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Modern languages and NGO work abroad

A good way with languages can be as important as a good heart if you want to make a difference in the world. Read on to find out about how you could use your language skills working abroad with an NGO.

What is an NGO?

An NGO is a non-governmental organisation. This means any organisation that isn’t part of a government or political party, and isn’t a business run mainly for profit.

Although this covers a wide range of organisations, a lot of people usually think of charities or pressure groups when they hear the term NGO. Alongside all the NGOs in the UK, there are thousands more working around the world, making them an exciting career choice for modern languages graduates.

What could I do for an NGO?

The work of NGOs generally falls into two areas: 

  • Operational: These are NGOs that work ‘on the ground’, such as distributing aid during a famine, or doing conservation work to protect endangered species.
  • Advocacy: These are NGOs that work ‘in the backroom’ trying to influence government policy, such as lobbying for laws which protect human rights, or researching corrupt business deals.

Many small NGOs will be either operational or advocacy, while larger ones like Oxfam work in both areas.

However, although every different NGO requires different people with different skills – such as engineers for certain operational work, or research analysts for advocacy – all NGOs working abroad need people with good language skills.

Foreign language graduates could work as interpreters for charity officials talking to local people. They could also act as administrators, organising visas for foreign volunteers, or placing volunteer doctors in hospitals and providing support. Advocacy work, meanwhile, requires people who can make complex arguments to government officials fluently in another language, or organise joint campaigns with other charities and local community groups.

How do I get into an NGO?

copy_of_Humanitarian_Aid_in_Congo_Water.jpgGetting paid work with an NGO can be tricky, since the sector is very competitive. However, the vast majority of NGOs rely on volunteers, and this is the best way of getting the experience and contacts that could lead to a paid job. There are plenty of organisations like GVI and Projects Abroad who arrange placements with NGOs. Some organisations like VSO will want people with professional skills in areas like teaching or medicine, while others will accept general volunteers, so get in touch with them for some advice. You could also contact the NGOs directly yourself, but make sure you do some research and try to speak to other people who've volunteered with them before you commit to anything.

But remember that volunteering abroad isn’t a holiday. It can be very hard work and things might be very different in another country to what you’re used to. However, speaking the local language will mean you might find things easier and find more opportunities than other volunteers. Have a think about where you’d like to go, then research the country and check the traveller’s advice on the Foreign Office website before you decide. You’ll also need to make sure you can afford it, since many NGOs will expect you to pay for your travel and maybe your accommodation and food while you’re working with them.

However, there are also opportunities to use your language skills with NGOs in Britain if you don’t want to move abroad. Charities such as The Refugee Council who work with asylum seekers need people who can speak foreign languages, while advocacy groups like Amnesty International might have opportunities for research or administration posts in their UK offices.

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