International aid/development workers provide aid and assistance to people and communities in the developing world
Humanitarian aid work often involves responding to emergency situations, helping those affected by natural and man-made disasters, such as earthquakes and war.
As an international aid/development worker, you'll work with developing countries to set up long-term, sustainable solutions to problems. Working on development projects in fields such as education, sanitation, health and agriculture. You may also be involved with the development of urban and rural areas and small businesses.
Types of international aid work
Work in this sector is diverse and encompasses:
- disaster preparedness
- forced migration
- gender equality
- human rights
You could work within one or more of the following areas:
- relief work
- economist roles
As an international aid/development worker, you'll need to:
- administer the day-to-day work of an office or team
- manage, monitor and evaluate projects
- conduct needs assessments
- organise fundraising
- research and write project proposals and reports
- carry out strategic planning for long-term development and/or disaster management to reduce the need for crisis intervention
- evaluate the response required in fast-moving emergency situations
- manage budgets and allocate resources
- draft funding proposals to ensure the future of specific overseas programmes
- recruit, manage and train staff and volunteers
- develop relationships with partner organisations in the field and encourage capacity building
- communicate effectively with relevant internal and external stakeholders including volunteers, clients, partners and donors
- negotiate and liaise with public bodies and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
- implement security procedures to ensure the safety of staff working in unstable areas - maintaining an overview of the security situation and making appropriate decisions
- represent the needs of poor communities by advocating, and lobbying sponsors, governments and the public.
- Typical starting salaries for UK-based (mostly London) roles with NGOs providing administrative support to overseas programmes, such as team administrator, coordinator or research assistant, range from £18,000 to £25,000.
- Salaries for UK posts with experience, e.g. project manager, policy manager or programme development adviser, are in the range of £25,000 to £50,000.
- An overseas post requiring extensive experience, e.g. regional or country programme manager, field coordinator, specialist engineers, logisticians, can earn you £21,000 to £37,000. This varies widely depending on responsibility, skills, organisation and base country.
Direct comparison with UK rates is complicated, as pay may be supplemented with items including accommodation, travel, medical allowances, hardship allowances, passage back to the UK and allowances for partners and children. It may also be taxed differently.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Overseas working hours may be long and unpredictable, particularly in emergency relief situations.
Part-time work is unlikely for overseas posts. Fixed-term contracts, ranging from a few months to three years, are typical for overseas postings - making career breaks, as well as periods of unemployment between assignments, a possibility.
What to expect
- UK roles are mostly office-based. Overseas posts may combine office and field-based work.
- Many NGOs have headquarters in London with far fewer jobs available regionally. Exceptions include World Vision UK (Milton Keynes) and international organisations, such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Oxfam, which have opportunities nationwide.
- The Department for International Development (DFID) employs staff in East Kilbride, Scotland as well as in London.
- Overseas locations include both cities and remote locations, such as refugee camps or educational programmes in small towns and villages. Frequent relocation between overseas postings is common and those with partners or dependants should be aware that some postings are unaccompanied.
- Work locations may include areas of political instability, natural disaster and medical hazard, all of which pose some risk to personal security.
- Short trips to visit projects in the field may add up to several weeks or months per year in some UK jobs. Internationally based staff may spend up to 50% of their time travelling within their country or region.
Many people who enter this area of work have a degree in social sciences or a relevant vocational subject, although not all posts require a particular degree. The following subjects may increase your chances:
- human rights
- international development or development studies
- medicine, nursing and other health-related subjects
- social policy
- water or sanitation engineering.
Entry without a degree is unlikely, unless you can demonstrate substantial relevant experience.
It's a good idea to get some work experience in development before starting a postgraduate course. This will provide context for further studies and also help to identify the most relevant academic or professional qualification to undertake.
Postgraduate courses are available in subjects such as international development management, international development studies, international health management, aid management and global social policy.
A background in areas such as finance, IT, fundraising, HR or marketing may offer you an alternative entry point into development agencies, if you wish to work in development without being directly involved in managing overseas projects.
International aid/development is a challenging and extremely competitive career area to break into. It's essential to do some research and raise your level of knowledge and understanding of how the sector and organisations operate before applying.
