Advice for First-Time Aid workers

Going to the field for the first time as an aid worker? Even if you have extensive experience traveling in developing countries, there is a lot you should do to prepare for your first experience as an aid worker. It's impossible to list absolutely everything you will need to take, and duty stations vary tremendously in terms of security and infrastructure. The author of this page has tried to make a list that includes universal essentials, but you will need to do much more research on your own to prepare for your first placement.


  • Do as much research as possible, before you leave, about the country where you will serve (its history, its current political situation, the names of its key leaders, the living standards of its people, cultural aspects, the availability of medicine, the types of food, etc.). If there is a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide for the area, buy it and review it at length (and definitely take it with you!). Also see the latest UNDP Human Development Report and look up the country. The web also provides extensive, useful information.
  • Look for blogs by aid workers who have been or are in the area where you will serve. These personal accounts can go a long way in preparing you for your first aid experience.
  • If you are a woman, you should do some extra research on cultural aspects of a country; male aid workers often forget or don't notice the particular customs regarding women's dress for the street and the office, and your briefing materials may not be explicit enough in this regard. If possible, try to talk with a woman who has been in the country before, or is there now.
  • Find out how you will be paid. Will it be in cash? Will it be via deposit to a local bank? Can part of your pay be directly deposited to your home country bank? Make sure you have all of the information you need about your home country bank for possible money transfers. All the better if you can do online banking via your home country bank.
  • Ask for a list of staff members BEFORE you leave your home country for your assignment. If at all possible, make contact via email before you leave with staff members already in-country that you will work with.
  • Ask your organization for their security plan for that country.  (If they don't have one it is not a good sign.  Ask politely what their security rules are - it may be that they just don't call them a security plan.)  Read and understand the security plan before departure.  See the safety and security pages for further guidance.
  • Ask the organization who will pick you up from the airport (if anyone), how you should get from the airport to your housing, the name of your housing accommodations, what paperwork you will need to fill out at the airport, etc.
  • Get about 10 passport-sized photos made. You will need them for visas, country ID cards, agency ID cards, and all sorts of surprise reasons. If you are female and going to a country where most women wear head scarves, consider getting some photos made with you wearing such
  • Find out what country you would be evacuated to should there be a severe security threat, and if possible, secure your visa for this country before departing your home country.
  • Make an electronic copy of the key pages of your passport, and have copies of your contract, security clearance, airline tickets/reservations, emergency information, etc. Put this information somewhere on the Internet where you can retrieve it (for instance, you can mail it to your Yahoo, GMail, Hotmail, or other web-based email account, and retrieve it if you need to after you arrive). You can also have it on a memory stick or CD you carry with you on your person when you arrive. Ofcourse, you should have printed out copies of these as well which you also carry on your person.
  • Buy and study a map of the country or the area where you will work.
  • Start monitoring the weather before you leave. The web makes that very easy to do.
  • Network as much as possible before your departure. Learn what other agencies serve the area and, if there might be a counterpart at any organization doing work similar to you, consider writing these organizations before you arrive to introduce yourself. See AWN's more detailed information on networking
  • Consider taking a few *very small*, discreet gifts with you that you could give to people who prove particularly helpful. For instance, in Afghanistan, the author of this advice page brought small bottles of moisturizer and gourmet instant coffee.
  • Think about what medicines you might need and pack accordingly – but don't bring so much that it might alarm customs officials.
  • Research online groups that might relate to your work in a particular geographic area. This is a great way to network with people at other organizations engaged in the same work as you.
  • Post to the AidWorkers Network a few weeks before your departure, noting where you are going, what you will be doing and how long you will be there; it's a great way to meet other people already in the area before you arrive, as well as to get tips on information that might help you.
  • Check your embassy's web site for the country and see if they have a registration process; it's a good idea for your embassy to know you are going to be in a country, and for how long. Often, they will put you on a contact list to let you know about events or security bulletins.
  • Identify books or other publications you think might help you in your work. If you take these, be prepared to leave them, either because you need to evacuate, because you have no room in your luggage when you return or because you feel they would do good staying in the country for use by others.
  • If you like to read, consider taking your own books and magazines. But be prepared to leave them in the country when you finish; they will be very much appreciated by other international staff there.
  • Equipment needs vary from country-to-country, and depend on your living conditions. Yes, take that Swiss Army Knife (but not in your carry on). Two things the author of this article found most valuable that were recommended by fellow aid workers but not in any guide books: universal sink plug and a head lamp with plenty of batteries (electricity supplies, if not scarce in developing countries, are, at least, unreliable).

