I have worked as a humanitarian aid worker for over ten years in countries in conflict. I strongly believe in aid work because I think people suffering from a crisis have the right to assistance in order to survive until the situation improves. There are challenges to this work, and the challenges are changing, but with knowledge of those changes, good communication skills, the ability to ask the right questions and by building relationships, one can overcome many obstacles and assist many victims who would otherwise continue to suffer or die.

The future of humanitarian aid work will be exciting and challenging at the same time. The main growing challenge in international aid work is that the number of involved organizations, such as the government, the private sector, or aid agencies, are increasing in number and variety. They often each try to fulfill their own interests, instead of aligning their activities with globally accepted humanitarian objectives.

In a civil war, opposing sides each have interests they are fighting for. International political bodies are involved in different ways to either end the conflict or dictate what rules are allowed in war, such as the ban of chemical weapons. The private sector may try to profit from the war, or promote peace to maintain the conditions needed for profit. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), the Red Cross, the United Nations and others can be involved in any number of non-political activities, from health care to water and sanitation, from peace building to primary education to assist victims. However, aid is becoming increasingly politicized, not given solely on need. To be successful in this complicated, conflict-heavy dynamic, it is important to know what different interests are and what different sides need.

To coordinate or coexist with conflicting parties, the aid worker of the future should firstly be skilled at communicating with others, using innovative tools of the present and future. It is important to know the needs of beneficiaries they are trying to assist; to understand how their activities fit into the bigger context, and to express key information in ways that are easily understood by others. Skills in listening, monitoring social media, and utilizing innovative technologies like mobile digital data collection will assist future aid workers in being skilled communicators.

The aid worker of the future should be able to ask the right questions. One could be distracted by the ever-growing amount of information out there in the world. By effectively filtering information, aid workers can understand the needs of populations, understand the activities of other groups, organizations and businesses.  Then they can plan, implement, and monitor the right assistance program.

An effective aid worker of the future will be able to build and keep honest, respectful, and accountable relationships with all parties. Whether it is someone you help, someone who helps you, or someone who can harm you or your activities, good interactions can move the relationship to a more positive outcome and often prevent small conflicts from starting or growing. In the world of accessible information, honesty in conversations as well as following through on commitments will be easily monitored and judged accordingly.

The challenges of the world will continue to change and develop. I believe that refined skills to understand others and work together with people from around the world will be a strong asset in successful aid work in the future.

About the author

Steve Dennis

Steve Dennis has had over ten years of experience in humanitarian aid, primarily with non-profit organization Médecins Sans Frontières in Africa and Asia. He has held roles in program management, project coordination, water and sanitation, and technical staff engineering. A recipient of a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and a Master of International Relations degrees, Steve now does independent consulting work in safety and security.