Pursuing a career in development work and / or nonprofit

I initially chose to pursue a career in global health, the 'healthcare systems' branch of international development, because I came from a third world country, immigrated Canada shortly after, I always wanted to dedicate my career to addressing health disparities impacting vulnerable populations in African countries, like that of my native country (Congo, DRC). That is why, throughout my undergraduate and master’s studies, I strategically chose internships and placements in the developing world, so that I can apply the theory learned in classrooms, at the community-level in Congo and South Africa, where I worked for my university placements.

For some, the idea of working in the nonprofit sector in the first or developing world, is a career path that they are passionate about, but many fear pursuing it. To be fair, living in low-income countries presents many barriers: lower salary in comparison to the private western sector, safety (especially for women), lack of resources (electricity), transportation and poor infrastructure, and distractive privilege/patriarchy (if you’re a white person). However, the nonprofit world is very rewarding, emotionally and spiritually.

Now, if you have just graduated from University or you are about to graduate, and really want to take a leap of faith, pack your bags, and go abroad to serve, here are a few tips and things to keep in mind before taking a plunge:

Burgade vs Job vs Career these are three different things. Let’s start from the first word, and work our way to the third one.
  • Burgade or mission trips have historically been affiliated with medical or religion-based organizations who do short term trips to underserved populations for a particular purpose (ie. providing free dental services for 10 days in Guatemala like Operations Smile). These are great, especially if you want to serve poor countries, but not willing to pursue it full time. Plus, these burgades are often organized by western organizations with local affiliations, so its safer.
The cons of these, they have a short term impact. It is often ethically questionable if it’s really helpful to vulnerable groups to come into their community, help them in the form of tokenism, and leave without planning to keep building the infrastructure long term. Although, this should be the responsibility of local governments. Plus, short term help often creates a dependency on westerners who come into these communities for what feels like a quick fix, thus undermining government sovereignty in low-income countries. The latter is a fancy way of saying; western organizations have historically been known for providing program interventions into low-income countries, leaving shortly after and returning sporadically, which leads to governments in low-income countries not feeling motivated or responsible to take care of their own country because they know someone else will.
  • Job vs Career. The first is something you do and get paid for until you figure out your next long term move. Meanwhile, a career is usually a long term work commitment. When considering working in international development work, either as a job or career, it is important to establish relationships with local organizations or companies. For some people living in North America or Western Europe, the normal route is to apply for a job posting online, get interviewed, and accepting a job offer. However, in many low-income countries, there are several low paying jobs (lower than north america salary), a billion volunteer opportunities (there’s no shortage of needs), but not enough resources for technology. So, it is best that you go on a volunteer trip with a university or nonprofit from the west, scope out the environment, establish relationships, and grab contacts with key employers you would like to work with upon returning. Once you are in the country of your choice, it is much easier to navigate creating connections and landing a job.

If taking a risk and going with good faith is not your thing, spend hours doing an intensive google search, find a western organization doing ongoing work in the developing world, reach out to them and set up your trip. The downfall with this route, these organizations are usually very expensive as most of the money goes to their staff salary. The good thing about established organizations planning such employment placements to the developing world, is that they will take care of your safety, transportation, flights, and so on.

Being giving to vulnerable groups through your line of your work, can be done in many ways, and developing work within nonprofit is one them. While the reward is great, there are some drawbacks. For starter, nonprofit work doesn’t always have the greatest salary, consequently there is a high turnover of staff. So, if this is the path for you, be realistic about your life expenses.

That being said, I continue to do work in the developing world, and will continue to document my travels through photo journaling. I also started a travel shop, where I will be selling one of  a kind unique finds from throughout the world, made by local artisans from each country. Stay tuned for the launch.

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