Working In Aid Without Volunteering

Written by Chloe Safier. Chloe currently works as the Regional Gender Lead for Oxfam in Southern Africa. Opinions here are her own and do not reflect that of Oxfam or her other affiliations. Chloe can be found on twitter @chloelenas

Jennifer Ambrose points out on her post, “Volunteering: The Paradox at the Beginning of an Aid Career” that many of those who work in development aid or humanitarian fields start their careers by offering their free labor in the form of volunteering in a foreign country. Ambrose points out the swath of problematic issues with this well trod path, not the least of which is that it puts (often young) people with little experience into rural contexts that require highly specialized expertise for any kind of real contribution to occur.

It also creates opportunities for those who can afford to work without compensation – most often those come into the situation with some money or cushion – and leaves those who can’t afford to work for free at a big disadvantage.

As someone who specializes in gender, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the gender inequality elements of the paradox Ambrose describes; namely, that the majority of the unpaid work force is women. In the case of the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics” in 2013. A 2009 study by InternBridge found that as many as 77% of unpaid college internships are held by women.

But I’m a firm believer that there are alternative ways to break into the international development field besides volunteerism and unpaid internships, and finding these alternate routes may help ameliorate some of the problems inherent with the volunteer/intern model (though it doesn’t, of course, address the bigger power and gender inequalities that lead to those problems).

One colleague of mine began his aid career working on the factory floor of car company. Another started as a corporate lawyer, another was a journalist, and another was a policy analyst for a US congressman.

My first job out of college was a (paid) position working for a faith-based non-profit in Boston, which included a mix of community organizing, event planning, and volunteer coordination. The job served me well, partly because it taught me some of the basics of being a working professional: project management, being accountable to a team, working with diverse groups of people, and how to craft an agenda for a meeting that actually results in a decision, to name a few.

But what’s been most useful in applying and interviewing for positions in international development has been the ability to tell my story as a coherent narrative (which, funny enough, is a skill I picked up in community organizer training). I’ve found that being able to fluidly link my work with Boston community groups to my work in the development sector by explaining the natural progression of my interests has made me (I hope) a more compelling candidate.

In interviews, I tell the story of how my two years of experience working for a community based group in the US gave me a set of experiences which propelled my interest in a graduate degree that focused on gender, law and human rights; this then led me to a job focused on gender justice and women’s rights in international development, and so on.

I have been an unpaid intern and it was mostly a good experience, but in retrospect, I’m not sure if it was necessary – had I been hired for a paid job in a different field, and continued my due diligence of networking and continuing to develop my skill base and technical expertise, I think I could have translated those acquired skills to the work I’m doing now.

In a recent job interview, I pointed to my first job in Boston to demonstrate how I’d been able to work in diverse communities, participate in community mobilization, and develop new leaders. I had tangible professional skills, and a story arc for what brought me from point A to point B, from domestic work to international work (even if, at the time, the plan wasn’t exactly mapped out as such).

I can’t speak for all the hiring managers in the international development sector, but in my case, I was offered the job.

My colleague who worked as a policy analyst before starting an international career is also able to demonstrate how that experience allows him to make a unique contribution to the international development sector; as someone who understands the ins and outs of US politics, he’s been able to position himself as someone who can translate on-the-ground experience in Ethiopia (where he currently works) to high level policy forums. The former journalist was able to translate writing and reporting skills to provide sharp and effective communications (and a strong network of reporters) for an NGO.

I’d argue, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree, that variety in our past work experience, and in our cultural backgrounds and identities, adds richness to the work environment and depth to the work itself.

If the only route to working in international development is by studying international development and getting entrenched in conventional aid industry thinking, we’re not going to bring new ideas or innovations into the field.

