Life on assignment

Life on assignment


Everyone’s motivation for working overseas is different but we see some commonalities within our teams:

  • a desire to dedicate part of one’s life to assisting people who need help
  • a genuine interest in people from other cultures
  • an ability to share knowledge, experience and skills with others
  • an interest to challenge oneself professionally, personally and culturally
  • a willingness to invest personally by being away from family and friends for an extended period

Working on assignment

Despite the opportunities, and no matter how strong your motivation is, humanitarian work is not a decision to be taken lightly. Life on assignment is full of challenges and frustration, as well as enormous satisfaction and reward.

Projects may be located in the most remote places in the world, often in harsh environments with limited resources and amenities. This can mean rudimentary medical equipment and supplies, different food (often cabbage, beans and lentils), interesting housemates (snakes, bats, scorpions) and few leisure outlets (jogging on the landing strip).

Nevertheless, Médecins Sans Frontières ensures adequate accommodation, appropriate water and sanitation standards, access to the internet wherever possible, and even clean laundry.

A special camaraderie emerges amongst members of a project team who come from different countries, backgrounds and experience. This creates a shared sense of purpose, sparking ingenuity and resourcefulness in getting things done, and a lot of spontaneous fun.

Are you ready?

You should be aware of some issues internationally mobile staff often face when working and living in unfamiliar environments under extremely difficult and stressful conditions.

The below exercise is not a psychological test. It is designed to help you assess your motivation, professional aspirations and emotional well-being.

In other words it is a space to think about yourself, your commitment to humanitarian aid in the types of contexts where we are present and about some of the constraints you may face while providing this aid.

Before you apply

Please consider the following information carefully before you submit your application.

By applying to work with Médecins Sans Frontières you should be aware that the organisation strives to provide access to healthcare for the most vulnerable populations in countries where:

  • Human rights abuses may take place
  • Homosexuality may be punishable by law
  • Women, children and men, depending on their social, ethnic or tribal origin, may not enjoy rights commonly accepted and recognised in our home societies
  • Rape may be used as a weapon of war
  • Infectious diseases and epidemics are common
  • People may not have access to essential drugs or services we recognise as standard in our home societies

We are looking for people with personal, technical and professional skills that allow them to easily adapt to different cultures, difficult living conditions and stressful environments.

Flexibility and adaptability are two essential qualities for work overseas. Our projects need individuals who thrive in constantly changing environments.

Security and safety

Our purpose is to bring medical assistance to people in distress, so the work may occur in settings of active conflict, or in post-conflict environments, in which there are inherent risks, potential danger, and ongoing threats to safety and security. It is impossible to exclude all risks, but we do our utmost as an organisation to mitigate these risks through comprehensive security management.

Each assignment has strict, detailed safety regulations and security plans in place based on thorough analysis of that specific context. Risks are continually monitored and security regulations are updated as needed. Once on assignment, all MSF staff must observe security rules and regulations; failure to do so may result in dismissal.

Your project’s security and safety regulations may restrict your freedom of movement or your ability to interact with local populations outside of working hours. You may be under curfew and required to remain in the staff compound when your working day is over. It is important to consider these possible restrictions before you apply to work overseas. People cope in different ways, so it is important to think about how you will manage, particularly if you have difficulty being confined to the same place for long periods of time.

Working for Médecins Sans Frontières is a deeply personal choice; individuals must determine for themselves the level of risk and the circumstances in which they feel comfortable. All internationally mobile staff are given an introduction to safety and security during the Welcome Days training, and briefed about country specific security prior to departure and on arrival at a project. The organisation is transparent about the risks involved. Prospective internationally mobile staff can decline a placement if they do not feel comfortable taking the risk of working in a specific context and once on mission, if you feel the risk is too great then you may also ask to return home at any time.

Before leaving for assignment you must accept that security is an individual, team and organisational responsibility, not solely an organisational one.

