If you lack the experience and qualifications necessary to get hired on by the federal government for a position in Iraq or Afghanistan (and you don’t want to be a contractor handling logistics or life support), you may want to consider working for an NGO doing development or aid work. There are generally more of these jobs available, however, the applicant pool is a lot larger because you are not only competing with individuals who don’t want to work for the U.S. government, but also with all of those who can’t get a federal job because they lack U.S. citizenship or the ability to get a security clearance.
The best place to look is on Relief Web, where you can information on hundreds of openings, training opportunities, and reams of documents on best practices in conflict mitigation, humanitarian aid and development. It’s free and you can query by location and job type. (Check out the training courses and see if you can take any of them . . . a great way to build your skill set and increase your chances of being hired, not to mention the opportunity to do a little networking). Another site to get some great information on breaking into the business is Aid Workers.net, though they don’t list any job openings.
If you’re willing to pay a membership fee, you can also join DEVEX. I don’t know if it’s worth joining as a paid “premium” member, but at the very least you can sign-up and create a free profile with your work experience, expertise and career objectives, which is searchable by recruiters and potential business contacts from development agencies, non-profits, and private sector companies in the development business. DEVEX also claims a network of over 100,000 development & aid professionals and over 1,500 job openings, most of which aren’t accessible unless you have the paid membership. I find DEVEX useful for the career advice it provides and the regular updates on what’s going on in the world of development and humanitarian aid via their free weekly Global Development Briefing newsletter.
If you have little to no experience in development or aid work and don’t have any special skills that would help get your foot in the door, you may want to consider working as a volunteer or intern. I’ve know quite a few people who started out working for free and after several months, once they had proven themselves, were hired on into paid positions. One of my friends from college who had no experience in development or aid work ended up doing this and several years later became the Country Director for a large NGO operating in Iraq. If you feel you need to be paid (and you’re a U.S. citizen), then join the Peace Corps. You’ll get the experience you need and some new language skills, as well a paycheck.
Finally, don’t forget to constantly network, network, and then network some more. If you’re in the DC or New York area, (or London or Paris or just about any other major city), there’s going to be fundraisers, conferences, and speaking events at NGO headquarters, think tanks, and universities where you can meet like-minded people who will be able to steer you in the right direction and help give you a shot at the job you want. Just remember that even after you get hired you need to keep networking. Doing so will make it easier for you to move on if your job isn’t working out, or move up the ladder once you build up the necessary experience and skill sets.