Which is to say: there are a lot of ways to get to where you want to be. International experience is critical, absolutely. But we, as a sector, can’t expect that the only way to get international experience is to have one type of experience, international or otherwise. And those seeking to work in the sector must develop all types of skills that can contribute to this work, so that people with real skills can make real contributions in a way that is not extractive or problematic in the way that Ambrose describes. One entry point would be to develop skills that are difficult to obtain in contexts where international aid works – technology, agriculture, engineering, monitoring & evaluation – to name a few.

Of course, in the current economy, getting hired for any kind of job- volunteer or paid- is a challenge. But it would be a lost opportunity to the development field and those who benefit from aid work to suggest that only those who have chosen to volunteer away from their home country or work for free are the only ones who have something to contribute to the collective goal of making the world a more just place to live.


The Age of Sustainable Development: “Economic development is new”

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

The third lecture started by Sachs pronouncing the concise phrase in the title and then followed with a construction of the current state of the global economy.

Both the first and the second session were characterized by an interactive model, in which the video-lesson would engage you in the learning process by allowing you to identify the challenges ahead and, in the case of people from a developing country (such as myself), identify your context with the one being presented by Sachs. This third lesson, however, was slightly different.

Professor Sachs managed to relate each subject to one key idea from which all sorts of issues stem. While “Economic development is new” is a strong phrase filled with possibilities, what followed added a layer of historical interest: “It began after the Industrial revolution. Before, the world was equal. Equally poor.”

However gloomy the prospect of a future in a world with a widening income gap and pollution that appears irreversible might seem, Sachs reminded us how, sometimes, it is necessary to look at the past and remember the real context of such challenges. In terms of the course, introducing at this point a brief history of the evolution of the modern economic world after two sessions of challenge facing and context reviewing, is, I think, fantastic.

My take: there might still be challenges ahead, but we have come very far in the development process!

Economic growth, says Sachs, has one key ingredient: technology. But, for the process to begin, various pre-conditions were needed. It is a process of interaction that starts with know how, followed by the connection of the different geographical economic areas and processes: raw produce from rural areas must reach the city where it will be manufactured, adding value, and then sold back to the rural areas.

The UK was the lucky region that met all of the conditions early and escaped from the extreme poverty threshold (approximately $2000/person), and, as a form of ripple effect, its neighbouring countries soon caught up, leaving the peripheries out of the process. Sachs went on,

“Modern economics combines the natural resource base, the technological know how, and the spreading market economy”.

The question arises, then, how can we make sure every country – not just the lucky ones – has the opportunity to be part of the economic growth process?

We were presented with two broad but spot on ideas. The first way to do so is for a country to invest in continuing innovation and thus generate endogenous growth (hint: think of a returns to scale process). The second way for process inclusion is by obtaining the existing technology from other nations. Sadly, the latter leaves the country in a constant catch-up dynamic.

Sachs, of course, is a promoter of endogenous growth. He pointed towards the idea that the future of the world depends on the increasing production of technology. Since we are not allowed, legally, to give out all of the information of the course, I will close up this entry with a key argument for you to further analyze: economic (and sustainable) development now depends on proper diffusion of the know how!

(Hint: if your answer to this question doesn’t involve ‘globalization’ in it, you’re doing it wrong)


This is a post by Sora Edwards-Thro, a 17 year old volunteer for Unleash Kids in Haiti. She is, even for this site, impressively young to be struggling with the complexities of development work. She will be using this site as a forum for talking through these difficulties and would be very welcome to advice from more experienced development workers.

Haitian tap tap

I’m writing this from Haiti, with ten other laptops I’m going to be using to start an education project at my side and a Skype conversation with the board of directors of an organization supporting it open in another window. This blog is partly for you but mostly for me – no need for donor propaganda here; just some honesty about what it’s like to be plunging in to this sort of thing.

I’ve been in Haiti for a week. We’ll start the story at the first disaster (don’t worry: there are good parts too): I actually missed my first flight out, which could have been absolutely terrible. This project is completely supported by donors, and even if they would have been willing to pay for the cost of another flight to cover my mistake, losing that much of other people’s money that was intended to help kids in Haiti just because I couldn’t get to the airport on time would probably kill me a little inside.

