'Emergencies bring out the best in people'

Airlie Taylor, 25, is a communications and support officer for the global anti-poverty agency ActionAid. She's based in London.

What do you actually do?

I act as a central contact point for our international emergencies and conflict team, translating the raw information I get from colleagues out in the field into information that can be used by other parts of the organisation. There's often a big gap between the information that my colleagues abroad provide, and the information our fundraising and media contacts need. I find out about the situation on the ground by phoning or emailing our six regional emergencies advisers and then put that data into a form that is easy to use.

What's your working schedule like?

It's definitely not a nine-to-five job. Working with international colleagues across time zones means that the phone is always ringing, whether we're responding to post-election violence flaring up in Kenya, or the recent floods in Haiti and Bihar. I usually arrive at the office at 9.30am and leave around 7pm. While I'm at work, I might be editing a funding proposal to the European Union, giving a media interview, or attending a briefing by the UK Government's Department for International Development. Once I get home, I check my emails again in case there's something urgent I need to deal with.

What's the best thing about it?

It's really exciting. There's never a dull moment. I might be doing a radio interview on Myanmar one minute and travelling to Vietnam the next. My colleagues are so dedicated, and it's rewarding to know that we are helping vulnerable people. I'm constantly inspired by the way that emergencies bring out the best in people. The public are generous and reach into their pockets, and aid workers work around the clock to help people who've lost everything.

What's not so great about it?

The increasing frequency and scale of disasters means that the workload is never-ending. The phone never stops ringing, and it can get quite intense. It can be depressing being faced with human suffering on a daily basis, but the flipside is that at least I know that I'm working for an organisation that's making a difference.

What skills do you need to be good at working for an aid agency?

You need to be really calm under pressure, super-organised and able to juggle information. You should be dedicated and committed, because the hours are long and it's not particularly well-paid, and you should have excellent communication skills. You also need to be sensitive to cultural differences, because you're likely to work with people from all over the world.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to work for an aid agency?

It's a really competitive field and junior level jobs don't come up that often. Volunteer with a non-governmental organisation to gain experience, and keep up-to-date with international affairs by reading newspapers and relief agency websites. Competition for paid internships is fierce. Most work experience is unpaid and doesn't guarantee a job, so you've got to be tenacious. After I graduated from university, I worked one day a week with Save the Children while working another three days a week for a corporate company in order to support myself, until I got an admin job with the British Red Cross. It took a while to get where I am now.

What's the salary and career path like?

Administrative divisions are a good entry point, and salaries there start around £17,000 to £22,000 a year. With experience, your salary can rise to £20,000 to £30,000 a year. You could move into management, but you probably won't get promoted every year. You might have to move organisations to rise up the ranks. There's the possibility of getting a job abroad after you have experience, but generally aid agencies employ national staff, not expats.


For more information on working for a humanitarian aid agency or non-governmental organisation, visit working for a charity at www.wfac.org.uk; the directory of social change at www.dsc.org.uk; or third sector at www.thirdsector.co.uk.