Career Woman

Tips for working in aid and development: part 2


In Part 1, I shared 3 of my top 6 tips for those looking to enter the aid and development sector. Gaining work experience (that includes volunteering), obtaining skills that will actually pay the bills and developing good habits; they’re all part of the mix.

As mentioned, as the Grassroots Engagement Manager at RESULTS International (Australia), I meet a lot of people who are keen to enter what is a highly competitive sector.

We must acknowledge that a number of gains have been made over the years. Consider this: 15 years ago, 27,000 children under the age of 5 died from poverty-related causes each day. Today, this number stands at 16,000 children each day.

Clearly, there’s still plenty of work to be done and with another $224m in aid scheduled to be cut in the upcoming 2016/2017 budget, we need passionate people entering the sector who will continue to fight for the aid budget to be repaired, not slashed further.

So, here are tips 4 to 6 for those ready for the challenge for working in aid and development (and of course, the immense rewards!) the sector will throw your way.

4. Get to know the communities impacted by your work

This may see you seeking out a volunteering stint overseas, a study tour, or even independent travel. If you choose to volunteer, look for roles where you can add some value due to your skills and experience. Be prepared for your most useful contribution to be fundraising, especially if you have little expertise to offer. It goes without saying, but avoid volunteering programs where you’re doing a job a local could do, doing something pointless, or perpetuating exploitation. Pro-tip: if the program requires nothing from you but ‘passion for the cause,’ then it’s probably a bad program.

Despite the potential pitfalls of volunteering, I believe it has value too. If you want to do work that impacts a large chunk of the human population, you should really go and get a sense of who those humans are and what their lives are really like. Get to know the people behind the statistics and headlines. Get to know human beings, not one-dimensional stereotypes. The more experience you have of the complexities of aid and development, of life in communities other than your own, and of civilisation generally, the more equipped you will be to deal with those complexities as they arise in your work.

5. Check your privilege, watch your language

I remember when I did a volunteering stint overseas; one of the biggest shocks was discovering the power imbalances that result from privilege. My white skin and status as an ‘outsider’ meant I’d be listened to regardless. I was sometimes treated like an authority figure even though I had no right to be. This was an uncomfortable discovery. I had to figure out ways to deal with it while ensuring everyone’s voices were being heard and the best decisions were made.

You have a ton of privilege that you may not even be aware of yet. Regardless of whether you’re aiming to work directly with people in developing communities or not, knowing how your gender, nationality, skin colour, religion and education can influence your understanding of the world, and the way others see you, is very useful. Here’s a hint: If you’re reading this and thinking ‘oh, but I’m not a privileged person,’ then this tip most definitely applies to you.

Another element to this tip applies to language. How do you talk about people living in the communities impacted by your work? Language is powerful, and it’s a great idea to only speak about people in ways you’d be comfortable having them hear you talk about them in person. Would you be okay with someone describing you as a ‘poor person’ or an ‘AIDS victim’? No? Then find better ways to express yourself and the work you want to do.

7. Take care of yourself

Although I don’t think this issue as exclusively a concern for women in this sector, it’s important we address it. When you’re confronting difficult realities such as inequality, poverty and exploitation each day, it’s easy to set your own needs aside. That’s understandable but over time, it’s also toxic. It’s easy to completely define yourself and your self-worth in terms of the cause you’re fighting for. This leads to a cycle where you completely ignore your own needs (sleep, a good diet, boundaries) and become a martyr for your cause. And believe me, martyrs make terrible workmates.

I’ve fallen into this trap, and can vouch for the importance of cultivating a sense of who you are that doesn’t involve your current or future work. Your passion to end poverty or save the world from climate change or end gender-based violence is a really important part of you, but it’s not all of you. Make sure there are other things in your life that matter to you, and other identities you can hold onto. This will help when times are tough, as they can be in any job and particularly in this sector – instead of blaming yourself and feeling like a failure, you’ll be able to have a better sense of perspective.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about working in aid and development but not necessarily dedicating your career to it, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Opportunities are available with RESULTS and also Campaign for Australian Aid, a movement of people, organisations, communities and businesses committed to aid and a fairer future for all.

Gina Olivieri is the Grassroots Engagement Manager at RESULTS International (Australia), celebrating 30 years in Australia in 2016 – find out more here.


About Gina Olivieri

Gina Olivieri, is the Grassroots Engagement Manager at RESULTS International (Australia), celebrating 30 years in Australia in 2016. A 2006 trip to Melbourne for the Make Poverty History concert sparked Gina’s interest in issues of poverty and innovative ways to tackle them. Gina spent four years volunteering with youth advocacy organisation Oaktree in its HR and education teams while studying a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) in Western Australia. She began working in Grassroots Engagement for RESULTS in June 2013 and loves empowering individuals to use their citizenship and voice to make a real difference.

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