Entry into NGO aid work
June 28, 2007 12:15 PM   Subscribe

How does one groom oneself for development/aid work in developing countries? What are your experiences (or resources for experiences) landing positions with NGOs, and the difference between bottom-up and top-down approaches for contact?

In the Amazon I met friends of Dorothy Stang who traveled to the (then) poorest district of ParĂ¡, utilizing her dedication and international attention to drastically change the area (establishing schools and sustainable development projects). Her story is inspiring and surprising - to alleviate poverty, to fight "on the ground" what does one need?

In the small villages in Northeast Brazil, I discussed the possibility of teaching in exchange for food and a place to live and was welcomed with open arms. Acquaintances with a hospital in Mozambique said they need translators, and I was welcome to come.

All of these options are voluntary of course. I'm not independently wealthy, and would like to be able to get home to see my family at least once in awhile - so it would be beneficial to someday work this into some type of work. Before diving headfirst in, is there something I should know? Would I be better off training and specializing in a field, or am I better just to hit the ground already? (I currently hold a Bachelors in Bioengineering, practically sans skill set besides speaking English and Portuguese).
posted by iamck to Work & Money (4 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There's no substitute for field experience in the international NGO world (and for eventually getting into grad school). If you can afford it, jump into the volunteer projects available to you now. Eventually you'll have to move up the food chain to start working with more established organizations. To that end, it sounds like working at the hospital is a good way to start out rather than totally free-lancing it in a little village. One not-so-secret secret about international NGOs is that they are terribly pedigree-focused, so unless you manage to turn your independent English teaching into its own organization, they'd probably think it's more impressive that you worked at a hospital.

Also, your science background could make you very useful indeed -- many people who want to do development work have no technical skills/aptitude at all. Try to figure out a way to leverage and develop that, maybe by going to grad school once you get some experience.
posted by footnote at 12:37 PM on June 28, 2007

I'd recommend Peace Corps. You don't really need any experience to join, you get paid, you get some grassroots international development experience, and chances arem you'll run across many of the major NGOs and can make some contacts if you network. After Peace Corps, go back and get a masters in an international development (these degrees usually include lots of field work abroad), then apply for the NGO position.

The whole " I volunteered on my own and helped a bunch of poor people" isn't as impressive as working in an actual position for an esatblished organization. I don't mean to dissuade you, but look for ways you can gain field experience in an official position.
posted by emd3737 at 1:26 PM on June 28, 2007

I'm British so I've no experience of peace corps directly, other than getting drunk with some of them (nice people!) in Guyana when I served there as a volunteer with VSO (not quite the British version as it's an independent charity, but it does, or did when I was part of it, the same thing).

I'd agree that you want to do this as part of an organisation. Partly because it's experiece that you can then get someone to verify in your CV if you want to take NGO work further, but mainly because it's a safety net that you might find you need.

I got quite ill out there and VSO helped me back to the UK a LOT faster than I could have done on my own. It also helped to have a network of other volunteers around the country that I could meet up with for socialising and support.

As regards bottom-up or top-down, I have a feeling that the real results seemed to happen when there was both happening. One thing that shocked me at the time was peoples' unwillingness, sometimes, to get involved with projects on their own doorstep that would really make a difference to their lives - one of the things that seemed to characterise the poverty where I was, was apathy. So it meant that where there was top-level support for projects, but a lack of grass-roots willingness to get involved and work for the better, projects often failed. The VSO volunteers would often be working on government-sponsored, but locally-delivered, projects, so you could find yourself stuck in the middle spending much of your time trying to motivate people.

But it was worth it - best experience I ever had, although if I'm honest, I suspect that I developed more from the experience than the community I lived and worked with.

Good luck, whatever you do!
posted by dowcrag at 12:49 AM on June 29, 2007

I asked a somewhat similar question not too long ago, fwiw.

I'm actually headed to Pretoria, South Africa this August to do some work with World Vision's supply chain practice, and I'll be traveling to a number of their 3rd world field offices / warehouses helping implement some global-scale operating improvements. I'm doing this as part of a voluntary program that my company offers to its employees that was first started in partnership with VSO in the UK and now is run independently within the company on a global scale.

Its a great way for me to get some international experience on the resume to compliment what I already have business-wise. I plan to return to the states for a bit after my work overseas but then start applying to the IRC's, World Vision's, etc. for more permanent positions in international relief work.

I realize none of this really helps you as you don't work for my company (most likely), but I just wanted to give you the perspective of someone else who's trying to do essentially the same thing. I've decided its best to start at it as part of a program that I can fall back on (as dowcrag mentioned), get my feet wet in the 3rd world and get a little more visibility into how these NGOs operate there, and once I have my bearings look into more permanent type work.

Hope you find the best path for you - email in my profile if you'd like to ask anything specific. I have a few contacts at WV and the IRC I could potentially get you in touch with.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:49 AM on June 29, 2007

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