Humanitarian Aid Workers

ruins of a town after a disaster

Each year, tens of thousands of international humanitarian aid workers are deployed worldwide. Professional aid workers typically work within with large organizations, which have the required infrastructure to properly support their personnel. They deploy to assist people in need due to conflicts, natural disasters, outbreaks, general need for healthcare or infrastructure, and more.

By contrast, nonprofessional responders may deploy with groups that lack the experience or resources necessary to deliver humanitarian aid on a large scale or for a long duration.

Humanitarian aid deployments can last weeks to years; during their time away from home, aid workers may find themselves in insecure environments and facing emotional stress. Risks to the health and well-being of aid workers include exposure to infectious diseases, safety and security threats, and mental health challenges. Studies of long-term humanitarian workers indicate that >35% report a decline in their personal health during the mission. Among humanitarian aid workers, accidents and violence cause more deaths than disease or natural causes.

Aid workers traveling in the aftermath of a natural disaster may encounter floodwaters, debris, or other hazards. With careful preparation, though, aid workers can minimize the risks to their health. To protect others, self-protection is key. Aid workers may also face challenges accessing healthcare. A carefully conducted pretravel evaluation, both medical and psychological, can reduce the likelihood of illness and the need for emergency repatriation from deployment.

"Voluntourism"

“Voluntourism” describes travelers who volunteer for a charity or development organizations, usually for short periods, in developing countries. The impact of short-term visits—often by volunteers who may be unskilled and lack specific understanding of the local context—is variable and may be harmful in certain settings.

Voluntourism in humanitarian emergencies may be particularly problematic given dynamic and often dangerous environments that require professional knowledge, organizational infrastructure, and understanding of the humanitarian response coordination system. Without the necessary individual competencies and organizational support, voluntourism in these settings may lead to unnecessary personal risks and can create a burden on the broader humanitarian response operation.

Before You Go

Schedule a visit with a travel medicine specialist at least a month before you travel. Get the vaccines, medicines and advice you need to stay safe and healthy while you are traveling, and make sure you’re physically fit for the demands of the work. Even if you have traveled extensively, it is always good to have a healthcare provider review your vaccination history, any changes in your health, and your destination. If you anticipate being gone for more than six months, a dental check-up before you leave is also a good idea.

Aid work can be demanding, and medical facilities in disaster areas are often strained or nonexistent. If you are pregnant, or have serious chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, or consider whether there are ways for you to support the response that do not include international travel.

Before departure, enroll with the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This will ensure that the local US Embassy or Consulate is aware of your presence and can provide you with notifications and include you in evacuation plans. More before you go tips.

Avoiding Injury in a Disaster Area

Injuries and motor vehicle accidents are common travel risks anywhere in the world. Select safe transportation, always wear a seatbelt, avoid overloaded buses, and if possible, do not travel at night.

Be sensitive to possible physical dangers, such as debris, unstable buildings, and downed power lines. In a conflict area, be aware of landmines or other explosive hazards. Before departing, check the US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs website to get up-to-date security precautions and advice on your destination.

What to Pack

As an aid worker, you will likely need to pack more items than other travelers, especially if you are going to areas where supplies are limited or the water supply is compromised. Depending on the length of your deployment, you may also need to plan to replenish health items. In addition to your travel health kit, consider whether you might need

  • First-aid supplies
  • Water filter or purification tablets
  • Nonperishable food
  • Gloves (rubber or leather)
  • Bed net (in areas with malaria)
  • Extra pair of prescription glasses
  • Toilet paper
  • Sewing kit
  • Laundry detergent
  • Flashlight and spare batteries
  • Candles and matches or lighter
  • Zip-top bags
  • Safety goggles
  • Condoms
  • Menstrual supplies
  • Photocopies of important documents, such as your passport and medical license (and leave copies of these documents at home with a loved one).

Aid work is stressful, see Mental Health and Travel for more information on how to minimize stress and cope with your duties.

hospital ship

After Your Trip

If you become sick after returning or were injured during your trip, seek medical help immediately after you return. Make sure your doctor knows that you recently returned from doing aid work overseas.

It is not unusual for aid workers to report feelings of depression after returning home. Take time to rest and readjust. If you continue to feel depressed, tell friends or family, and you may wish to seek counseling.

More Information

Yellow Book: Humanitarian Aid Workers