So, you want to work for an NGO?
First-time project coordinator Veronika on what you should know before you join a humanitarian organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ... 

I wrote this post as friendly advice. I want to give fair warning to everyone who is thinking of joining (or has already joined) a humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO)! 


My assignment 


I recently arrived at my first assignment with MSF in Sudan's West Darfur State. 

MSF is working in a small health centre in a camp for internally displaced people in Krinding locality near Geneina, the capital of the state. Our goal is to provide quality primary health care free of charge to the most vulnerable population in West Darfur.  

A small boy is tested for malaria in an MSF clinic in Darfur

Malaria screening. Photo: Veronika Cernikova

MSF has been running the primary health care project in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MoH) and our presence here is coming to an end, so we are preparing to hand over the project to the ministry. 

I'm a project coordinator (sometimes known as a "field coordinator" or "field-co"). This means that most of my work is done either at a desk, or running around and "coordinating".  

Working in the humanitarian sector is not easy, but it gives you a feeling of satisfaction that only a few other jobs can give you.

As a field-co I don't provide hands-on medical services myself – most of the time I am making a "wish list" for different departments: what needs to be fixed, what needs to be purchased, what's needed (from notebooks and pens to fences and masonry work), and coming up with plans A, B, C…Z for how to get things fixed, or just making sure that the MSF logo is placed properly.  

Veronica climbs a ladder to affix the MSF logo to a water tank

Our logo helps people recognise us as a neutral and impartial organisation. Photo: MSF

Sometimes I just stand somewhere in the corner and watch the nurses and doctors work in the observation unit. It is amazing how much they can do with limited resources and in tough conditions. 


Top tips 

Anyway, back to the topic. Around the time I arrived, I started to write a short list of tips for future generation of MSF field workers. Soon, a few bullet points turned into a long shopping list, some of which are specific to humanitarian staff working abroad, and some of which apply to all field workers. Here you go...


Do NOT work in the humanitarian sector unless: 


You are ready "to be ready" 24/7   

  • You are ready to listen stories about defecation, bowel movements, childbirth from tukuls (traditional mud-houses with a thatched roof), the craziest broken arms or legs you’ve seen on assignment (I know it might sound interesting, but I don’t like hearing about open fractures while I am eating my rice) 
  • If you're a vegetarian, you are ready to explain every day to a cook, a waiter in a restaurant or anyone around that you really do not eat meat and that chicken is, in actual fact, also meat  
  • If you're international staff, you are ready to wait in line for the bathroom every morning along with your flatmates  
  • You are ready to drink hectolitres of tea with different people (because you simply don’t turn down an offer for good sweet tea) 
  • You are ready to improvise – there is nothing that can’t be fixed with duct tape  
  • You are ready to go to take a shower (or use the bathroom) while wearing a headlamp
  • You are ready to fight for your Bounty chocolate bar, even with the most senior member of the team! 
  • This one's for international staff too – you are ready for everyone to instantly forget your name and for the rest of your posting, you will be called khewaja (foreigner) or just receive a "local name" – so in a couple weeks you just answer "yeah" to any name (Veronika, Feiruz, Fatima, Venicia, V...???, Alain, Hannan…) 
  • You are ready, at least once a month during your posting, to spend all night and day (and nights and days) in the bathroom (there is just no way to avoid stomach flu in a new place) 
  • You are just ready! 

And now that I think about it…. I LOVE MY WORK! I love waking up every morning here and knowing that there are many challenges waiting for me, many emails, many meetings with the authorities, partners, and other organisations, etc.  

Why we do it 

I like seeing the progress that we have made: improvement in services, people getting medical treatment, renovated premises, and I like simply talking to people about their everyday lives. Not everything in the humanitarian sector is only about saving lives. Sometimes it is also about being there and listening to people’s stories.  

Veronika working at the MSF coordination office

Getting things done! Photo: MSF.


As a project coordinator, I am often the first one in the office and the last one to leave. But, at the end of the day, when you see the team coming from the different parts of the project with all the updates (true, the updates are not always happy news), you see the hard work behind you, you know that you are part of this and that you have contributed a little bit to making it successful.   

Working in the humanitarian sector is not easy, but it gives you a feeling of satisfaction that only a few other jobs can give you. You see that you can help to make the world a little bit of a better place – at least for a few people who really need your help. 

So to sum up: don’t work in the NGO sector… or rather do, because the experience is totally worth it.