NGOs & International Development

"If you have the desire, commitment and passion to make a difference to people and the planet, the NGO and development sector is for you." HELEN GIBBONS, INDEPENDENT ORGANISATION & ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT

Science skills are essential for staff in many NGOs (non-government organisations) that work in areas such as the environment, conservation, social development and advocacy.

There are many different types of NGOs and development agencies, with a huge variety of agendas, approaches and scales of action. As such, different NGOs employ science graduates from different disciplines, but all offer a rewarding career that can be incredibly fulfilling and give employees a real sense of purpose.

"To Australia and indeed the globe, the importance of the NGO and Development sector is vital. While corporate and public service sectors tend to dominate the Australian and global economy, the NGO sector represents the passion and commitment of people for social and environmental issues," says Helen Gibbons, Independent Organisational and Environment Management Consultant, previously CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

"If you have the desire, commitment and passion to make a difference to people and the planet the NGO and Development sector is for you. Working for NGOs you can often find benefits such as flexible work arrangements, opportunities to work across projects which align with your values, and alongside passionate and motivated colleagues. As well as the great personal and career satisfaction that comes from the knowledge you are helping to shape Australia's future."

Environmental NGOs seek to effect change in areas relating to human impact issues in natural systems such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity or pollution of the air, soil and water. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was created with the purpose of advocating and representing scientific issues and collaboration among environmental NGOs.

Science graduates with majors in ecology, zoology, plant science, entomology, microbiology, soil science, geology, chemistry and environmental studies are highly sought after by environmental NGOs.

Ms Gibbons agrees that because environmental NGO campaigns are founded on evidence and science, a degree in this area can be a real asset in breaking into the sector. "While not a prerequisite for employment, a background in the ecological, biological or environmental sciences can help in many positions. There are many ways to become involved as an intern, volunteer or paid employee with roles ranging from campaigning, administration, fundraising, IT, communications and media, politics and a lot more."

Other NGOs focus on specific diseases such as cancer, AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis, and science graduates are employed to research cures, or ways of preventing the spread of these diseases, or to plan responses to health emergencies in developing countries. Graduates with a background in microbiology, immunobiology, pharmacology, physiology, cell pathology, anatomy and histology, biochemistry or molecular biology, can all work for these disease-focussed NGOs.

Animal welfare NGOs employ graduates with majors in veterinary science, biology, zoology and livestock production. Social development NGOs focus on areas such as mental health, child protection, social services, indigenous programs, human rights and refugee rights. Science graduates with a variety of backgrounds, especially psychology, nutrition and geography, are employed in social development roles. International development NGOs employ agricultural scientists to help farmers in developing countries by teaching them new agricultural techniques, offering new breeds of crops and helping malnourished populations gain access to food.

Some NGOs specifically concentrate on science by expanding the scientific capacity of developing regions through targeted professional training and exchange programs.

Further, because funding for NGOs mainly comes from donations from individuals and philanthropic organisations, rather than government funding, fundraising officers with relevant science backgrounds play a key role in effectively raising public support.

Roles for science graduates across the different types of NGOs can range from scientific research to running education programs to devising strategies to protect or further the NGO's central issue. With a science background, graduates in these roles can speak with authority on the science-based issues at hand and influence government policies relating to these issues.

Statistics and salaries

  • Over $896 million was donated by Australians through private donations to NGOs in the 2010-11 period
  • $135 million allocated to the NGO and community engagement program sector of the $4.3 billion 2010/2011 aid budget in Australia

Average salary:

$68,000. Salaries in NGOs vary widely according to how well resourced the particular organisation is and the role type.


Industry bodies

Courses to consider

Consider enrolling in a course from one of the following areas to prepare yourself for a career in NGOs & International Development, with a natural sciences focus.

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