Cathy at an education project in Mynamar

Cathy Ayer, programme co-ordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), was recently sent to Sierra Leone for five weeks to co-ordinate IRC’s emergency response to the on-going cholera epidemic. Here she gives the low down on her job and advice for getting into aid work.

1. What does your job involve?

The IRC is an international humanitarian organisation which provides humanitarian assistance and protection to refugees and people fleeing from conflict and disaster. My role is based in Thailand, where the IRC runs health and protection programmes inside and outside refugee camps on the border with Myanmar for people who have fled conflict in eastern Myanmar. I co-ordinate support to these programmes through programme monitoring and development, writing proposals to secure new and ongoing funding, reporting on the programme to donors and ensuring compliance measures are met. I am based in Bangkok but make regular field trips to the refugee camps. I’m also on the IRC’s global emergency response register, which is why I was sent to Sierra Leone.

Cathy with people affected by floods in Thailand

2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?

Growing up I was always interested in social causes, from local politics to animal rights. I also studied history at university and became more aware of the social and economic events that have shaped our world, leading to global wealth inequality, and situations of conflict, oppression and injustice. This motivated me to choose a career that makes some kind of difference in the world, where I work to help solve problems, not create more. As idealistic as that sounds, I think these kind of beliefs are how most aid workers start.

3. What route did you take to your current job?

I studied for a Masters in human rights and international law, then did a ten-month internship with a women’s human rights organisation in Malaysia. On returning to London I hit the same wall many graduates do with limited experience, and couldn’t find a job. So I temped for organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians to build my experience and knowledge of the sector. This helped me get an administrative role at the British Red Cross, and while in this job I applied for and was appointed to a role in the international programmes department where I supported Red Cross partners around the world in responding to humanitarian crises.

I also joined the British Red Cross’ emergency roster and undertook missions with a public health and sanitation team in Pakistan (floods), Zimbabwe (cholera) and Haiti (earthquake). Apart from the roster, my job was mainly based in London, but you need significant field experience to progress a career in aid, so I took a job with Trocaire in Port au Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake. This was a tough mission, but rewarding and many new aid workers have to accept these more intense ‘hardship postings’ at the beginning of their career – but it’s the best way to learn about the sector, and the issues faced by people in the most difficult crises in the world. After this role I got my current position with IRC.

4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?

I began my career studying human rights, but not having a law degree I found the human rights world difficult to break in to, and instead ‘fell into’ humanitarian aid. But I immediately loved it and have been working in the sector for over eight years. Still, every job I applied for was a challenge, taking months to get an interview, fighting off competition and proving to yourself, let alone others, that you are good enough to do the job. It is not unusual to fire off 20 applications and not hear back from a single one. Also, once you get a job it can sometimes be difficult to progress within large aid agencies when there are hundreds of people lined up to apply for any job opportunity.

If you want to progress, you need to network with other aid workers and be prepared to make compromises, for example taking jobs that might not be at the top of your list. I took a second mission in Haiti even though it wasn’t ideal for my situation at that time, but I worked to do the best I could for the mission and the experience gave me the skills required to achieve the next job which was more suitable.

5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?

Cathy with cholera prevention team in Sierra Leone

The most memorable experiences always come from the people you work with and the people you work for. I worked with nurses in Sierra Leone and I asked them why they volunteered to be on the cholera ward, a highly infectious disease. They said they were given a choice, between their usual hospital jobs and working to try and stop the disease that was affecting their families, communities and neighbourhoods. They all said volunteering for the cholera ward was their way to help and give back, and most truly were volunteers receiving no pay or compensation for their services. I also remember the young, enthusiastic volunteers I worked with in Pakistan following devastating floods. They worked long hours in extreme heat, and only received travel expenses and lunch, yet they turned up day after day, saying it was their duty to help those less fortunate than themselves.

All over the world local people are the real aid workers, people in-country helping their neighbours, day in, day out. In the media you often see pictures of the foreigner flying in to help – but this is when the emergency is so big that local capacity is overwhelmed. Although professional aid workers do come with useful skills, it’s important to realise that they can only work with the help and support of the local population. Aid responses are not always straightforward, and any operation can be mired in politics and challenges. However, everywhere you will find people willing to help with what little they have and that’s what you remember.

6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?

There is no straight career path in humanitarian aid or development. Getting a degree in a relevant field is a good start, but competition for initial jobs is fierce so field experience and time overseas is equally important, which most people gain by volunteering and unpaid internships. This is seen as ‘doing your time’ and should be done early on, post-university or even between school and uni to get that vital exposure to field work. Volunteering opportunities are not always obvious, and you have to be proactive in seeking them out, hooking up with networks, aid agencies or academic institutions to try and secure the right volunteering spot for you. Remember you will be paying for yourself, but that’s no guarantee of a worthwhile volunteering spot so ask lots of questions and make sure you’re happy with the organisation and role. If you’re looking to specialise in your studies, such as public health or gender, then make sure you secure a relevant volunteering opportunity.

Try to get as much field experience as you can as it is easy to get stuck in HQ jobs with little prospect of moving on without the required overseas experience. Your career is often shaped by what jobs you manage to get, not the ones you necessarily want. It takes time but don’t be discouraged. And don’t forget enthusiasm, dedication and hard work does pay off. Above all be keen, show commitment, and do anything it takes to make a difference.

Find out about the British Red Cross’ overseas programmes