Physical challenges

The physical challenges of international development work/aid relief are fairly easy to identify in theory but in practice they can be very different. Thankfully, the majority of international development agencies, and companies they work with, have vast experience with regards to the physical challenges faced by many salaried and volunteer staff.

Before we start looking at the physical challenges in greater detail, there is one thing to bear in mind:-

Risk assessments

It is vital that risk assessments are regularly undertaken for international development projects and the different roles for their employees. While it is relatively easy to highlight risks in theory from a distance, the actual risks and the challenges on the ground can be very different. So, whether you are moving an IT team to assist with a relief aid project or you are looking at frontline staff assisting with education projects or medical emergencies, all of them must have a risk assessment which should be documented.

Unfortunately, in this line of work there are many elements of risk which cannot be removed as a consequence of, for example, natural disasters and assisting in war-torn countries. However, that does not remove the legal obligation for international development agencies to manage and reduce the risks as much as possible and make all parties aware.

Physical challenges

While it will obviously depend upon the type of role which you have in an international development agency there are many physical challenges.

Living quarters

In countries such as the UK we often take for granted the homes in which we live and the relatively safe environments we go about our everyday lives. Unfortunately, many areas of the world have a significantly reduced standard of living and living quarters are often cramped with hygiene issues. While an international development agency taking on a particular project will do their upmost to provide clean and hygienic living quarters, it is nigh on impossible to replicate the standard of living back “home”.

Cramped living quarters can be extremely challenging and impact of whole array of different areas of everyday life. Everything from sleep deprivation to potential attacks by a wild life and warring factions can, if left unmanaged, wreak havoc on your physical strength.

Tiring manual work

Finding a balance between delivering help and assistance and finishing a project in a relatively short timescale, can lead to bouts of excessive manual labour. The situation is obviously much worse when there are lives at risk perhaps because of a natural disaster. We regularly see aid relief teams on the TV seemingly working around the clock to save lives. Obviously aware of potential discrimination, there is a need to ensure that those who are given roles where there is significant manual labour are physically (and mentally) strong enough to cope.

While many may automatically assume this is discrimination between men and women, this is not the case. International development work tends to attract strong, focused and independent people of both sexes. However, where one person may not be as well-equipped for tiring manual work they may have additional skills such as IT, communications or a management role.

For those who are tasked with tiring manual work the international development agency will need to schedule breaks, rest and regular food and water. A tired worker is more likely to make a mistake that could potentially put co-workers at risk – as well as those they are assisting.

Medical issues

International development workers/aid relief workers are often faced with some of the most challenging and dangerous environments you can think of. Disease and infection are often rife and while there are vaccinations to take prior to travelling, it is impossible to cover every eventuality. As a consequence, the physical fitness of any individual will be taken into account as will any medical conditions they may have. This can obviously be frustrating to those looking to help in a disaster area or with the development of an education project, as two examples, but their health and safety must always be paramount.

It would be negligent beyond belief to send those with underlying medical conditions into areas where disease and infections are rife. Their immune system may already be compromised and the dangers of them falling ill may be significantly higher than normal. Even a simple medical condition such as diarrhoea can be physically and mentally draining and have a serious impact upon a person’s ability to work. So, those with underlying medical conditions which could affect their physical health in a foreign land may find it difficult to secure frontline roles.


While many of us enjoy our two weeks in the sun, our time away from the stresses and strains of everyday life, how would you handle the baking sun 24 hours a day seven days a week. This is the scenario that many international developer workers are often faced with. The weather can also flip in a matter of minutes from baking hot sun to torrential downpours. Humidity levels can exceed anything you have ever experienced in your life and this in itself can be a massive drain on your physical and mental resources. In many ways it is difficult to forecast how an individual may handle and be impacted by a foreign climate – much of this will come with experience.

Those who have undertaken international development work for the first time and returned home will often tell of a climate which is extremely difficult to cope with. There are difficulties with hydration and a change in diet can also have a major impact on some people. So, while living quarters, manual work and medical issues can have a significant impact on your physical well-being, it is very often the climate which can make or break you.

Matching skills and experience with appropriate projects

It is all good and well having the relevant skills and experience for a particular role but physical fitness and medical fitness should also be taken into consideration. If you are physically unfit, or have underlying medical conditions which prevent you from maximising your skills and experience, your value to the team could be significantly reduced. Therefore, it is imperative that international development agencies match individuals, taking everything into account, with the most appropriate roles. This is a common legal requirement in the world of business and it is no different when it comes to international development work.