Michelle Sanson
11 April 2018

A life of purpose: How to get into a career in humanitarian work

Published on 11 April 2018

Michelle Sanson (pictured, third from left) is doing the kind of work that inspired generations of law students to go to law school. In addition to an illustrious career as a human rights law lecturer, Michelle has worked for UN Women as a Gender and Protection Specialist, and as a Protection Advisor for the World Food Programme. Her work has taken her to places affected by conflict and natural disaster, like Bangladesh to assist with Rohingya crisis, Philippines to assist with typhoon response, to Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to assist Syrian refugees, and to the disaster-prone Pacific region.

Insights spoke to Michelle about her work, what she finds most fulfilling about what she does, and how lawyers and law students can pursue a career in humanitarian work.

“There are heaps of jobs in the field,” said Michelle, dispelling a common misconception that the field offers little work for lawyers. “A proportionately high amount of workers are Australians, so lawyers and law students should not be discouraged. You just need to be persistent.”

Michelle recommends firstly gaining some form of experience in the field, especially as a law student or young lawyer.

“Look at avenues for gaining experience like doing some work with Australian Red Cross or refugee advocacy centres, followed by an internship. To be given a job, you need to demonstrate that you can function in an overseas environment and in a different culture. You also need to reflect some sense of how the sector works besides what you might have done learnt in your studies.”

While some roles are listed as volunteer, Michelle noted that a stipend is often provided to cover living costs in lieu of salary.

However, if lawyers have some degree of prior experience, they can look into directly applying for jobs.

“Have a look at reliefweb.int under jobs, and choose a theme – for example ‘protection and human rights’. See what sort of jobs are available and what is required.”

For lawyers looking to do keep their day job but keen to gain experience for a specific period of time, Michelle advised looking at the RedR Australia roster.

“You could work full time and take blocks of time of 3-6 months to work on specific emergencies.”

The standby roster is open to applicants and allows United Nations agencies, international non-government organisations and the Australian government to access experts trained in specialist fields, including water and sanitation, engineering, nutrition, coordination, shelter, logistics, public health, protection, information management, project management and communications during a humanitarian crisis. Lawyers mainly work in ‘protection’, implementing protections under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and refugee law.

What is most notable about those who choose humanitarian work is their humility.

I always find amazing people in every place I work and travel – each organisation has a team of national staff beavering away without a lot of fanfare, getting in there and making a real difference on the ground. Working with them in the field helps us to share our knowledge – they learn from me about the rights people who are displaced or affected by conflict or natural disaster have, and how we can promote safety and maintain dignity in times of crisis, including making sure we consult with people of different gender, age, disability and other diversity. So I find it fulfilling to learn and see the world, meet incredible people and share our knowledge and experience,” Michelle said.

Michelle’s work brings her to the world’s hotspots of conflict and natural disaster. In the past year, she helped with disaster preparedness in the Pacific ahead of Cyclone Donna. Based out of Fiji, she had field missions to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

I’m currently working in Bangladesh, for both the Rohingya refugees and the local community that is hosting them. I’m deployed through RedR Australia with the World Food Programme, which is feeding over 800,000 people and providing special nutritional food for about 33,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and close to 120,000 children under five years of age.”

“My work involves identifying protection risks and advising how they can be mitigated. I look at how diverse groups of people experience a crisis differently, see where entrenched inequalities can result in the exclusion of or discrimination against some people, and look at how we can ensure voice for the voiceless and visibility for the invisible. This includes people who may rarely leave their shelters, be it for cultural reasons or due to injury, trauma or disability.”