. Because they have never had to worry about them.

Those who are less powerful, and less privileged, often find themselves grouped, pigeon-holed and othered, rather than seen as unique individuals. Their identity is something that cannot be ignored, as it affects everything they do and every interaction they have. The more their intersecting identities cause them to be discriminated against, the more vulnerable they will be and the less power they will have.

This manifests itself in everything from people seeing the word ‘engineer’ and assuming that means a man, to people trusting the confident proclamations of a young white male graduate over the decades of professional experience of a senior local black female engineer. It could mean that the local women for whom you want to build toilets will not be able to tell you about cultural taboos around menstruation and will not use the toilets; or that the local charity that has been doing good work for decades suddenly loses all its support because an international aid organisation has appeared instead.

Being aware of the power imbalances caused by who you are, and who the people you are working with are, is essential, so that you and your organisations can make sure nobody is excluded, undermined or harmed. Let people define their own identities, and do not impose your understanding of their identity on them. There is more that people have in common than divides them, and if you are aware of your identity and recognise that your identity matters, you can work with others in a way that allows them their own agency and power, and builds on what we have in common rather than exacerbating what divides us. Such thoughtful approaches will lead to much more positive and meaningful collaboration, and better outcomes for all.

In summary, good intentions are not enough. If you are seeking opportunities to do good you should first:

  • Make sure you are adequately qualified and experienced to contribute and achieve the good you seek to do. It is essential that you know and understand the limits of your competence. If you do not have professional experience akin to chartership you should assure yourself that there will be robust and appropriate support and oversight where you will be working. This is not just about structural engineering, it is also about language skills, cultural awareness and other soft skills
  • Make sure that the organisation(s) you seek to work with have the necessary expertise, support and capacity to deliver
  • Take the time to understand more about the context you will be working in, including history, culture, politics and identity
  • Work locations often include areas at risk of political instability, natural disaster and limited availability of medical care. Before working in such areas, you should be satisfied you are able to work in these type of conditions

For particular opportunities, key things to consider are:

  • Could this be done equally well or better by somebody (more) local?
  • Will you be taking jobs or opportunities from local people?
  • Will you be working beyond your competence?
  • Can you cope with the challenges this will present you with? 
  • Would you do more good by just sending money? 
  • Whether the carbon footprint of your travel and work is justifiable

If, having carefully considered the sections above, you would like to pursue an international career in humanitarian relief or development, the following sections give advice on how to do so in a positive and valuable way.

Part 2: Learning about international development and humanitarian response

You will likely need to put in considerable effort to make the step into the sector. Getting a role within these sectors can be difficult and highly competitive.

While structural engineers are used to a profession with structured training schemes and career paths, these largely do not exist in the aid sector.

People who wish to enter the sector are often faced with the choice of a long, drawn-out and difficult process of finding a role in a responsible manner, or entering the sector in a way which is not responsible and risks doing harm or requiring considerable financial cost.

These less responsible routes can involve getting on a plane and turning up in a disaster zone looking for work to do, working with organisations which do not have appropriate standards and capacity for the situation they are working in, and many (but not all) volunteer positions.

While frustrating, the better choice to make is the more difficult route of finding a role with a competent, professional organisation which is compensated in a way that reflects the responsibilities and expectations that go with the role. This section gives guidance to navigate this route into the aid sector.

Areas of humanitarian work suitable for structural engineers

The areas of humanitarian work that would generally suit a civil or structural engineer are:

  • Recovery and reconstruction
  • Education
  • Shelter and non-food items
  • WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene)

Many positions do not call directly for structural engineering skills, but positions specifically for engineers do come up periodically. These are likely to offer the best chances for engineers with little or no direct experience in the aid sector. 

 

Other suitable positions might be in academic or research institutions, government departments, international or development arms of private sector companies (not just engineering firms, but also major fund management and consultancy companies) or in the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement or UN agencies.

The major barrier you will face is likely to be a lack of directly relevant experience, and a lack of a relevant track record. To overcome this you will need to very deliberately build your experience, knowledge and training to ensure you are a credible candidate. The real work comes before applying.

Before you apply for jobs, you need to do some learning. You will need to understand the sector you are seeking to work in. Like any other industry, there are different organisations, mechanisms for coordination and regulation, conventions and jargon.
 
You will not perform well in an interview if you do not have a basic knowledge of the international aid system and its component parts. 

Role of governments and international aid agencies

Learn about the roles of governments, the roles and mandates of different UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and about civil society in international aid, about the IASC Cluster System for emergency response, and about the relevant organisations in the particular area you are interested in.

