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Working in EiE: Transitioning into a career in humanitarian response after academic training

30 March 2016

by Anna Wilson, Coordinator of the Network for Research in Education, Conflict, and Emergencies

Are you finishing your degree and want to work in education in emergencies?

Know heaps about education but next to nothing about what working in humanitarian response might actually involve?

Then this blog post is for you!

© Anna Wilson
While there is no set path to working in education in emergencies, the points below might help you decide what you want to do and what skills you might need for the role you aspire to. We will try to find skills you already have but didn’t think might be valuable (hurrah!), and perhaps identify a few skills or knowledge gaps where you might need to brush up (fear not!); there are links to resources to help you fill in the blanks.

Not all of the trainings and resources I've listed below are free of charge, but many of them are. I am sure many of you will have other great tips, advice, and resources, so please do add these in the comments section at the end to expand and grow this list.

And please remember… while getting the job is important, what is without doubt more important is your ability to respond well to the needs of the people for whom you will be working. Be honest, and ask yourself, are you really as prepared as you could be?

Where to begin? Read the full post by scrolling down, or skip to any of the sections by clicking on the titles listed below.

Step 1: Research - What do you want to do?
Step 2: Assess the skills you have, the skills you need
Step 3: Get the skills you need!
Step 4: Know yourself and how to look after yourself
Step 5: Walk your own path and keep learning


Step 1: Research - What do you want to do?

The specific roles you might look at will vary depending on a mix of your interests, skills, experience, and intended direction. The good news is that there are a lot of jobs out there, so begin by doing a bit of research into roles that interest you. The most basic things you can do are: join INEE (it's free!); subscribe to the INEE jobs bulletin and the Global Education Cluster newsletter; sign up to email alerts from organizations you like; create a profile on Reliefweb.

I recommend joining the facebook group, "International Connections in Education and Development” where you will find a community of people posting jobs, internships, and scholarships in the education and development field, including in education in emergencies. (Do give back by posting jobs too.)

When roles catch your attention, go through the specifications for what knowledge, skills, or experience is essential or desirable and get a feel for what commonly crops up. I am sure there will be heaps of skills and attributes listed that you already have, but there are probably plenty that you will need to develop. Fear not, there are just as many ways and resources to get the knowledge and skills you need.

Final point: be bold. If the job you have in mind is not out there, innovate! DfID’s global innovation hub certainly wants you…  Got an idea for a great tech solution? Why not have a look at what Techfugees are doing and see how you can collaborate? If you see a need, fill it. Innovation and proactivity are excellent traits to have in any field!


Step 2: Assess the skills you have and the skills you need

Wheel of Life template. Click to enlarge.
Understand where you are now in relation to where you want to be. Using a "wheel of life" like the one on the right can be useful to help you visualise this. You can draw your own wheel on a scrap of paper or download a "wheel of life" template here.     

Firstly, choose 8 or 10 areas of skills or knowledge for the role(s) that attract you. For example, for humanitarian response the required or preferred skills listed could be things like:

  • Project management
  • Technical education ability
  • Knowledge of humanitarian architecture
  • Proposal writing
  • Ability to deal with complex security threats
  • HR skills
  • Budget management
  • Facilitation and training ability
  • Effectively managing stakeholder relations
  • Familiarity with a range of participatory approaches
  • Report writing
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Capacity to deal with stress
  • Information management
  • Leading and managing teams
  • Ability to influence people
  • Communication skills
  • and others…

Secondly, map those skills or knowledge areas onto the 8 or 10 spokes of the wheel. Then for each spoke, rate your capacity in that area on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, on project management, you might feel quite strong so you could give yourself 8/10. For proposal writing you might only give yourself 4/10. Do this for all of the points on the spokes. Then draw up those dots inside the circle.

How does it look? Is it balanced? Are there areas to work on?