You will need to show:
- the ability to relate to and communicate with a range of people
- problem-solving skills and the ability to operate effectively under pressure
- the ability to build and maintain effective relationships in changing teams
- management of both people and projects and the ability to motivate others
- drive and determination to achieve results and initiate action
- the ability to manage the workload, prioritise tasks and delegate when necessary
- cross-cultural sensitivity
- self-awareness and organisational awareness
- patience and a willingness to adopt a long-term view
- the ability to learn and to acquire new skills rapidly and the flexibility to transfer learning from one situation to another
- operational decision-making skills
- willingness to live and travel in basic conditions
- language skills - French, Spanish and Portuguese are often requested and knowledge of Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Swahili or other African and Asian languages may be advantageous, depending on the region
- highly specific skills and experience - may be required for humanitarian and disaster relief assignments.
The key to getting your first post in the sector is relevant previous experience. Getting relevant voluntary or paid work experience is essential during, or following study, either overseas or in the UK.
Most university students' unions offer opportunities to volunteer. Internships can often be taken during summer vacations. Formal internship schemes are more common in larger charities such as:
Organisations that provide information and advice about getting involved in volunteering include:
Most routes to gaining overseas experience require some self-funding. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) runs a programme open to applicants with relevant post-qualification experience. VSO's International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme is a programme for 18 to 25 year-olds that provides an opportunity to work with its partners in over 40 countries. It also runs team leader placements for 23 to 35-year-olds.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
International development and emergency aid organisations are the main employers of international aid/development workers. These can be either government departments, such as the Department for International Development (DFID), or more commonly NGOs.
NGOs include voluntary and religious organisations and they vary in size, structure, regional focus and their capacity to employ paid staff. Some offer predominantly UK-based roles in finance, fundraising or overseas project management. Some deploy experienced staff in developing countries.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administers the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme, which provides hands-on experience to young professionals (usually aged under 32) pursuing a career in development. JPOs are sponsored by their respective governments.
Employment for recent graduates and those with a relevant Masters degree and experience is offered by The World Bank. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) also employs postgraduates. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) employs graduates with Masters or PhD qualifications in economics.
There is usually fierce competition for positions at the major international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO). If you’re lucky enough to be able to get a place on a recruitment programme such as the Young Professionals Programme, this will boost your career prospects enormously. To be eligible for this particular programme, you must have the nationality of a participating country. The list of participating countries is published annually and varies from year to year.
A comprehensive list of all United Nations websites is available through the United Nations System of Organisations.
The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has set up an International Development Network (IDN) newsletter for planners with an interest in planning and international development.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND)
- ReliefWeb - also lists organisations working on humanitarian projects.
The World Service Enquiry (WSE) offers information and careers advice through a range of specialist services.
If you choose to work for the DFID, you'll be given a comprehensive induction. The aim of this is to help you do your job effectively and individual learning needs will be identified. You'll be able to choose from a range of training options, including traditional training courses, conferences and seminars, e-learning, coaching, mentoring and job shadowing.
Not-for-profit organisations are not usually able to offer as much formal in-house training as other organisations, as there tends to be less funding available for staff training.
If you're an engineering graduate or hold a vocational degree, you can join your relevant professional body and may also be able to work towards professional accreditation or chartered status. You may also be able to participate in relevant professional training.
There is no one set career pathway for international aid/development workers. You'll need to carve your own career according to your own skills and abilities. Moving between NGOs to gain experience is common, often with a mix of UK and overseas posts. Competition is intense for domestic and international posts. Working overseas may be difficult without higher or specialised qualifications, for example in health promotion, micro-finance or logistics.
The public sector may offer more structured career development. Development specialists in the DFID work for up to five years in the UK and abroad before achieving adviser status.
Posts such as country or regional programme manager generally require at least five years' experience. Recruitment at this level is increasingly global, with a noticeable move towards appointing well-qualified nationals with the appropriate cultural background. There is a growing trend for organisations to decentralise and base themselves in, or close to, the developing countries in which they are involved.
Consultancy may be an option after you have gained considerable experience, although there may be increased competition for consultancies in certain countries.