Common traits of an international development worker

The role of an international development worker could see you sent to any area of the world to help tackle a humanitarian crisis. While each different role will require different skills and different experiences, there are a number of common traits across all International development workers. Many of them are fairly straightforward and obvious while others may be not so obvious.

Great communication skills

Whether you are helping to set up a back-office to assist with a humanitarian crisis or you are actually on the ground helping people, communication skills are vital. The ability to quickly and concisely communicate your thoughts and instructions to others is priceless. It is also vital that you appreciate the communications of others and challenge/correct where applicable. Any misunderstandings could literally mean the difference between life and death for those trapped in the middle of a humanitarian crisis or other aid workers.

Setting goals and achieving them

International development workers from the ground up are extremely focused and extremely professional. They will set themselves and their group short, medium and long-term targets which are both challenging but ultimately achievable. Unless you have a target in mind it is impossible to measure your success. These targets and aims may change when you touch down and see the extent of the challenges but they are vital.

Dealing with stress

While the role of an international development worker can take in so many different actions and experiences, stress is unfortunately an integral part of the role. In many situations the ability not to get emotional about the terrible sights you see will help to reduce the stress. Think of it this way, those who are struggling and looking for help are looking towards you. You need to give them the confidence, the strength and the will to go on. If they see you struggling and falling apart, where do they get their motivation?


As many international development workers will know, making plans in the UK for activities in for example South Africa can change in an instant. The terrain may be different, the challenges may be tougher than first thought and therefore all workers will need to maintain an open mind. Yes, the goals may be the same but the way in which you achieve these goals may need to be adapted when you get boots on the ground.

Commercial awareness

We live in a world where money is tight, donations are not always forthcoming and there is a need to be aware of the commercial nature of the role of an international development worker. This may include getting involved in fundraising issues, arranging sponsorship, using contacts in business and basically looking at the wider picture and how to fund activities. Even the communication of an idea to somebody in the management chain, who can maybe take it further, could be a game changer.


While some people may disagree with the thought of making the role of a humanitarian professional, which is to all intents and purposes what an international developer worker, it is a vital trait. You can’t get too emotionally involved in the situation, you can’t lose focus and you need to keep your eyes on the long-term goals. There will be sadness, despair but ultimately taking a professional approach to this type of role is vital. Where there have been serious issues there may be lack of organisation which can make a very difficult situation many times worse. Taking a cold hard professional approach could again be the difference between life and death.

Coordinating with colleagues

While there will be times for individuals to work on their own the reality is this should be done within a team community. Coordinating with colleagues, using particular strengths and experiences of individuals can save time, money and lives. If someone else is better for the role then hand over the reins, you will have different experience and different skills you can utilise elsewhere. This is something which the international development agencies are also obliged to cover. Placing somebody in a situation in which they are blatantly inexperienced or do not have the necessary skills, could lead to injuries, illness and even death. This is no different to working in the UK under UK employment laws.

Prepare and research

In many ways this is similar to ensuring the correct people with the correct experience are given the more appropriate roles for their skills. While all international development agencies will do the most they can to prepare staff for back-office tasks or front-office challenges, many will also do their own research in their own time. To be forewarned is to be forearmed and it is better to know the challenges ahead than tackle them on an ad hoc basis as you go along. In many ways the willingness to research and prepare for a particular role is an integral part of the characteristics of an international development worker.


The ability to think on your feet, think outside of the box and prioritise particular actions is vital. There may not be time to communicate with your managers, perhaps more experienced individuals, but this is where training comes in. Whether you are a volunteer or paid international development worker, the various agencies involved should offer the relevant training and guidance. Prioritising particular actions will also require a degree of mental strength and often a headstrong attitude. That is not to say you don’t take into account the views of others but ultimately you have a willingness to make the tough decisions.

Learn from experience

While some would suggest this is akin to “there are no excuses”, this is not the same. Inevitably in hostile and challenging environments mistakes will be made. On occasion there will be no excuses and there may even be a form of disciplinary action taken. However, in the long term it is vital that all experiences, both positive and not so positive, are learned from. Action plans and instructions may need to be changed and adapted for the future. The “blame game” should be avoided at all costs, that does not help anyone.

To Conclude –

It takes a very special person to work for an international development agency, whether in the back office, logistics, management or boots on the ground. There needs to be focus, the removal of emotion as much as possible and introduction of goals and targets to keep minds focused. We live and learn in our everyday life and it is no different for what are effectively humanitarian workers. However, the environment is often more challenging, the terrain tough and the stress levels higher.