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EU Aid Volunteers: “This is a great way to enter the humanitarian aid sector”

Leah Cowan at her desk in the UNHCR office in Tehran, Iran. © UNHCR Iran

Seven years ago, Leah Cowan was part of the very first batch of young Europeans to volunteer with EU Aid Volunteers during the pilot phase of the initiative. EU Aid Volunteers provides European citizens the opportunities to volunteer in humanitarian aid projects worldwide.  Since then, Leah has made her career as a humanitarian worker, and is presently working with UNHCR in Iran. We caught up with her in Tehran to enquire how the EU Aid Volunteers experience had helped in shaping this career. 


By Pierre Prakash, Regional Information Officer, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations 


Can you tell us about your experience as an EU Aid Volunteer?

I was doing an internship with an NGO in London when I found out about the programme. I was looking for an entry level position into the humanitarian sector, which is not so easy to find, and this really appealed to me as it was an opportunity for field-based experience. It turned out to be the perfect formula for me, with a holistic approach combining theoretical training and two different field deployments. We started off with a one-month training in Wales, offered by the organisation that I was placed with as a volunteer, with a diverse set of trainers from various NGOS who introduced us to everything from the humanitarian principles to the complexity of the UN system, programme management, and emergency communication.

Looking back, this was really a great overview of the sector, which you seldom get on a first job. I was sent with Save the Children (STC) to India, more precisely to the eastern state of Orissa which had then suffered heavy floods. It turned out to be quite challenging as I was part of a very small team deployed to provide support to two local NGOs who were implementing partners for STC, and who were dealing with their first emergency operation. It felt chaotic, and I was on a steep learning curve, but it was also a great opportunity to have real responsibilities and take on multiple roles.

Living in a provincial town with very few other foreigners, and not speaking the local language, wasn’t always easy – and the living conditions were quite tough: my living quarters were in the office which affected my work-private life balance so I used to escape to the swimming pool to get some time for myself! But overall it was a great learning experience, which got even better when I was deployed to southern India for the last two months, to support another emergency response, this time to a cyclone which had hit the area. I was then involved from the very beginning, from participating in needs assessments to planning of the project proposals and actual implementation of the humanitarian response, which was very rewarding.

What has been your career since then?

After that year in India I wanted to spend time back in Europe for personal reasons, and found a job as a communications consultant in Amsterdam with an NGO called Health Action International, which works more on advocacy and policy aspects. This also complemented my professional profile, but I missed the field, so I signed up to some humanitarian rosters, and in 2015 I got a job with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Iraq, as a partner support officer for the food security cluster, which involved coordinating with a lot of other actors. By then, I felt much more confident than I had been in India, I had matured and was much better prepared. I remember the training given to me by my sending organisation during the EU Aid Volunteers programme on the architecture of the UN system proved very useful at that point!

This was a short term assignment, and then I joined Relief International as a reporting and communication officer, also in Iraq, and stayed another six months. Finally I received an offer from UNHCR to join their team in Iran as an external relations and communication officer.  This was another great opportunity - and a promotion from a career perspective. I’ve been here almost two years now!  

Looking back, how would you say the EU Aid Volunteers has helped you professionally?

For me, the biggest benefit was really the opportunity to be able to enter the humanitarian sector. There are very few entry level jobs, and this gave me my first solid experience. I had studied international relations and development as a student, but this programme enabled me to bridge the gap between theory and practice. It also provided me with a good overview of the skills I needed to work in this sector, both thanks to the initial training and of course the actual deployment in the field. Thirdly, I was confronted very directly with the challenges of being a humanitarian worker in the field – particularly during my time in India, where the pressure, the lack of privacy and the isolation wasn’t always easy to manage.

Finally, it also provided me with a great network of professional contacts as my fellow volunteers have also pursued their careers since then, and now have jobs with various organisations in various parts of the world. We sometimes still call each other for professional advice!

Who would you recommend this programme to?

I would recommend it to all those who are looking for a first real experience in the humanitarian world, and to those who may already have some experience as volunteers in Europe doing social work but really need that first field experience on their CV to be credible when applying for jobs as an aid worker. It’s become such a competitive sector that it’s really tough to land that first job, and this is really a great way to make that jump.

The beauty of this programme is that it is literally open to everyone, regardless of your economic status of where you live, which can often be an impediment. But you have to really want it: you have to have that desire to travel, to be able to adapt to different countries cultures, and living conditions - and to be ready to go outside your comfort zone. 

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