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International Development: Coping with Intensive Work Abroad

Working in the challenging, satisfying, strange, confusing and rewarding world of international development has taken me first of all to Tajikistan and following this to Afghanistan where I’ve been for 18 months and counting. It’s certainly a job with as many ups as downs, but overall you’ll find it a hugely rewarding and fascinating choice.

Getting started…

Starting out, you’ll find that your clearest asset will likely be your English skills, as many organisations look for native speakers or those with an advanced level of English to work on formulating proposals and reports for donors, which is exactly where I started out. However, the sector is one which encourages you to take on new and challenging roles and offers opportunities aplenty.

Alternatively, you might find that your particular skills, say in engineering, medicine, or finance, puts you onto a more specific path, but whilst offering you great opportunities to benefit others with a good deal of travelling to boot. Of course, this is really just a summary of my own opinions on international development and my place in it; no doubt those of other people will differ immensely!

Give me the gist…

International development itself is still an evolving sector that is characterised and formed by a multitude of actors, approaches and challenges. Broadly speaking, the purpose is to work with communities and assisting them to improve their overall standard of living. Sound vague? Well, it is without the specific context of where you are working. This is because the nature and severity of the problem you are seeking to address will vary greatly from country-to-country and even by area within a given country. This problem might be meeting the basic food and nutritional needs of a refugee population devastated by war, or training a group of farmers as they seek to form a cooperative.

Either way, your actions could help to improve the lives of the people you work with and provide a better chance for them to improve their health, nutrition, economic wellbeing and access to services; basically everything that most of us are lucky to rarely think about.

Why is it important?

Well, there are many reasons, but for me the first is that many of the problems that exist in developing nations are cyclical and tie people into vicious circles of poverty and disease. Secondly, I believe people just flat out deserve a better chance in life; they shouldn’t fear for their health when drinking water, know that if they get sick they can’t reach medical care because the roads are too poor, or be unable to read and write even their own name.

The way in which your work will address these issues will depend firstly on your specific skills, and secondly on the organisation you choose to work for. Some organisations target a specific issue in their mandate, such as refugees or access to water, whereas some will adapt their work based on the needs of that specific country. Both of these approaches have their merits and drawbacks, but it’s important to bear this in mind when applying for jobs and to spend time assessing the organisation’s approach and objectives and how compatible they are with your own.

What’s it like day-to-day?

It might sound strange at first, but my daily routine in Afghanistan is often exactly that; a routine. I work in an office and have regular hours, although these tend to move in peaks and troughs with the workload! However, I am fortunate enough to work closely every day with around 20 Afghans as we try our best to assist the communities we work in.

My daily work as a programme manager is to ensure that all components of our two projects are moving along and are being completed to a high standard. This makes my days varied with project and financial planning and meeting with the field staff forming the core part of my tasks. However, by far and away, the best days are those in which you go to the communities you work with to discuss the progress of the projects and find solutions together to problems that have been found.

The warmth and friendliness of people in dire situations never fails to amaze me and working with them makes your day, even if the situation itself can be frustrating at the same time. Additionally, you’ll learn as much about yourself as you will anything else. Working abroad, and more specifically for an NGO, has changed how I view life and what I want to achieve. You find you can do more, tolerate more and learn more than you ever thought was possible. You’ll explore cultures, learn languages, work with people from all over the world and push yourself, and all this whilst (hopefully!) making a valuable difference. 

Are there any negatives?

Naturally, it’s not all plain sailing. You’ll face the stress of living away from your family (some of you might like this of course!!) and friends, lower standards of living, and the occasional spectacular stomach pain. The true double edged sword though is the cultural differences that on one day can make your job and life seem so difficult, only to be so fascinating the next.

However, all of this is a small price in my eyes for working to combat serious problems in those countries that need it most. With the great people you’ll work with and the friends you’ll make, you find your way through the tougher days; most notably through laughing about it all and remembering why you are there. In addition to this, there are always holidays, either within the country you’re stationed in or anywhere else you choose; make no mistake, international development offers you great travel opportunities as well and a chance to recharge those batteries!

All in all, working in international development is a challenging, exciting and culturally rewarding path, which has given me the opportunity to work in countries far from the norm. The work you do can make a real difference. I wouldn’t change it for anything!

Written by Rory Moylan

International Development Programme Manager