By Paul Mundy, PhD. BSc Bristol 1978
If you’re studying geography, you’re probably interested in travel, and in other places and cultures. Maybe you’ve been to countries outside Europe and have done something other than sit on the beach. You’ve undoubtedly seen news stories about the developing world. Is a career in international development for you?
I’ve been working in international development since I left Bristol with a BSc geography in 1978. Since then, I’ve lived for several years each in Egypt, Indonesia, the USA and the Philippines. I now live in Germany, but that’s because my wife (whom I met in Indonesia) is German. I’ve been an independent consultant in development communication for the last 30+ years: I’ve done short-term consulting work in over 30 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia.
Is it for me?
I got into development work because I wanted to make a difference to the world. I feel it is fundamentally unjust that so many people are condemned to being poor (or worse) simply because of where they were born. Humanity is resourceful enough to solve this problem if we want to.
Apart from the underlying motivation of wanting to make the world a better place, you will need an understanding of cultural differences and the challenges you will face in developing countries. What works well in Europe does not necessarily function at all in Africa. (If it did, then Africa wouldn’t be classed as “developing”.) If you are the sort of person who gets frustrated when things don’t happen as expected, then development work may not be for you.
As a development worker, you will spend some of your time in luxury hotels and in air-conditioned offices in a capital city. But you’ll also spend hours bumping along dirt roads, and will stay in villages without electricity and running water. You must be adaptable and prepared to go out of your comfort zone. There will be mosquitoes and diarrhoea. But the rewards are, for me at least, much greater than spending your life in a regular job in your home country.
What sort of work is there?
Two types: emergencies, and development. Emergency work means responding to crises, such as floods, drought, famine and conflict. The aim is to save as many lives as possible, and to help people recover as quickly as possible. Think health care, food supplies, logistics, refugees. Geography grads often play a role in planning and logistics, as well as monitoring, mapping and impact evaluation.
“The rewards are, for me at least, much greater than spending your life in a regular job in your home country”
Development is the area I’m involved in, so I can say more about it. It covers a huge range. I’ve mainly worked in agricultural development, but there’s urban (half the world’s population now lives in cities), environment, health, governance, human rights, land, infrastructure, industrial development, natural resources, education… in fact, any field that you can imagine a geographer working in in the UK.
Development activities usually start with a problem: poverty, erosion, slums, climate change, non-functional markets, rotten roads, and so on. The government, or a donor or NGO, designs a project to deal with the problem. That may be at the local level – building infrastructure such as roads and bridges, setting up a factory, or helping farmers improve their irrigation practices.
Or it may be at the national level – designing policies, conducting research on farming techniques, or analysing national data to predict where the next drought is coming. Lots of work for geographers in their own field, as you can imagine. But geographers also find their way into other aspects of development, such as planning, monitoring and project management.
“Geography graduates are ideally placed to do this, they can offer skills such as GIS, evaluation, planning, analysis, monitoring, communication, and digital skills that are still scarce in the developing world”
Most developing countries have highly qualified professionals who can lead and implement projects. I am very often the only European on the team: all my colleagues, and my boss, are from the host country or from other parts of the developing world.
That means you will have to provide specific skills that are not available locally. Geography graduates are ideally placed to do this: they can offer skills such as GIS, evaluation, planning, analysis, monitoring, communication, digital skills, that are still scarce in the developing world.
Who would I work for?
The development sector consists of various players. There are bilateral and multilateral donors (like the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the World Bank), international organizations such as the UN and its specialized agencies, research organizations and think tanks, consultancy firms, and NGOs. There’s a fair amount of to-and-fro among these, with people switching from one to the other. Some organizations offer a career structure where you can rise up through the ranks, but most work with staff they hire on a project-by-project basis.