Luckily, I just happened to be wearing a shirt that said “Apps for Edu” and told the lady about how I was late because I had been buying mice for laptops for charity. She managed to put me on the next flight out, enabling me to make all my other connections, and at no extra charge. So it all worked out, but it made me realize just how scary it really is to be responsible and accountable for donations, especially when those donations are intended to benefit other people.

Every dollar I have to spend to correct a mistake is one less dollar for the project.

This might just be part of how I work, too, though. I screw up probably a little more than someone who’s more cautious and I’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to fix whatever I did wrong. For example: after not sleeping for 48 hours (not the night before my flight, and not during my overnight layover in New York), I was too drowsy getting off the plane in Haiti to remember that I was supposed to be buying a NATCOM Internet stick [Ed: the first 3G plugin modem available in Haiti] and a Digicel telephone and ended up with a NATCOM phone and Internet stick. As soon as I realized my mistake I tried to return the phone and ended up talking to the cashiers for an hour, trying to convince them to take it back in Haitian Creole. They didn’t budge, unfortunately, but often that extra effort and a little bit of luck does make the difference and I can fix the things I break.

From the airport James, Junior and I went to Junior’s house. James is another young guy (19) starting another laptop project on a mountain near Port-au-Prince, and Junior is slightly older (25) and has been teaching a class with the laptops in Grand-Goave, a nearby town and another one in a nearby orphanage.

We were officially there to help Junior develop a newspaper at the Grand-Goave school but we had a lot of unofficial jobs as well. James and I worked together to develop lesson plans for the newspaper launch, and we figured out early on that we were learning a lot more from our experience than the kids would probably ever learn from those classes.

First of all, there were were a lot of unforeseen challenges: we were thinking we’d be teaching three classes with twenty kids each, bringing the total to sixty kids, but actually it was just three classes of twenty kids maximum, with the same ones showing up for multiple classes. There were also a big variety of skill levels, with some kids who didn’t know how to click and others who were ready to start some basic programming.

That, and we realized that our role wasn’t really to force the kids to generate some content but to expose them to new ways of creating content and new activities on the laptops. I showed Junior how to transcribe sheet music notes into XO keyboard notes that the kids can use to play songs. There were a lot of good moments throughout the week and the pressure was on us to then ensure that Junior would be able to reproduce them on his own after we left.

Early Sunday morning I said good-bye to Junior and started off on my 12-hour journey to Anse-a-Pitres,in the deep south-eastern corner of the country. I traveled with another volunteer, first in tap-taps and then perched on the top of an oil truck. Quite a journey!

We finally arrived, and it’s been an interesting two days so far. The organization I’m staying with is here to improve the environment , so there’s sort of a hippie flavor to everything (well, they describe themselves as productive hippies). I’m going to have to learn some things like going to the bathroom without toilet paper if I want to fit in here, but it’s interesting to spend some time being exposed to this perspective, and I’m actually enjoying the time I spend in the morning planting and watering trees. It’s nice to get dirty and to put something in the ground that wasn’t there before. I guess the only thing I really won’t get used to is how relaxed they all are – I’m used to spending all my time abroad rushing around from one activity to the next, and here most people actually relax all afternoon.

We had our first class yesterday – just kind of an intro to the five teachers I’ll be working with over the next month. Later tonight I go to a community meeting to speak about the project with them. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm so far, and a a local guy named Nixon who’s very involved had a long conversation with me about how excited he is and how he wants to see it continue. This week I’ll be spending two hours a day with just the teachers, trying to get them up to speed before we introduce the kids next week. Fingers crossed that the solar panels survived their tap-tap ride and can provide the power, and that everyone catches on quickly.

I know it’s going to be a lot of work to get this thing up and running, but it would be nice to have as few glitches as possible along the way.

Experiences, Platform, Projects

Tales From Haiti: Arrival