Getting into….The International NGO Sector


Image courtesy of Kevin Gill on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Image by Kevin Gill. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Last month Liz Wilson, CEO of Supporting Kids in Peru (SKIP) visited the University and gave a really insightful presentation on tips and advice for those interested  in getting into the International NGO sector.  In particular she covered some key points to consider if this is something which interests you, which I’ve summarised in this post.

Understand the issues:

The NGO sector, by its nature, is complex and challenging. International NGOs, or INGOs, in particular are often criticised for doing more harm than good. People and organisations usually have the best intentions, but you need to ensure that you’re informed and understand the implications of what you are doing.  Liz highlighted 4 areas, with examples, to examine when you are looking at NGOs and their work to help you assess their value and the implications of what they do.

  1. Untrained do-gooders: The problem, associated with many opportunities offered for volunteering abroad in particular, of going somewhere for a short time to help, with little or no training, no real understanding of the issues, nor consideration of the long-term impact of the work. The excellent talk “What’s wrong with volunteer travel?” by Daniela Papi for TEDx Oxbridge explains the issue further, based on Daniela’s own experiences.
  2. Cultural insensitivity: The issue of people going into other communities, cultures and countries with little or no understanding of cultural differences or consultation with the local community.  Liz cited Ivan Illich’s famous 1968 speech, “To hell with good intentions” as an extreme – but very pertinent – illustration of this.
  3. Damaging the local economy: Problems arising where donations collected abroad and shipped in, although with good intentions, which can often have devastating effects on the local economy. Liz cited Economist Dambisa Moyo’s book “Dead Aid” as a good – if controversial – discussion of some of these issues.
  4. Short-term “quick fix” solutions: Quick-win solutions such as donating items, but which do not address the underlying issues, such as poverty. Liz cited TOM’s shoes donating shoes to people in Guatemala. See this article on the Matador Network for criticisms of this and other international aid initiatives.

Ask yourself:

If you are committed to a career in this sector, Liz advised asking yourself these 4 key questions.

  1. Humanitarian or Development?

Humanitarian aid refers to emergency relief, for example after a natural, or man-made, disaster. Situations where aid or supplies are needed very quickly; it is about crisis, is generally shorter-term and its focus is saving lives

Development: Focuses on alleviating poverty in the longer term. Delivered in developing countries, it responds to systematic problems and is focused on economic, social and political development.

2. Field or main office?

There are big differences depending on where you are based. The idea of working in the field attracts many people to the sector but it is incredibly challenging.  For example in humanitarian aid groundwork is chaotic, emotionally intense and incredibly stressful. Be aware of your own limitations. Liz gave the example of a question often asked in UN volunteer interviews: “You have arrived in country, been allocated to a site and role and directed to your apartment. When you get to your door there is a dead body there. What would you do?”

3. Grassroots or large organisation?

Grassroots: Pros are that you might work directly with the community, gain understanding and insights at a practical level, and there may be more opportunity to take on responsibility. Cons are that project impact may be unknown, possibly poor organisation, limited training, lower pay and often “risky” safety: Liz highlighted that many countries may not have similar regulatory requirements to ours, e.g. like child protection or health and safety regulations.

Large: Pros are that it is likely that the organisation will be better structured and project impacts are more likely to be measured.  Usually more likely to have clear health and safety regulations and procedures.  Cons are that there may be less opportunity (particularly early on in your career) to work in the field or to take on significant responsibilities. Liz stressed that even if you are aiming for larger organisations, that grassroots experience will be incredibly valuable to help you understand the issues faced by project managers on the ground.

4. Is it a legitimate/ serious NGO?

Questions to ask about/ of the organisation:

  • What training will I get?
  • What support is available? e.g. in the field if applicable
  • Do you have a health and safety/ child protection etc. policy?
  • Is there a breakdown of financial information? i.e. where/ how is your income being spent?
  • Is there an annual report?
  • Are there results demonstrating project outcomes?

Questions to ask about the role:

  • Is there a job description?
  • How is the work schedule arranged?
  • Who is my supervisor?
  • How is consistency maintained in programmes?  This is especially important in shorter-term opportunities.

Tips if you want a career in International Development

  • Learn a language: Having additional languages is incredibly important and any can be a potential advantage. If you are considering learning a new language, Liz advised focusing on the UN Languages
  • Get as much international experience as possible: Make an effort to understand the culture, the issues and the local communities from their perspective rather than your own.
  • Read job descriptions, even if you’re not yet looking for jobs.  If you find things of interest, check what qualifications, experience etc. is being asked for so you can position yourself well for future opportunities.
  • Think about your specialism:  For example teaching, logistics, engineering, medicine, social work, languages, fundraising, marketing etc. Liz’s own route into international development was after having qualified and worked as a social worker in the UK and then gaining international experience.
  • Look for – and fill in – the gaps: When Liz became interested in international development, she was a social worker, but had no international experience so had to build this up over time.
  • Be prepared to start as an English teacher and use this as an opportunity to gain experience and make contacts. Liz’s first international experience was as an English teacher where she made contacts which then led on to other opportunities.
  • Network: Get to know people working in development and stay in touch with people you meet in all experience you undertake.
  • Prepare to work hard and earn little, at least for a while.
  • Consider the motivation of the organisation: What is their purpose and mission and do you relate to this? For example, many organisations will be aligned to particular religious or political beliefs.
  • How the organisation talks about its work: For example, how they talk about those they support. Liz mentioned one organisation she came across where on they website the portrayed service users as deeply impoverished, often with drug and alcohol issues and basically painting quite a derogatory image of the people it was purporting to help. Is that the kind of organisation you would like to be associated with?

Questions from the audience:

Q: Do I need a masters?

A: Postgraduate qualifications are common in the sector, but it is probably better to get experience, for example over a couple of years, than to do a masters straight out of university. This will help you understand the sector and narrow down your interests. If you do then decide to undertake a masters, this experience will help you relate the theory to practice.

Q: Where should I look for work experience?

Liz recommends idealist.org as a good source of opportunities all over the world.  She did stress that there is no vetting process for opportunities listed on the site however, so bear the questions covered earlier in mind when looking at opportunities on that site – or anywhere else for that matter.

Q: Do you offer internships?

Yes, we offer a range of voluntary internship opportunities, all of which are advertised on idealist.

You might also find it useful to look at our information resources for careers in international aid and development, available here

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