The Road Less Travelled | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The Road Less Travelled

A No-Nonsense Look at the Development Sector

By its nature, careers in development are seen as the ultimate act of altruism, where you get paid to change the world, but are also ultra competitive. And in a career market punctuated by fewer jobs with fewer returns for graduate students, landing a job in development is seen as either the ultimate ‘win’ or a costly mistake. Just like any other career path, international development work might not be right for all, but it will be for some.

Be it the bureaucratic red tape, the lack of hot water on demand, the unpaved roads and beggars tapping on your car windows --there will always be something to test the limitations of your patience.

The British Medical Journal cites two main reasons for wanting to pursue development work abroad: altruism, “wanting to help and empower others or share skills”, and “personal reasons”, be it for adventure or just a change from the monotony of day to day routine. But really, the first thing to note about development work is that it is not about saving, but enabling a community to better itself. This provides interesting, engaging, and rewarding work in topics as far reaching as food security, women’s empowerment, government corruption and post conflict reconstruction of a society torn apart by war. And such flexibility allows for both targeted career growth in an area of your choosing as well as the ability working on a wide range of different schemes.

IMG-20160113-WA0003Careers in development are competitive, and yet offer a variety of alternative careers paths for those who prefer the road less travelled. And whilst it generally lacks graduate schemes and entry level jobs, development work offers the potential to work on contentious issues of human development, conflict, climate change and more. Although the public/corporate sector often seems more structured for climbing the work hierarchy, this is surely an infinitely more interesting prospect than a conventional 9-5 desk job.

But most promising for many young professionals is the possibility of implementing large scale impact in ways that are both scary and motivating.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development cites the official development assistance as $134.8 billion in 2013. And where there’s money, there’s room for opportunity and career growth. However, the proliferation of degrees in development makes the field competitive, and haIMG-20160113-WA0006ving an avid, active interest must also be substantiated with relevant qualifications and work experience.

The fact of the matter is that the opportunities and types of skills needed within the development sector are diverse and extend beyond the doctor/lawyer/engineer trichotomy. There is room in development for everyone, including but not limited to administration, research, overseas support, fundraising, training, project management and consultancy. And on any given day your role could include evaluating current projects, developing relations between partner organisationsand external stakeholders, liaising with public bodies and governmental bodies, or lobbying to represent the needs of your specific humanitarian body.

Now, yes, it happens to be true that expatriates often earn three times the average (once gaining the relevant work and experience, which in itself takes years of interning and networking), whilst also receiving housing stipends and other benefits packages. Salaries in unpaid volunteer work can range from anywhere between £16,000 to £37,000.

Embracing risks to reap the rewards of successful development schemes is key.

But the micro irritants of the job, and indeed the macro issues encompassing one’s health (both mental and physical) as well as your own security are real and understated. Implementing development projects is as easy sitting at a desk, far from the field work, but when faced with real people who have minimal access to the bare necessities, poverty and policy become real and multidimensional.

Living and working abroad does not negate the serious and potentially hazardous risks associated with areas of conflict and reconstruction. And many humanitarian organizations have little protocol for providing adequate safety for aid workers and assessing security risks. As it stands, there are no all-encompassing legal obligations for the provision of security, and it can differ from consultants to volunteers to locally hired staff.

The strain of dealingIMG-20150731-WA0001 with issues of extreme poverty, deprivation, human rights abuses, or even equipping new clinics with adequate material on a day to day basis is taxing, such that aid workers often feel they have no place to turn. This is combated in part by the tendency for expatriates abroad to create tight knit communities within their host countries, and there is a wealth of motivating and interesting career-driven professionals for you to meet. But dengue fever, diarrhoea, and recurrent UTIs, depending on where you are posted, can be commonplace.

And when you’ve got minimal access to hot water, let alone electricity, that daily phone call home will just have to be postponed indefinitely.  Security risks to yourself can be mitigated. But be it the bureaucratic red tape, the various (and occasionally detrimental) cultural differences, the lack of hot water on demand, the unpaved roads and beggars tapping on your car windows --there will always be something to test the limitations of your patience.

You need to decide whether the stress and strain is worth it for you. Development work isn’t all fabulous, and while you may do good work, saving the world is a drawn out, often taxing order. Just know what you’re getting yourself into from the get-go. And like many other career paths, development work offers powerful, motivating and rewarding outcomes, truly putting your ability to work under pressure to the test.

You will be alternately frustrated, excited, and pushed beyond your limits. And really, what more could you want from your job?

Careers Editor for Redbrick. Final year Politics student. (@ehardtman)


18th March 2016 at 9:15 am

Images from

Lael Hardtman