Development / International Aid

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The development and international aid sectors involve complex interactions between academics, NGOs, charities, local communities, public and private agencies, donors and government bodies. Anthropologists can find academic posts studying the development sector itself: for example critically analysing the social and cultural implications of international aid, or the economic and political structures of large charities.

At the operational level, anthropologists can fulfill a number of important roles. They may be actively involved in planning a development project, or working as cultural mediator between a particular community and a development organisation. In other circumstances they may be brought in when a development project has not achieved its aims; and be asked to help bridge communication difficulties, or find alternative solutions requiring an intimate knowledge of the local language and community dynamics. Development anthropologists can also be found working as activists or advocates, helping indigenous communities with human rights claims, land disputes, or conservation of cultural heritage.

Anthropologists engaged in development projects often have to work for shorter periods and to tighter timetables than are usual in conventional fieldwork. The methods they use, however, yield specialised knowledge of the special significance that resources or landscapes may have for local communities; and of the impact of large-scale development plans such as dams or mineral extraction. This knowledge can be crucial in conveying to outsiders the local implications of development or aid projects.

Many anthropology departments in the UK and worldwide now offer Anthropology of Development as an option at postgraduate level. Although there are numerous opportunities for volunteering or doing unpaid internships, finding paid work in the field can be difficult. Positions often require several months or years of volunteer experience, knowledge of another language, and the ability to demonstrate why you are interested in working in a particular region. Volunteering in your community or abroad, attending events, conferences and activities, and speaking to people within the sector are valuable ways to build up your knowledge and experience.

Recommended Resources

Visit our Anthropology of Development webpage

– The Consortium of Human Rights and Expressive Culture is a student-led research initiative by representatives of CUNY Hunter College. It aims to focus on the role of anthropology in social change and human rights movements. – For jobs in human rights, environment and sustainable development worldwide.

Look on websites of organisations such as: OXFAM, UNICEF, PLAN, Save the Children.

Professional Organisations, Groups and Societies

Department for International Development -DFID is the part of the UK government that manages Britain’s aid to developing countries and works to eliminate extreme poverty.

Global Poverty Research Group-The GPRG is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded multi-disciplinary programme of work investigating issues of poverty, inequality and the quality of life.

Institute of Development Studies– is a leading global organisation for research, teaching and communications on international development.

Overseas Development Institute – ODI is Britain’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Survival International – is an international organisation helping tribal peoples defend their lives, protect their lands, and determine their own futures.

Voluntary Service Overseas – VSO is the world’s leading independent international development charity that works to fight poverty in developing countries.

Articles – an article on development by anthropologist Professor Melissa Leach.


  The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development Edited by: David Mosse and David Lewis (Pluto Press, 2005)

  Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice By: David Mosse (Pluto Press, 2005)

The Real World of NGOs: Discourses, Diversity and Development  By: Thea Hilhorst and Dorothea Hilhorst (Zed Books, 2003)

Anthropology and Development: Understanding Contemporary Social Change By: Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (Zed Books Ltd, 2005)

Recruitment – Idealist is an interactive site where people and organisations can exchange resources and ideas, locate opportunities and supporters, and take steps toward building a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives. – lists 180 organisations working in human rights and sustainable development worldwide. – specialist recruitment website for non-profit and charity sectors.– includes information on salaries, job expectations, and qualifications in the development/charity sector. – lists mainly academic and research positions in the field. – lists a range of different charity jobs.

Disclaimer: The above information is provided for information and guidance only. It should not be interpreted as endorsement or otherwise by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) for any external institution listed.  Furthermore, the RAI accepts no responsibility for material created by external parties or the content of external websites.