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8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development

8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development

If you’re looking for a guide titled ‘10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Humanitarian Worker,’ you can stop now because you won’t find it. What’s great about working in development is in most cases you can bring your previous qualifications and experience with you. You’ll find that many humanitarian workers have been teachers or journalists in a past life and have used their love of people, sharing knowledge and building relationships to help them move into the development sector.

So, to kick off the new year, and to get those of you starting out in development to think ahead, here are 8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development.

1. There’s no one way to become a humanitarian worker

If you are keen to break into the industry  it’s great to have a relevant degree or Masters in International Development, to have volunteered either in your home country or abroad and to know another language/s. These will help you get you noticed, but more importantly they will help you hone in on what excites, motivates or inspires you about development. And, you can use your findings to land the ideal position in the right organisation for you.

2. It’s important to be a generalist

While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.

3. Learn about the country before you arrive

There’s nothing worse than arriving in a country and realising you have no appropriate clothing, you can’t speak the language/s and you aren’t sure if shaking hands is an acceptable form of introduction. Mmm… probably should have read the brief notes or done a bit of Googling. While you may be able to initially get way with ‘I’m new around here,’ this safety net won’t last forever. Understanding the political, cultural and social nature of the country you are visiting and/or working in should be a high priority. Knowing these will inform you about: who to talk to; how to conduct yourself; and allow you settle into your role quicker and help keep you safe. Although this may sound like common sense, you’d be surprised how many people make a cultural blunder in the first few days of their placement. Don’t worry, in most cases it ends with both parties crying with laugher.

4. Building relationships in a cross cultural setting takes time

Working in development is all about relationships. You’ve got your partners, colleagues, supporters and recipients just to mention a few. Both business and personal relationships take time to establish and can be hard at first. There are time differences, cultural norms and taboos, not to mention language barriers. It might sound a bit too hard but it’s worth hanging in there because once you finally understand each other you’ve made a friend for life. It’s important you take the time to nurture these relationships because working together is the only way to job can get done.

On another note, leaving friends and partners behind can be really hard too. Thank god for the Internet! Although you could get lucky and find yourself someone special (it happens more than you think) while your on placement so it can work both ways.

5. You will make tough decisions that affect lives

This is probably the hardest thing to accept. At some point in your career you may find yourself responsible for deciding who receives your help and who doesn’t. The reality is you can’t help everyone. You are always limited by time, resources, laws and money. One day, you will realise you’ve made mistakes, maybe big maybe small. The development sector, like other industries, learns from its mistakes and has measures in place that limit them from happening. You will be working in complex environments and sometimes things happen that you can’t plan for and wouldn’t have expected. This is the hard truth of being a humanitarian worker. However, there is no need to fret as you’ll be trained and coached on how to handle these situations and you aren’t alone. Your team will become your extended family. Everyone’s family in the development sector; cherish and support them and they’ll do the same for you.

6. Listen to project participants

One thing you will learn quickly when starting in development is that you don’t have all the answers. No one does! That’s why it’s crucial you listen to your participants’ feedback. Everyone has a preconception; that’s normal, but be willing to change your mind. You need to be able to see a situation for what it is, not what you want it to be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and give participants, partners and colleagues the chance to answer and ask questions, too. That way you won’t be kicking yourself when you build a new health clinic only to find out you could have refurbished the one already being used by the community around the corner.

7. You will find yourself in the office at some point in your career

Most of us think of working overseas, but development work happens in your home country too. Not everyone gets to experience the dry and dusty Harmattan or eat Mohinga in Burma. I’m sorry to tell you that during your career you will find yourself in the office. Work in the office is just as important as the work on the ground and as exciting! It’s good to know this up front because so many people get into development work because they want to ‘see how they are helping people abroad’. Enjoy your time in the office and if you’re missing the personal contact why not volunteer in your home country’s programmes or find out other ways you can be involved with the work on the ground.

8. It’s really addictive

Being a humanitarian worker is really addictive! The late nights; brain storming sessions; team bonding; the travel and meeting so many amazing people. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs. The downside is it can be hard to adjust to your old life when your placement has ended, especially when you’ve seen things you wouldn’t wish on anybody. It’s good to have a mentor or coach that can help you through your ups and downs and generally just listen when you need to talk. Overall, being a humanitarian worker is challenging, inspiring and rewarding. This explains why so many people dream of working in the development sector.

