The four main types of aid worker

Unless you have a genuine interest in international development work it can be difficult to know what motivates a volunteer or a salaried aid worker. What makes them tick? What motivates them to travel halfway around the world? Why do they put themselves at risk?

With tongue in cheek some experts have labelled four different types of aid worker which they tend to come across on a regular basis. These are:-

The missionary

In years gone by missionaries travelled around the world to preach about different religions, different ways of life and help those less privileged. What you will notice in the modern international development sector is the fact that many of the large organisations do have some kind of religious slant (or did have in the past). These are individuals who are more than happy to give up their time, often on a voluntary basis, to “help thy neighbour”. There is a common misconception that missionary type international development workers today will try to convert people to their religion when this is just not the case.

The mercenary

While the term mercenary is a little strong, these are professional individuals who are hired to do specific tasks in a foreign land. Some people find it difficult to balance the ethics and the morals of paid International development work. The reality is that the sector cannot depend upon voluntary workers alone and also needs the professional input and organisation of those who have been there, done it and are looking for a long-term career in international development work. International development work/aid relief can be dangerous and unfortunately unless planned correctly can lead to accidents and even fatalities.

The misfit

The reality is that we are all different, think differently and react differently. We have different morals and different ethics and just because you do not think in the “normal fashion” should not mean you are in any way discriminated against. It is fair to say that overseas International development work is not a normal/traditional career. It can be challenging, it can be dangerous and while the label is a little unfair, it can attract those who “do not fit into a stereotypical society”. However, this does not make them any less an addition to the international development sector!

The broken hearted

Again, the label “the broken hearted” is a little harsh as it highlights those who have perhaps had personal troubles and are looking for time away. These are the individuals who get great satisfaction from helping others and taking time out from their “normal life”. It may well be that a marriage breakup has left them broken hearted and looking for a new direction in life. Those who are motivated by helping other people are on very strong foundations when it comes to a career in international development.

The need for motivation

Whether you are a missionary, mercenary, misfit or broken hearted type international development worker, or simply looking for a different career, you need to have a motivation. This is a career which very often requires voluntary work to gain experience and knowledge going forward. In some areas of the world your standard of living will be very different to what you enjoyed back home. Are you the type who could do without your computer? Would you struggle with intermittent mobile phone coverage? Are you prepared to learn a different language to assist with your international role?

The truth is that we all have different motivations, different reasons for pursuing different careers and it is no different with regards to international development work. The idea that all international development work revolves around overseas projects and potentially dangerous scenarios is wide of the mark. Nowadays this type of career takes in a range of activities such as:-

  • Doctors/nurses
  • IT experts
  • Logistics/transport
  • Project management
  • Infrastructure development
  • Teaching
  • Fundraising
  • Back-office staff
  • Traditional media
  • Social media
  • Brand awareness
  • Relief aid workers

When you take a look at the extended list of potential careers in the international development world, it probably looks very different to that which you might have expected. The truth is that whether you are boots on the ground in a struggling Third World country, educating children in Nigeria, arranging the transport of food to poverty stricken areas or manning the back-office back in the UK, these roles are equally as important. If there is one weak link in the chain the whole system can fall apart, projects fail and lives could be put at risk.

Planting seeds for the future

There is a saying “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. While emergency aid relief tends to grab the headlines there is much more going on behind-the-scenes that does not necessarily receive the same exposure. In many ways it is planting seeds for the future.


International development investment in education is enormous because not only does it make a difference to the individual’s life but also their immediate family, friends and their children in the future. Education takes in everything from history to maths, business ideas to working for the community, medicine to simple communication. While it obviously takes time to educate a generation, many of whom may have lost out on education due to civil unrest; this investment will be repaid many times over going forward.

Adapting food crops

While we take running water for granted in the UK there are many areas of the world where people have to travel literally miles for their daily water supply. The introduction of simple water wells can make a massive difference to a local village or settlement. Teaching local farmers how to adapt their crops to the environment and the change in weather conditions also literally plants seeds for the future.


The development of simple transport infrastructure can also make a massive difference, connecting towns, villages and settlements right across the country. As the majority of workers for infrastructure projects are taken from the local community, they can also inject significant funds into the local economy. So, while we take the road from home to work for granted it is worth remembering that not all countries enjoy this luxury.

To Conclude –

The idea of international development work is simple, helping others to help themselves by planting seeds for the longer term. There are other emergency issues relating to famines and natural disasters which need to be addressed there and then. This opens an array of different career opportunities for those looking at international development work. All roles are important as they create a chain from the international development body head office to those literally on the ground. A weak link and the whole project can quite literally collapse.