It is worth considering the following questions:

  • Do you have difficulty being confined to the same place for long periods?
  • Is the only reason you are considering working overseas to experience life in a new and different country?
  • Do you have some hobbies or leisure activities that can be done within a confined space, where  access to technology may also be limited?

Living Conditions

Working overseas with Médecins Sans Frontières will require you to adjust to unfamiliar food, living quarters, pace of life, forms of entertainment, languages and companions you may or may not get on well with. Regardless of where you go, it will be a very different lifestyle and your privacy and leisure time may be greatly reduced. You may not be able to practice your favourite sports, socialise outside the team or have internet access for the duration of your placement.

  • Could you handle severe weather conditions such as extreme heat or cold, high humidity, heavy rains or dry desert conditions for long periods without access to a fan, air conditioning or heater?
  • Can you tolerate unfamiliar animals such as insects?
  • Are you happy to use with long-drop toilets? Or have a bucket shower by candlelight every day (due to limited access to electricity and perhaps running water)?
  • Are you happy to eat local foods such as rice and beans for most meals for months at a time? 
  • Can you adapt to having limited privacy, few opportunities for socialising and only intermittent internet access?

Cross Culture

Working in an unfamiliar culture inevitably involves challenges in communication and perceptions. You may be in a country where people have a very different understanding of issues like punctuality at work, responsible behaviour or respect for personal space.

Being aware and tolerant of people who may not act or think like you is of the utmost importance. Reflect on your capacity to live closely with, and show respect to, people with beliefs and cultures that differ from yours.

  • Have you ever lived within a culture that is totally different from the one you grew up in?
  • Are you open to accepting there is more than one way of doing things, and that your way may not necessarily be 'right' in all contexts?
  • Do you enjoy the challenge of communicating with those from different language and/or cultural backgrounds to your own?

Personal/ Family

Going overseas means leaving your loved ones behind for long periods of time – usually nine to 12 months.

Some people see humanitarian aid work as a way to heal or escape from difficult personal situations. This is never a good idea. Give some thought to the impact of putting your personal life on hold for up to a year.

Also consider the impact of working in a difficult environment on your state of mind. Leaving for assignment may be exciting, but returning from an assignment during which you may have witnessed traumatic events can be quite difficult for you and your relatives.

  • Have you assessed the impact of putting your personal life in Australia or New Zealand 'on hold' for up to a year?
  • Can you cope with keeping in touch on an infrequent and/or irregular basis, perhaps even just once every couple of months?
  • Can your friends and family cope with that too?


Humanitarian work is often highly stressful, particularly in emergency contexts. A wide range of issues can cause stress and drain your motivation to work: strained relations with teammates, health problems, lack of communication with your friends and relatives back home, insecurity, frequent changes in the project, difficult relations with local authorities, poor living conditions and diet.

Think about the way you handle stress in your daily life. Be honest with yourself. If you fear problems and seek to avoid them at all costs, then overseas is probably not for you. Being part of a team requires you to be in a problem-solving state of mind.

  • Are you able to address problems and/or conflicts as they arise?
  • Have you ever lived and worked with the same people for extended periods?
  • Are you a good communicator and facilitator? Do people describe you as a good listener? Do you find ways to solve problems between colleagues and between friends?
  • Can you put aside personal issues in order to complete your work?
  • Are you able to reflect on and adapt your behaviour to manage a situation?

Final Thoughts

These issues are meant to be a reality check about what working overseas on assignment may entail. We hope that you have given them serious thought.

While it is essential to keep all of this in mind, don't forget that thousands of people have worked with us over the years and found their experiences to be challenging and ultimately very rewarding. For many of us, going to on assignment has been a life-changing event.

Working for Médecins Sans Frontières is not simply seeking adventure or wanting a job. By becoming a humanitarian you are acting in solidarity with populations in need.

Keen to move forward? Review our Application Process.

Need further information? Read our FAQs and attend a Recruitment Event.

Not sure if overseas work is for you? Thank you for your interest in Médecins Sans Frontières, please learn about other ways you can get involved.