For example, if you are a structural engineer wanting to work in emergencies, you may be most interested in the Global Shelter Cluster.

Business models of organisations in the sectors

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), UN Agencies, and large private sector consultancies dominate the development and humanitarian sectors. They have very different structures and business models, which have a significant effect on what it is like to work for them.

As an example, if you wish to work in a senior role for an NGO, your projects will likely be reliant on grant funding. You will need to understand how to write proposals, set up a theory of change and/or a logical framework, and how to manage and report on grant funding.

While you may not have direct experience of this, you need to know about it and be able to explain how you can translate your experiences to this.

Theoretical concepts and frameworks

Humanitarian workers must understand humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law.

Development workers will need to have good understanding of rights-based approaches and many other theories and frameworks which vary depending on the area of any particular intervention.

There is a huge range of knowledge and theory out there, and many people spend whole careers studying these questions – but as someone seeking to start out in international development a minimum level of knowledge is essential.

Technical standards and guidance

For technical areas of humanitarian response (WASH, shelter, food, etc) you will need to be fully conversant in the Sphere Standards. For humanitarian response more generally you must know the Core Humanitarian Standard, or for development Accountable Now.

There are standards and guidance documents on many different areas, encompassing inclusion, disability, livestock, gender-based violence, markets and many more.

Like codes and standards in structural engineering, they underpin what is expected of professionals in the sector – though without the same rigour. You will need to understand which are relevant to your chosen area of work, and become conversant with them.

Topical discussions about international development

Try to be up to date with relevant ongoing topical discussions and areas of work such as localisation and cash programming, which are part of the Grand Bargain, or the Sustainable Development Goals, ‘doing development differently’ or #AidToo.

Read books, publications and blogs about the sector, and attend conferences which will allow you to engage in discourse and meet people in the sector.

Roles in humanitarian response and international development

  • Understand the different roles that are available and which you might be suited to. Be clear on your appetite for travel and working in insecure environments
  • Understand the differences between ‘field-based’ and head office roles. Be aware that it is extremely difficult to get a head office role without a demonstrable track record in implementation of projects in the sector

You will likely have to be prepared to travel and go where the opportunities are if you wish to enter the sector.

As in any other sector there is a variety of roles available and these can vary hugely. Roles can be highly technical, highly managerial, home-based, or in other countries, require significant travel, etc.

You will need to understand which aspects of the roles you are strong in, and which less so, in order to know which you can apply for. The areas you select as being most relevant to you will go some way to dictating your best entry point into the sector both in terms of location and organisation.

Part 3: Gaining relevant experience


In addition to learning all the points above, you will need to deliberately build your CV and experience.

It is important to demonstrate a real commitment to a career in the sector. Aid organisations receive hundreds of applications from people who are just ‘having a go’.

You must come across as a serious candidate to be considered. In order to do this, think about:

Undertaking relevant training

This can range from short courses such as those offered by RedR and others, to long term degree courses.

Many of the global clusters (see above) have training courses, some of which are open to paid participants. Several universities offer relevant masters degree courses.

Before doing any paid-for training, make sure you can really afford to do the training, and really want to do it. The reality is that no training or degree will guarantee you a job in the sector - but it will make you a more credible and interesting candidate, and broaden your horizons.

The basis of a structural engineering role in the sector will still most likely be your engineering degree and experience.

Taking responsible opportunities to do relevant work

This could be making sure you work on projects related to relief and development as part of your current job. Many design firms, for example, periodically work on international projects related to post-disaster reconstruction or development. You could even apply the learning you have done above to these projects.

Try to work on international projects with significant time based in other countries. Any work in other contexts and cultures will demonstrate your ability to cope in different places – a key thing that all recruiters will look for.

Volunteering for relevant organisations

If you can, volunteer for relevant organisations – but do so with care. It is usually better to volunteer locally, and in your home country, rather than volunteering in another country.

Volunteering as a trustee of a relevant charity is an excellent way to get serious charity experience in a very responsible and valuable way.

Volunteering for charities local to you, such as homeless charities, or organisations working on community development, or working with vulnerable people, is going to be of more value than a four-week trip to another country to build a school.

Gap-year style trips will not provide the track-record and experience you need, and could be taken as demonstrating a lack of understanding and responsibility. If it costs you money to volunteer, alarm bells should sound.

Joining relevant groups

Join or attend relevant groups, conferences and events related to the particular part of the aid sector you are interested in. Spend time networking with and talking to experts in those fields, so that you both learn more about it and become known in the sector.