How much stuff should you take with you? It depends on how long you are going, what your living conditions will be, and the availability of items there. Just remember that, as you navigate your way through airports and other transport stations, you might have to manage all of your luggage by yourself; that means you don't want to take more than you can manage on your own. Also, consider that, in an emergency situation, you would need to leave the majority of your possessions, so don't take anything so precious that you would be heartbroken to have to leave it behind.


Upon arrival

Many new aid workers are shocked at how much they have to do themselves when arriving at an agency; often, the aid worker his or herself will have to drive the process to get paid, get necessary equipment, meet fellow staff members, etc. Be prepared to take charge in accessing the essential information and materials you will need to do your work:

  • Some organizations provide new arrivals with an induction/orientation document. Some don't. Either way, there is a lot of information you need to compile yourself:
    • Start immediately making a list of key contacts. This should be everything from people you work with in your job to people whose assistance you may need (IT person, security person, etc.)
    • Start making a list of abbreviations to remember. Aid workers and government officials are notorious for talking in acronyms. You will never learn them unless you make a list.
    • Get a staff list with key contact info ASAP.
  • Find out when the security briefing is. If there is none, ask for one. Don't put this off!
  • Get your official identification cards (visas, agency ID card, etc.) as soon as possible.
  • No matter what your job, ask for some official documents: policies and procedures, the most recent annual report, the most recent internal program progress report, etc.
  • Track all of the payments you are supposed to receive. No matter how well-known, long-established or large your development agency is, make sure you stay on top of all the payments you are supposed to receive, and when those are made.
  • If you had a predecessor, ask where that person's files are, so you can go through to see what was done, and if this person left you any guiding notes.
  • Ask someone to take you around and introduce you to everyone at the organization that you should know. If no one does, then do it yourself – walk into each and every office and introduce yourself. If no one sends an email around introducing you, do it yourself.
  • Network with those at other organizations who do the same job as you. Initiate contact via phone, email, or just stopping by, as appropriate.
  • Find out how to back up your computer information. If this isn't done, then do it yourself on CDs.
  • Get business cards as soon as possible.
  • Get your computer ID and password ASAP
  • Learn project site names and addresses ASAP.
  • Arrange to meet key contacts face-to-face. Also, whenever you are at a main office or partner office, drop in and say hi to key contacts, even if you aren't there to see them; they may have information to pass on to you. Otherwise, it just keeps you on their radar screen.
  • Staff often "hides" behind email. Back up any important emails you send to staff with face-to-face visits to their office, confirming the information/request you have sent via email. Going into people's offices at least once a week, even if you don't need anything, will help remind people that you are a real person, not just an email address, and that your requests for information are real.
  • Go to all debriefings from staff members that you possibly can. It shows your interest in their work, and they often will, as a result, show more interest in yours. You may also find out things that you need for your own job.
  • If security allows, take any and all opportunities you can to go into the field and visit work/project, no matter what your job. It will increase your commitment to your work, whatever that is, and remind you of why you wanted to go into development/aid work in the first place.

AWN highly recommends the book Engineering in Emergencies by Bobby Lambert and Jan Davis for new aid workers. While the title emphasizes "Engineering", the book actually goes much further, providing information on what to do before you embark on an aid assignment, how to set up an office in the field, assessment tips, security advice, and more. It is available for order from your favorite bookstore, including

In 2002, AWN member and frequent AWN contributor Barney Mayhew asked a selection of emergency programme managers, most of them in their thirties, to write a short account of how they were recruited, trained and retained (if they were) by their aid agency. They were asked to give both good and bad experiences and especially constructive points for improvement.

The attached document, Programme Managers Remember, is a compilation of those responses.  Of the 14 managers who contributed, not one was properly recruited, trained and retained.  While the sample is not fully representative, it's not untypical.  New and aspiring aid workers, be aware.  Although standards are improving in many aid agencies, you may sometimes have to ask tactfully but persisently for good management.

Also see Unsolicited Advice for New Aid Workers by AWN member Matthew Bolton.

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Programme Managers Remember.doc67.5 KB