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21st century aid worker

Stephanie Höppner / alFebruary 10, 2014

Helping people, doing good: Those who go into aid work tend to want to make the world a better place. But the job of aid worker is changing, creating an increased demand for consultants with university degrees.

A GIZ consultant helps trainee engineers in Saudi Arabia
Image: GIZ

Sometimes the power cuts out or water doesn't come out of the tap: Thorsten Nilges is confronted almost daily with the consequences of poverty.

"You have to be open for everything," he says, when describing his new home. Since 2012 Nilges and his family have been based in Cameroon. His job is to monitor the rights situation for people living in the country's mining areas. The Catholic aid organization Misereor finances his position with money from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

His work is not the only challenging part of Nilges' life. He also finds the situations difficult in which he is made aware of how privileged he is, such as when his partner gave birth to a healthy son at the same time his Cameroonian colleague had a child who was born an albino. The girl will most likely suffering from poor sight and sensitive skin her whole life without being able to take advantage of a well-developed healthcare system. There are also the situations in which he is stopped in traffic by children who want to clean his car in the hopes of earning a few cents.

The 35-year-old still feels honored to be doing his job though. "You are trying to change something, not just earn money," he told DW.

Around 1,500 to 2,000 university graduates apply for the 20 trainee jobs offered by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) each year. Others, without degrees, try to get in too.

"We get a lot of telephone calls from people - especially after natural disasters - who say, 'I'm touched by this and I want to help,'" says Katharina Engels from the German aid organization AGEH.

"That is an admirable attitude, but it is not qualification enough for a three-year work assignment overseas," she adds.

Thorsten Nilges, advising locals in Cameroon
Nilges has realized solutions must come from localsImage: Thorsten Nilges

Less hands-on, more consulting

Some 20 years ago aid organizations hired people who were able to use their skills directly in the country they were sent to. But that's changing.

"The trend is definitely toward less hands-on and practical work, more to do with networking and task management," says the GIZ's Ulrich Heise, who is responsible for selecting personnel. The organization sends some 850 professionals overseas every year.

Graduates in economics, political science, education, environmental science, geography, agricultural science and engineering are particularly in demand. Specific masters programs, such as "global governance," are also useful, as are the programs offered by the well-regarded Center for Rural Development (SLE) in Berlin. Internships in government ministries or NGOs can tip the balance for applicants as well.

The range of countries where aid workers are deployed has expanded, from fragile states like South Sudan, Chad or Afghanistan to developing countries like Brazil, Indonesia or Vietnam.

Social skills important

For those who turn it into a career, working in development can bring good money. Wages vary from 40,000 euros ($54,000) a year for those starting out, to around 100,000 euros a year for top managers.

Those who head overseas to do development work need to have the right attitude. "They should be people with a clear head, who are in touch with reality," says Heise. "Idealism is damaging."

The GIZ emblem on top of a building
The GIZ has some 16,000 employeesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Inter-cultural competencies are more important than ever, especially after the mistakes committed in the early days of aid programs. Concepts that may have been a boon in donor nations won't necessarily work in countries receiving aid.

"A solution that works in Uganda, may not work in Eritrea," says Heise. "And it almost definitely won't work in Peru or Jordan."

This matches up with Thorsten Nilges' experience in Cameroon. "In Germany you often think that you have [studied and] learned something, so that you are an expert." But on the ground other competencies are needed, like listening and recognizing problems. It's not about self-fulfillment.

"In Cameroon, Thorsten Nilges' ideas are not implemented; it's the farmers' ideas that work here, and it's our task to support them," he told DW. "That is something one really must learn."