 

Part 4: Building a career 

 

Finding your first job

While you are doing all the steps above to learn, and to build your experience, you can monitor the relevant jobs on offer, and start applying for those that seem suitable.

You will likely get a lot of rejections, as recruiters will most often go for people with established track records in the sector. However, there are lots of jobs in the sector, and if you persevere you should receive some interviews, which will be your chance to shine with all the work you have been doing. 

The first job that comes up might not be exactly what you want but may enable you to direct your career along the desired development path. At the time of writing, ReliefWeb, one of the leading resources for job listings in the humanitarian sector, lists almost 3,000 vacancies worldwide. About half of those are for programme or project management positions; roles that may suit the particular skills of some structural engineers.

‘Mission creep’ is commonplace in the humanitarian sector; where an advertised position morphs into something quite different in practice, often due to changes in the programme context, or to changes in the available staff on the team.

This is one of the reasons why a structural engineer needs to have a realistic understanding of his or her capabilities and limitations – and also needs to be willing to be flexible. Knowledge of other specialisms is essential, but knowledge should not be confused with experience or ability. While the idea that ‘if I don’t do this job, they’ll get someone even worse’ may have been valid in the last century, the sector has moved on and is now, generally, very professionalised.

Once you have managed to find a role within an organisation and started putting your valuable skills to use it is important to continually challenge yourself as to where you can make the biggest impact for good and how you should progress your career and the next section provides advice on this.

Where you can go once you’re in the sector

While initial roles for structural engineers in the humanitarian and development sectors tend to be project-based, international roles, once you have got your first job, a whole world of opportunities tends to open up.

Many structural engineers in the sector continue to work in operational roles, doing fixed-term contracts working on particular projects. This can be highly rewarding, allowing hands-on involvement in important and valuable work around the world.

It can also come with a degree of insecurity and repeated upheaval, so is not suitable for all. For those who have aptitude for the work, are willing to relocate, and willing to work in a wide variety of contexts (including insecure ones) there is no shortage of work opportunities.

International staff positions are (nearly) always senior. They come with a significant degree of management responsibility. For those who wish to, there will likely be further opportunities to move into more senior managerial positions, taking responsibilities for the quality of design and delivery of multiple projects or programmes, or taking on more operational responsibilities (such as security, finances, HR, etc).

This can lead to senior and permanent roles in international programmes, or to roles in head office locations, which can be in major centres in the global south or the north.

Further reading:

The following websites are good to follow to start finding out more about what is written above:

For current affairs, interesting discussions, opinion and learning: 

For jobs:

  • Reliefweb jobs
  • UN jobs
  • There are several Facebook groups covering humanitarian, development, and technical specialisms such as WASH and shelter, which are good for networking, asking questions, and finding opportunities

For training opportunities:

  • RedR offers a range of training. The Essentials of Humanitarian Practice in particular is an excellent overview of many of the key areas you will need to know about, and So You Want to be an Aid Worker is an introduction that will cover much of what is in this article in more detail. RedR offers courses around the world
  • A number of organisations offer Hostile Environment Awareness Training and other personal security training. While expensive, having this training will make you eligible for more posts, and help you stay safe
  • Building a Better Response has free online training covering the Foundations of Humanitarian Action, The International Humanitarian Coordination System, The Cluster Approach, Planning and Funding the Humanitarian Response, International Law and Humanitarian Standards, and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
  • Futurelearn includes a number of courses on humanitarian and international development issues
  • DisasterReady has a whole range of online courses on humanitarian response
  • The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has an online training portal
  • The Cash Learning Partnership has an e-learning site on using cash in humanitarian response

Supporting Resources & Events

Guidance

This evolving series of FAQs provides guidance on considerations when acting in the humanitarian and international development sector.

Publish Date ‐ 5 May 2020

Location ‐ N/A

Price ‐ Free

Training

An introduction to the goals and how structural engineers can use them to tackle the climate crisis and create a better world.

Publish Date ‐ 23 September 2019

Location ‐ N/A

Price ‐ Free

The Structural Engineer

Tom Newby has spent the last 14 years forging careers in two fields – structural engineering and humanitarian aid. His dual roles have seen him work in Bath, Haiti, New York, the Philippines, London and Nepal.

Publish Date ‐ 1 August 2019

Location ‐ N/A

Price ‐ £0

Career Profiles

Jo reflects on her own career and looks ahead to 2050, discussing the role structural engineers play in creating safe, sustainable, inclusive and resilient cities.

Publish Date ‐ 2 February 2018

Price ‐ Free

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Guidance Sustainability & Environment Disaster mitigation, management & recovery Resilience Humanitarian & International Development Humanitarian & International Development Panel

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