The aim is to give you an overall view of where you are at in relation to the jobs you would like; where you are strong and what you might need to improve. This is really useful for deciding what your next steps could be by refocusing on skills you need to build instead of those that are already strong. It will also help you see skills you have that organisations want, which you might not have immediately recognised as being valuable in the field of education in emergencies. Make sure you highlight these in your application.


Step 3: Get the skills you need!

Listed below are some professional learning tools and sources to get you ready for EiE work. Do you have others you want to share? Please add them to the comments section below.

Education in emergencies technical skills

  • Start with the obvious: Download and use the  EiE training modules from the INEE website. Teach yourself and your friends or colleagues. There are 19 modules, all with training manuals, all free. This is also a fantastic way to build up experience in training and facilitation, skills you will use time and time again. I particularly recommend working through these training modules as a way of bringing together your theoretical and academic knowledge into practical application. Do use a critical eye and suggest amendments and improvements to the materials, if you know of research that could bring a new perspective to any of the trainings, then absolutely get in touch with INEE. These are a common resource for all members of the global INEE network and we should always be reviewing and revising them to make sure they are the best they can be. Also, if you have a particular area of passion and it’s not on the training list, write your own training package and send it in!
  • In terms of your educational technical ability, if you can master the training modules AND know your way around the INEE Minimum Standards, you will have a huge advantage in both getting and doing a job in EiE.
  • I also strongly advise becoming very familiar with the INEE Conflict Sensitive Education materials, which include trainings, videos, infographics, etc.

Humanitarian standards

  • Visit the INEE website to learn everything you can about our sector’s flagship manual, the INEE Minimum Standards.
  • The Sphere Project Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response is something you need to know about. To get Sphere savvy you can do the free e-learning course or run a training session yourself - there are training packages in English and Arabic – and if you do, you will get some experience in training and facilitation at the same time.
  • There are also a huge number of free resources and training packages related to the Child Protection Minimum Standards.

Humanitarian assistance in general

A great way to jump start your learning and credentials in humanitarian work is through a professional diploma programme.

Professional training in general

  • Check out RedR training courses, which cover all aspects of emergency response, including project management, facilitation skills, leading teams, training trainers, proposal writing, carrying out needs assessments, monitoring & evaluation and security training. Whilst there are costs, you do get a student discount and they get cheaper the more you do.
  •’s online learning library of more than 600 training resources is constantly expanding and covers core topics such as Humanitarianism, Program/Operations, Protection, Staff Welfare, Management and Leadership, Staff Safety & Security, and Soft Skills. 
  • Another good source for training on proposal writing is Funds for NGOs.

Project managment

  • PMD Pro offers a specialised certificate in project management in the development sector. It is genuinely useful! It works through the project cycle, and helps you understand things like log frames and problem trees. It is free, available in 8 languages, and includes a handbook and seven e-learning modules. You can get a certificate by taking the exams if you want to add that to your CV at a small cost.

Financial management

  • For improving your financial management skills, check out the work of MANGO.

Human Resources

  • Check out the CHS Alliance website for tools and training on people management.

Impact evaluations

Needs assessment

  • The Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) has a 6-part e-learning series on the basics of coordinated needs assessments in emergencies.  
  • GIS skills aren’t critical, but they can set you apart during recruitment. You might not have time to become a pro, but at least understanding how it works at a basic level can help you to contribute. Learn more at MapAction.

Languages and communication

  • Communication is an incredibly important skill within your team, within your organisation, and within the humanitarian architecture! Being able to speak with your stakeholders is so important, but it is even more important to listen to them. And yes, you can use a translator, but… that can get complicated. Learn as many languages as you can! The UN has 6 official languages, but it might be your ability to speak Amharic that is the thing that sets you apart in a pile of CVs. There are a million ways to learn new languages, from free courses online (just Google!) and apps, to intensive schools. (I personally recommend Qasid in Amman for Arabic.)