That is because of how the “aid industry” (and yes, people do use this term) is structured. One “game” is donor-funded projects. Bilateral donors and governments identify projects they want to fund, typically 1–5 years, which they then invite consultancy firms to bid for. The firms submit project proposals and assemble teams to do the work. The winning bid gets a contract, and the team members go out to the country to implement the project. There are typically a small number of (expensive) international team members, with a larger number of (cheaper) local staff. The staff may be long term, so live in the country for up to 5 years, or short-term, for several weeks or months at a time.
Here is a list of development consulting firms: https://www.betterworld.info/development-aid/organisations-institutions-campaigns/private-international-development-consulting-firms
International organizations include an alphabet soup of UN agencies: ILO, FAO, WHO, UNCCD, UNFCCC, IFAD, UN-Habitat, Unicef, UNEP, UNDP… (get used to acronyms if you work in development). They have a core staff and hire consultants for specific activities. I’ve worked for several of them as a consultant on a short-term basis. So has our son: he did a Bachelor’s in geography at the University of Marburg in Germany, then a Master’s in environmental and resource management. He used to work for FAO in Rome, and now works for IFAD (also in Rome). So far he has visited Sierra Leone, Tajikistan and Lesotho as part of his work with IFAD.
There’s a list of international organizations here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_intergovernmental_organizations
Then there are international NGOs. Well-known British ones include Action Aid, Cafod, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision. Many of these are church-affiliated. There are lots of smaller NGOs too, some of which have paid staff. These organizations may have their own sources of funds (think charity shops and tin-rattling in the shopping centre, as well as endowments). They design and implement their own projects, and have their own staff to manage them. They may also bid for donor-funded projects. The bigger NGOs have offices in their target countries to manage their programmes in those countries. I prefer working for NGOs over other types of clients: they are freer to plan their own activities and are not so tied to the bureaucracy that can stifle government and international agencies.
There’s a list of international NGOs here: https://www.betterworld.info/development-aid/organisations-institutions-campaigns/international-ngos-general-multi-sectoral
Research organizations. In agriculture, a network of international institutes conducts research on the major staple food crops (rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and so on), as well as livestock, water, biodiversity, etc. Most of them are organized under the CGIAR, https://www.cgiar.org/. They mostly employ agricultural scientists, but also do a lot of work with a spatial dimension.
Think tanks do research and generate advice for policymakers. They cover a whole range of issues, from macroeconomics to conflict to urban development to environment. In the UK they are concentrated in London and in university cities.
Universities also do some international work, but this depends on department, the interests of the individual faculty members, and the availability of funding. Some universities have departments that specialize on international development.
Where would I work?
Many people start out, as I did, “in the field”, working on projects in various developing countries for several years, before settling down somewhere. That “somewhere” may be in the developing world, in your home country, or somewhere else (I have ended up in Germany).
In developing countries, projects are often based in the capital city, with frequent trips out into the field. You’ll have to find somewhere to live (the project administration will help you) and navigate through the local bureaucracy (ditto). You’ll need to get vaccinations against various nasty diseases, and your intestinal tract will have to get used to the local spices. Sensitive stomach? Give it a couple of years and hope it settles down.
A surprising number of international development jobs aren’t in developing countries. There are the management and coordination jobs in donor countries like the UK, as well as jobs in cities where many international organizations have set up home: New York, Geneva, Rome, Bonn, Nairobi. But these organizations often have a policy of rotating staff between their headquarters and their country and regional offices. Be prepared to move a lot.
However, an increasing number of jobs can be done remotely from home. I used to travel a lot (I got very tired of airports), but have not travelled due to corona since 2019. I’ve been busy nonetheless: for much of the work I do, I do not actually need to be in-country.
That said, experience and understanding of the local situation is vital. I would not be nearly as effective in my work if I had not seen many of the situations first-hand over the years.
Do I have to learn the local language?
Because English is the more widely used language internationally, you will probably spend most of your time using English. Most of the people you work with will probably speak English too.
But it’s a good idea to learn the local language if you stay in a country for any length of time. There are various reasons for this. You will be more effective, you will be less isolated from the local society, and you will enjoy your time in the country much more. And it’s also only polite. Brits tend to sneer at foreigners in the UK who can’t speak English. Imagine the situation in reverse: surely we should act in the same way as we expect of others.
