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How much can you earn defending human rights?

Many students dream of becoming human rights advocates, but when faced with the choice between a Master’s of Economics or a Master’s of Human Rights, the financial burden of the latter is usually tips the balance in favor to the former. But is that a misconception? After all, how much does a human right advocate actually make?

Get ready for those unpaid internships 

Unfortunately, everyone who works in the human rights field has has some experience with unpaid internships or extensive volunteer work. Many human rights organizations have limited staff and resources, so unpaid interns and volunteers are very critical to their operations. Usually, human rights organizations also deal with sensitive subjects, so they prefer to know people before hiring them. Often, unpaid positions become paid ones. From the perspective of a human rights organization, once they know the person is reliable and committed to their work, that justifies the required investment. Although it can be disheartening, keep in mind that unpaid positions can be a trial test, and many organizations will be more than glad to pay you once you have proven your worth.

Proving your worth and competence to an organization can also help you get a job with another trusted partner organization. In my case, a previous internship solidified my reputation as a independent and trustworthy worker. Once I was looking for a proper job, the personal and professional connections between my former supervisor and my current employer made all the difference to ensure I had a shot at my current position.

Before accepting an unpaid position, however, try to research as much as you can about the organization. In many countries, organizations prey on young volunteers and unpaid interns to keep them afloat. It is also better to have good references on the organization from previous volunteers and employees, to make sure they are trustworthy. When I first started looking for internships and volunteer positions, I ran across many ads and proposals which now I know were either fraudulent, dangerous or just a waste of time.

Salary Comparisons

According to the United Nations, the average salary of a Human Rights Officer with a year of experience is usually around $39,000 a year. There might be some variations, depending on the country you are working in.

In Canada, the lowest salaries for the human rights field are around $36,000 a year, so slightly lower than UN ones.

Such salaries are slightly better than the average Elementary School Teacher salary in the United States. Although it is not miserable pay, the studies and experience required to become human rights advocate are costly, so make sure this is really the career path you are passionate about before applying to expensive Master programs.

For those with an acuity for the law, the pay increases slightly. Usually, the starting salary for a civil rights lawyer in the United States is $45,000 a year.

Of course, the salaries will always depend on the resources of your organization and how much they invest in their own workers. At my current position, my salary is higher than the salary of many friends who invested in more “financially stable” careers, just because there are so many engineers, IT professionals, managers, etc., that people easily become disposable and the average entry salary fell as a result. Meanwhile, graduates of human rights specialized in women’s rights are not as common (except in major hubs such as Geneva, New York or Brussels).

It can take you longer to find a paid position, but once you have secured one, the starting salary is not as limited as you might think.

What about senior positions?

If you dedicate your entire career to human rights, your financial rewards vary dramatically from country to country. While in the UK senior positions are usually limited to $56,000 dollars a year, in Canada your salary might reach $132,942. In the United States, a civil rights lawyer might make up to $200,000 annually.

So, maybe all those unpaid internships are worth it!

Although, again, it really depends on your organization. Some organizations pay extraordinary amounts of money to senior staff, while others prefer to keep the salaries somewhat “sensible” and invest in the projects and activities of the organization instead. I believe the latter to be a perfectly logical choice and it would be concerning if the human rights field started to copy the corporate model of huge pay discrepancies between employees. 

Not in it for the money

One thing that differentiates people who aim to work in human rights, as opposed to other sectors, is the goal to do meaningful work and make a difference. Many positions at advocacy organizations are exhausting, and so it requires a lot of persistence to be a human rights advocate. When money is a key factor, consider that funding for human rights projects and human rights defenders can vary drastically due to changing political climates and priorities.

In many European countries, for example, the lack of organizations dedicated to philanthropy means that human rights organizations have to rely on government funding. Obviously, that carries a risk and limits the salaries that organizations are allowed to pay employees.

Still, for most human rights advocates – many of which are actually unpaid, particularly in the Global South – what matters a great deal is the product of your work. A new law, an innovative policy, or a political prisoner being freed- that’s what keeps you going. Having passion in this value-driven career is the one thing that matters most.

For me, as long as I can pay for my expenses and save some money, the salary is not the most important thing. It’s hard to get into the human rights field, but once you do, it’s even harder to leave it.

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