 What is the ONE thing you wished you knew before you started to work, study and/or volunteer in aid and development?


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Rachel is the Communications Director at WhyDev. She is a writer and communications consultant. Rachel combines her knowledge of storytelling and technology to help individuals and organisations in the social good space build their digital story. Over the last eight years she’s worked with international and local organisations across six continents. Her writing has been printed in numerous publications including The Big Issue, Dhaka Tribune and Maya. She is also the Regional Ambassador for NetSquared, Co-founder of Nia Children’s Foundation, a speaker, trainer and mentor. Read more of Rachel’s thoughts on her website: and be sure to say hi on Twitter at: RachelKurzyp

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16 thoughts on “8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development

  1. […] This was originally written for and is featured on WhyDev. […]

  2. alexander muir

    What I wonder/worry about most is managing a family and kids while being an aid/development worker. I’m sure some people can manage it, but it still seems like a lifetime of personal heartache, especially through those ‘gaps’ in funding or projects you mentioned, let alone being overseas and away for long stretches. Can anyone speak to this?

  3. T.k. Murphy

    I was pointed to this website by a graduate from my alma mater. The best advice thus far is to read and learn from the perspectives of others (such as you all) because international development is broad and often romanticized.

    I’m quickly learning that and beginning to narrow the focus…but the one thing I wish I knew was how to actually get started. I just thought it could be done by applying to wherever. Quickly learned it’s not and I need to have a focus.

    Still learning…
    T.K. Murphy

  4. One thing I wish I knew was more subject-matter to help me understand the broader landscape of development, particularly economics. If you want to be a generalist, work across discipline boundaries, and understanding of economics is essential (whether you like it or not!).

    1. This is so true Brendan. I read Dead Aid and that helped me to start understanding the relationship between development and economics. Can you recommend any other books/news sites/forums (besides WhyDev!) that would help development newbies gain a better understanding of economics?

      1. Well, I am not sure Dead Aid is the best place to start (Poor Economics is probably a better book), but here are a few links to get readers going:

        – Does the micro evidence tell us anything important about development?

        – Questions that are rarely asked (development economics and anarchism)

        – Behavioral Economics and Development

        1. Thanks for sharing! It’s good to have a place to start 🙂

      2. Ben Gwilliam

        I agree, an understanding of economics is important. “The White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly is another good book to read

        1. I liked that book too Ben. Was recommended to me as a great book to read before I started my Masters in International Development. It helped a lot.

          1. Another very good primer, and for inspiration, is ’50 key thinkers on development’ edited by David Simon. The people and ideas it covers could not be more diverse and outstanding.

  5. One thing I wish I had known before I started in “development” work, is that a lot of what is called “development” is really harmful, and that even my good intentions can be harmful, and the best way to try to stay on a good path is to listen to locals and keep my eye on the prize of social justice, not personal satisfaction and advancement.

    1. Areej Al-Musttaf

      Actually there are many lessons I have learned along the way in the development field one of is we have to be patient beacuse results, outcomes planned could not be necessarily achieved 100%; sometimes and after years of projects and extensive efforts only a little progress is made. This brings one to the point of unsatisfaction. Thus being too ambitous to achieve great results is not a a gurantee in the development sector.

      1. You make a great point Areej. When I first started in development I didn’t realise that some organisations ran programs that lasted 15 years! If you’re the type of person that likes things to move quickly then working in development may take some time getting used too. I think if you set yourself realistic short term goals as well as long term ones then it helps with job satisfaction because you can celebrate and recognise the little wins along the way (and can adjust your project aims if things change).

        I’m interested to hear what others think of this because job satisfaction and feeling like you are making a difference/progress is very important but can sometimes be tricky in development. Also how do others handle the news that a program they have been working on hasn’t achieved all that it should have?

    2. Thanks for your comment Nora. That’s why it’s so important to have an open mind and be prepared to change your plans. Constructive and honest dialogue between all parties really is important in all development work.

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