Troubled times call for compassion, but compassion with purpose. Over 134 million people around the world require humanitarian assistance and protection, mostly as a result of conflict or natural disaster. The international community was able to cater for just 60% of global humanitarian needs in 2018.

Refugee issues are a mainstay on the news, as governments debate the fates of those in the most desperate need. The long-term crises in Syria, Palestine, Mali, and Ethiopia illustrate the need for investment in humanitarian aid. And climate displacement and political volatility are set to worsen existing crises and initiate new ones.

But while money is significant in this regard, compassion, skills, and critical thinking are just as essential -- and an engaged and equipped humanitarian aid worker is a priceless asset to a world in trouble.

The Work of Humanitarian Aid Workers

Aid workers deliver material and technical support for non-profit aid agencies as part of humanitarian relief programmes. This can include emergency relief and development work on behalf of NGOs, the Red Cross, UN agencies (such as UNICEF), and charitable organisations.

Humanitarian aid workers spend months at a time in disparate, disaster-hit, and often dangerous locations. Working long, unpredictable hours and bonding quickly with a diverse set of colleagues, an aid worker helps those who are going through the worst experiences imaginable. They witness suffering daily.

This is more than a professional posting: it is a life mission. But, despite the extreme conditions, positions are in demand due to the highly rewarding and important nature of the work.

“It is not an easy sector to get into,” NGO worker Martha Reggiori-Wilkes told Forbes. "It can sound like a quite romantic thing to do. And there are a lot of very, very good people who want to do it."

Also, the responsibility and adaptability required mean compassion – while essential – is not enough. Most NGO workers who do not already have extensive experience as a volunteer are educated to at least master’s level. And a subject such as health, gender, economics, education, or political science that is broadly applicable to humanitarian work is a distinct advantage.

Master’s degrees for aspiring humanitarian workers or those already in the field

Given the importance of having a master’s degree in this field, finding the right programme is essential. This is where SOAS University of London’s new master’s degree in Humanitarian Action comes in.

As an online programme, the MSc Humanitarian Action provides flexible study for those who wish to continue professional work or who are based in remote locations. Participants may already be working or volunteering with humanitarian organisations or moving towards aid work from another sector.

Students will develop a critical understanding of the ideologies, limits, and possibilities of humanitarian action by looking at case studies of war and natural disaster, and examining the political complexities and relationships between the different aid providers.

“Each emergency has political and historical specificities and the international context of conflict, climate change, and disease, is constantly evolving,” says Dr. Zoe Marriage, reader in Development Studies at SOAS and the programme convenor for MSc Humanitarian Action.

Related online SOAS programmes include the MA Global Security and Strategy, delivered by the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, which adopts a critical view of strategies for conflict resolution, peace and security, war technologies and disarmament, and international cooperation; the MSc International Development, which is concerned with processes of social, economic, political and cultural change; and the MSc Global Public Policy, which examines policy challenges relating to climate change, trade, gender, resource geopolitics, nuclear proliferation, security, and terrorism.

SOAS director Baroness Valerie Amos, who was head of humanitarian affairs at the UN for five years, says, “I saw more and more conflict in the world. I saw huge movements of people in terms of the flow of refugees and migrants. I saw the impact of national disasters.

“And we were really stretched thinking about the policy implications of humanitarian action. So, this is very much about preparing for our future.”

Heart and Soul

When compassion goes hand-in-hand with critical awareness and professional expertise, remarkable things can happen in the most desperate circumstances.

“There are moments when our body wants to rest but our heart would continue to go on,” says aid worker Mai Zamora. “The heart usually prevails. The heart wins.

“Despite everything, I am still here and I can’t see myself being in another field not related to humanitarian work.”

Apply to SOAS to begin transforming your compassion and potential into humanitarian action where it’s needed most.

Article written in association with SOAS University of London.