In your role as an international aid/development worker, you will focus on meeting the needs of people and communities in the developing world...

You will seek to work with developing countries to set up long-term, sustainable solutions to problems. You could also work on development projects in fields such as education, sanitation, health and agriculture, as well as in urban, rural and small business development.

Work in this sector is diverse and encompasses:

  • conflict;
  • disaster preparedness;
  • economics;
  • education;
  • environment;
  • forced migration;
  • gender equality;
  • governance;
  • healthcare;
  • human rights;
  • infrastructure;
  • livelihoods;
  • security.

Types of international aid/development worker

Career areas include:

  • administration;
  • research;
  • fundraising;
  • training;
  • consultancy;
  • advocacy;
  • relief work;
  • economist roles;
  • medicine;
  • engineering;
  • planning.

There is currently a shortage of doctors and water engineers.

Humanitarian and disaster relief work may call for highly specific skills and experience and usually involves short-term assignments.

Responsibilities

Your job will vary according to seniority, organisation, project or employer and location of the role (UK or overseas), but may typically include:

  • administering the day-to-day work of an office or team;
  • managing, monitoring and evaluating projects;
  • conducting needs assessments;
  • organising fundraising;
  • researching and writing project proposals and reports;
  • strategic planning for long-term development and/or disaster management to reduce the need for crisis intervention;
  • evaluating the response required in fast-moving emergency situations;
  • managing budgets and allocating resources;
  • drafting funding proposals to ensure the future of specific overseas programmes;
  • recruiting, managing and training staff and volunteers;
  • developing relationships with partner organisations in the field and encouraging capacity building;
  • communicating effectively with relevant internal and external stakeholders including volunteers, clients, partners and donors;
  • negotiating and liaising with public bodies and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs);
  • implementing security procedures to ensure the safety of staff working in unstable areas, maintaining an overview of the security situation and making appropriate decisions;
  • lobbying and advocacy to represent the needs of poor communities to sponsors, governments and the public.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for UK-based (mostly London) roles with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing administrative support to overseas programmes, e.g. team administrator, coordinator, research assistant, is £18,000 to £25,000.
  • Salaries for UK posts with a minimum of three years' experience, e.g. project manager or policy manager, is £25,000 to £40,000. Relatively few managerial or directorial posts in a higher salary bracket are available.
  • 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.

Working hours

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 Skillshare International (Leicester and Dublin). International organisations, such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Oxfam, 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.

Qualifications

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:

  • economics;
  • human rights;
  • international development or development studies;
  • languages;
  • logistics;
  • medicine, nursing and other health-related subjects;
  • social policy;
  • water or sanitation engineering.

Entry without a degree is unlikely unless applicants have substantial relevant experience.

It is 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.

It is also possible to pursue postgraduate courses in international development management, international development studies, international health management, aid management, global social policy and other development-related courses.

Search for postgraduate courses in international development.

A background in areas such as finance, IT, fundraising, HR or marketing may offer an alternative entry point into development agencies for those seeking to work in development without being directly involved in managing overseas projects.

Applicants need to recognise that international aid/development is a challenging and extremely competitive career area to break into. It is essential to do some research and raise your level of knowledge and understanding of how the sector and organisations operate before applying.

Skills

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.

Work experience

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. The 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.

2Way Development is a UK-registered social enterprise that places volunteers with established development charities in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East for a fixed fee of £850.

Employers

Development and emergency aid organisations employ more than 100,000 people worldwide. Charities and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are the main employers of aid/development workers.

NGOs include voluntary and religious organisations. 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, although note the UK government is not currently sponsoring JPO positions.

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.

Major international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN), base their employment intake on which countries are underrepresented in their international quotas. Internships are offered by various UN organisations. 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) for planners with an interest in planning and international development.

Look for job vacancies at:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Vocational training tends to be delivered through volunteering, internships and short courses. RedR offers one to three-day introductory courses on relief work, and BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) and Medair also run relevant short courses. The World Service Enquiry (WSE) publishes booklets on volunteering and working in aid/development, which are suitable for those in the early stages of seeking a job in the sector.

Details of other short courses are listed on the DSA website.

The DFID provides its staff with a comprehensive induction process designed to help them do their job effectively as quickly as possible and to identify their individual learning needs. As each person's career develops, they are 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.

Engineers and vocational degree holders are usually members of their relevant professional bodies and may work towards professional accreditation or chartered status. They may participate in relevant professional training.

Career prospects

There is no one set career pathway for international aid/development workers. You need to carve your own career and make a careful assessment of your own skills and abilities. You have to be prepared to review and change your career plans as development priorities shift.

The public sector may offer graduates more structured career development. Development specialists in the DFID work for up to five years in the UK and abroad before achieving adviser status.

A vertical career path within one non-governmental organisation (NGO) is unlikely. Moving between agencies 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.

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.

For those with appropriate experience, short-term humanitarian relief and emergency aid assignments may form part of long-term career development within, for example, healthcare or engineering.

For engineering-based volunteer opportunities, see Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Personnel are sourced from registers of screened specialists, such as RedR and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who may be seconded at short notice from their usual employment.