Risks associated with international development work

The specific risks associated with international development work will obviously depend upon the role of an individual and where they are posted. There are still working/every day risks for those working at the head office whether in marketing, IT or administration but some of the greater risks are associated with overseas projects. Here we outline some of the more common risks associated with international development work and how they can be avoided or their impact reduced.

Hygiene and sanitation issues

Those involved in international development work could be posted to countries suffering from an outbreak of potentially fatal diseases or a deadly natural disaster. In many of these situations there will be issues with regards to hygiene and sanitation and diseases may be easily contracted. Even if an aid worker was to develop a relatively common condition such as diarrhoea they may be incapacitated for a while and become more of a hindrance than a help to the project. This is where preparation and the supply of protective clothing/equipment are vital.

There are obviously far more dangerous situations such as the spread of Ebola. Just recently we have seen a major outbreak in the DR Congo where there has also been a breakdown in trust between the locals, aid workers and politicians. This has made a very difficult situation even worse – increasing the risks significantly.

Violent clashes

By definition, emergency aid relief tends to revolve around natural disasters and wars. Over the last few years we have seen significant military action in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and ongoing battles in South Sudan. While many aid workers are waiting for the go-ahead to enter these countries, with significant amounts of aid, it is often too volatile to place their lives at risk. In these scenarios the decision is whether to enter the country or not. However, if aid workers are already in the country when violent clashes break out this can be a terrifying situation.

In these situations it is vital that contingency plans are in place for all eventualities before aid workers arrive in the area. Some of these contingency plans may seem “a little over the top” but it is certainly better to be safe than sorry. Many developing/Third World countries have a volatile political backdrop which can, sometimes in an instant, lead to violent clashes. We often see talk of ceasefires and “peace breaking out” only for agreements to be broken, sometimes within a matter of hours.

Mistrust and offending cultures

Many people will not realise the amount of effort and work which goes into preparing an overseas project. This may be an education program in Nigeria, humanitarian aid in the Yemen or the creation of new infrastructure in developing countries. It is vital that all parties in the project are aware of the culture of the area and avoid potential clashes. The best humanitarian projects are those which are able to bring onside local political and tribal leaders. As many locals will look up to these individuals, if they trust the incoming relief aid workers then that is often good enough to keep the wider community onside.

It is also important to pick international development workers with an attitude and views which will not stir up mistrust and offence amongst the local committee. Akin to picking horses for courses, there will be situations where local cultures may clash with the beliefs of individual aid workers. Causing offence to the local culture will likely be big news and spread relatively quickly amongst the community. This can lead to clashes, violence and could see relief aid workers forced to leave the area.


Many people will be surprised to learn that 30% of international development workers involved in overseas projects will suffer some form of depression on their return. While some of this can be caused by the adrenaline rush experienced overseas starting to wane, many people will be impacted by what they see in foreign lands. It is all good and well suggesting that international development workers try to remain neutral and show no emotion but some of the sights they will see could live with them forever.

Over the last few years we have seen more and more international development agencies offering post project assistance/therapy and debriefings. In many ways the debriefings can allow individuals to unwind and “come back down to earth” while also ensuring that any lessons are learnt for the future.

Overstretching resources

When involved in tackling the spread of fatal diseases, or relief efforts relating to destructive natural disasters, there is a temptation to overstretch resources. The sad fact is that you will never be able to help everybody. You will likely have to make difficult decisions on the spot which you will need to learn to live with. This is why there needs to be a very detailed plan and procedures for each individual overseas project. If in doubt, revert to the plan. There will obviously be situations where you can “play it by ear” but you must also have one eye on the potential to overstretch resources and impact the long-term success of the project.

Medical attention

In some of the more remote areas of developing/Third World countries there will be a lack of local amenities and probably limited medical supplies. Even if all precautions are taken to ensure the safety and well-being of workers, not all situations can be avoided. We have seen scenarios where aid workers have suffered serious injuries or developed medical conditions which require immediate attention. Again, this is a situation where contingency plans are required to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. This may involve a flight to the nearest hospital, which could be hundreds of miles away, or the prompt delivery of provisions and on-site treatment.

To Conclude –

Each individual overseas project will bring different challenges and require different actions. However, issues such as hygiene and sanitation, violence and cultural differences as well as stress, limited resources and a lack of medical facilities can be potentially fatal. Over the years the international development agencies have been able to develop and adjust their procedures and plans, often taking into account historic experiences. The reality is that no plan is ever foolproof, employers and employees will need to work together and sometimes “think on their feet” while maintaining a clear head.

Preplanning contingency plans to maintain the health and safety of employees is all good and well. However, there is also a requirement for employees to maintain a clear head, refer back to their training and act responsibly. When all parties work together in harmony this significantly reduces the level of danger/risk but it can never be totally erased.