Learning the local language can be tough if everyone around you speaks English. I picked up Indonesian quickly (it’s an easy language to learn) as well as Arabic (more difficult). But my Tagalog is rudimentary as so many Filipinos speak English. And I’ve never learned Swahili or Amharic, although I’ve been to East Africa many times. I did learn some Vietnamese while I was on short-term assignments in Hanoi: I hired someone to teach me the basics. Actually, I did this to get away from my boss, who wanted to go out on the town every evening. He was a charming guy, but I needed to get other stuff done. “Sorry Colin, I’ve got a Vietnamese lesson this evening” was the perfect excuse: I could pick up some language and then have some time to myself afterwards.
“It’s a good idea to learn the local language if you stay in a country for any length of time”
Languages help to get international jobs, too. The UN official languages, apart from English, are Arabic, Chinese. French, Russian and Spanish. Speaking at least one of these languages may be important to get you a job in a UN organization. And if you’re fluent in (say) French, you have a good chance of getting work in West Africa.
How can I get into international development?
It’s tricky: it’s one of those fields where you often have to have experience in order to get a job. But how do you get experience to begin with?
Volunteering used to be a good way in. That’s what I did. I knew early on that I wanted to work internationally, but I didn’t know what. So I volunteered with Voluntary Service Overseas. I spent two years teaching English in Egypt at a school, and then volunteered for another two years in Indonesia, also teaching English, this time at an agricultural research institute. My students, the researchers, were supposed to learn English so they could go to Australia or the USA to do their master’s or PhDs. But researchers always have something better to do than learning English (or maybe I wasn’t a very good teacher?), so fewer and fewer came to my lessons. Meanwhile, my boss, the head of the institute’s communication department, started giving me editing to do. Which is how I got into communication.
After my VSO stint, my boss arranged a local contract for me through a development project. After six years in Indonesia, I went to the USA to do my master’s and PhD in communication, and have worked as a consultant in this field ever since.
That’s actually a fairly typical trajectory for geographers, or indeed for many disciplines. You start off in a field, then go and do something else that is related to it, building on and developing your skills as you go. I now mostly write and edit information materials; geography has given me the background I need to understand many of the concepts and issues involved. And I’m now having to learn stuff that the current batch of geography undergrads are also dealing with: I’m involved in a project on pastoralism, and we need to create maps to put online. So I’m having to learn QGIS.
VSO, GVI, ICS, IVS, UNV (yes, lots of acronyms – look them up) and Raleigh International are ways to get experience as a volunteer in developing countries and to find out whether international development work is for you. Even if it’s not, volunteering, whether abroad or at home, is a fantastic experience: it gives you experiences that you would never otherwise have, and teaches you a lot about yourself. Some volunteer programmes pay a small salary; for others, you must pay a fee or raise the money yourself. Our son volunteered for a year in Lesotho, where he farmed a field for some orphaned children in the mornings and taught the project staff computer skills in the afternoons.
Here’s a list of international voluntary organizations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:International_volunteer_organizations
The junior professional officer programme is a common way to get a starting-level job in the United Nations system. That is how our son got his first job at FAO. There’s information on UN junior professional officers here: https://www.un.org/development/desa/jpo/
For IFAD: https://www.ifad.org/en/jpo-programme
A master’s degree is probably necessary if you want to work for an international organization, either in international development or a field that is directly applicable to development work, such as GIS. If you want to work at a research institute or university, then you’ll need a PhD.
Here’s a list of master’s courses on development studies in the UK: https://www.findamasters.com/masters-degrees/united-kingdom/development-studies/?70wnYXO400
Finally, here is a useful list of websites on working in international development: https://www.ids.ac.uk/download.php?file=files/dmfile/AListofUsefulWebsitesforWorkinginInternationalDevelopment.pdf
Feel free to get in touch if you’d like more information. Good luck with your studies and with your career choice!
Header Image: Louie E Bell