Stakeholder engagement

  • See this WFP Guide on participatory techniques and tools.
  • Borrow best practices from the private sector; this blog may help.
  • If there is a particular group or population that you wish to work with, perhaps there are diaspora communities in your home country you could approach to learn about how they prefer to be approached and listened to?

Do you have other training opportunities and resources you want to share? Please add them to the comments section below.


Step 4: Know yourself and how to look after yourself.

Know yourself. Aid work is good work, but it can be very tough on the body and the mind. And the safety risks can be high. Being attracted to adrenaline, or being a natural risk taker does not necessarily mean you are going to be a good humanitarian responder. Prepare yourself and be honest with yourself about why you want to do this type of work. Read as much as you can about it, and familiarize yourself with aid work by speaking to people who are doing and have done the kind of work you want to do. Have a look at the Humanitarian Genome Project to learn from others’ past experiences and learn about the realities of the field.

© Anna Wilson
Still interested?

You may be away for long periods of time, or on short intense projects, and you need to know how to look after yourself and those near to you. The Child Protection Working Group has prepared an excellent short training package on Taking Care of Yourself (2014). It is also useful to think ahead about how you might address any particular demands (mental health/physical health/family/financial) that need to be managed while you are away. Ask yourself questions like, if you are confined to a compound unable to move around outside freely how would you relax/keep fit/stay sane? What does feeling safe/secure mean to you? How will you reassure your family about your safety? How will you manage should scenario a), b), c) arise? How will you maintain your own social support network/support colleagues?

Stress and burnout, and trauma and PTSD are very real concerns in this field, know how to recognise them and where/how to get help, the earlier the better. The Headington Institute has a free online training centre with loads of resources on these topics. And be aware that many organisations offer relevant servies pre- and post- deployment. Do not hesitate to make use them!  

I also recommend (to both women and men) reading “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Traveler” by Sarah Martin.

Finally, as a practical matter, having a base somewhere and some emergency savings to fall back on are a very good idea for when you need to take some time out at any point. 


Step 5: Walk your own path and keep learning

Be aware that what you want now might not be what you want in 5 or 10 years time. As I said, humanitarian response can be hard on the body and the mind as well as on relationships and family. The work itself may change you and your priorities, positively and negatively. Be open minded, seize opportunities as they come, but listen to yourself and understand where you are in that time and place in your life, and be honest with yourself.

Commit to lifelong learning. Our work in this field is increasingly complex, challenging, fast changing, and vitally important. Make a commitment to continuous learning and development from the very beginning, acknowledging and learning from your mistakes, recognising knowledge gaps and acting to get beyond them. This is the only way that we, individually and collectively, can contribute to the improvement of our field and in turn, deliver a better service to affected populations in emergencies.


To sum up…

As I said at the beginning, getting the job is one part of it. In this respect, I recommend that you become a broken record; tell everybody you know what you want, and ask for their help and advice in getting there. Also, do not just think about what people can do for you, think about what you can do for them. Finally, do not underestimate yourself when it does come to your first humanitarian response! A fresh set of eyes can see so much, and new energy is always welcome.

But keep in mind that doing the job and doing it well is far more important. Personally, I think academic training brings huge value to our field, not only does it give you lenses through which you can break down what you are looking at but it has hopefully sharpened your critical thinking skills so you really try to see what is, not what appears to be. Equally important are the abilities to put context first, to use your common sense, to challenge damaging status quos (and here I refer to those within organisations too), and to stay sane and balanced under immense stress. Most importantly, be aware of to whom you are really accountable.

Best of luck. I would love to hear how you get on. Feel free to leave comments below.


Anna Wilson coordinates the Network for Research in Education, Conflict and Emergencies (NRECE), a space for researchers and practitioners to interact, hosted by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) in London, (once again voted best in the world for education in the QS rankings 2016). You can join the Network for Research in Education, Conflict and Emergencies facebook group here. Anna is completing an MA in Education and International Development at the UCL IOE, where she is also working as a member of two research teams. She has previously worked in humanitarian response.