Advice for getting involved in international development work

In an interview with Chris O’Neill of Hydronumerics, Chris spoke about getting involved in international development work. He gave advice about how people, who are interested in helping improve global livelihoods can gain skills and experience, particularly in terms of supporting global water, sanitation, and environmental goals.

International development work is popular with people who want to make a difference in the world through their professional lives. However, the field can be challenging to get into and for those just starting out, a realistic look at exactly how much change can be immediately affected is important.

International development work generally falls into the categories of relief work, providing humanitarian assistance, peace-building in areas of former conflict, and long-term development aid.

For those looking at a long career in international development work, development aid is likely the most enticing choice.

Accept the limitations of change

In this aid area of development work, change comes over a long period of time — often over decades, rather than within months or years. “Life is a very long game, don’t be despondent if you can’t get out there and change the world on day one,” says Chris O’Neill of the consulting company Hydronumerics.

Typically, international development work takes years and often decades and sustainable change requires that the time investment is made. Sometimes, change happens more quickly but this is usually in response to an emergency situation such as a drought, flood, earthquake, or tsunami.

Bring something to the table

O’Neill also recommends having the right skills to be attractive to an international development organisation. As an engineer or scientist, the two main players in the environmental sector, he says, organisations are going to be buying your skills to fix something.

“I think if you can get into an organisation, whether it’s a consulting house or a public service or water board and learn how to do something, you’ve got a much better chance of being invited overseas or any different jurisdiction to change something or to make an impact.”

To get involved, he says, job seekers should drill down their core skills to something effective overseas.

“You might just have to take two or three years and really do that in Australia or somewhere else but don’t be upset that you can’t get out there on day one.

“I know that sounds very profound but when you want to enter the labour market you’ve got to take something to the table. It’s not a free ride. It’s a gift to have these opportunities to work overseas.”

Know how to build relationships

In his own international development work, O’Neill has seen the value of building relationships, listening to partners at a personal level, and immersing oneself in the local culture. To truly understand the ins and outs of water management as part of international development work, people must understand how and why water is valuable to the individuals that rely on the water for their livelihoods, be willing to collaborate, and be willing to try different and new strategies in order to find success.

International development work can be very rewarding but it takes a certain attitude to succeed in the field, characterised by patience and well-honed skills and expectations. By focusing on flexibility, ensuring you have realistic expectations and an ability to deal with challenging environments, you can go a long way in preparing yourself for the realities of international development work in water management

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