How to prepare for an assignment in a new country

Many people in international development / aid work in multiple countries. Some people (like consultants and grant managers) may visit dozens of different countries each year. Other people changes countries every few years as projects they’re working on finish or they pursue new opportunities and move to different places.

It can be difficult to get up to speed on a new country. Beyond Wikipedia, the CIA Factbook and Lonely Planet, what else should you look at before arriving?

Look at the national statistics

There are plenty of online databases with national statistics from a wide range of countries. This makes it easy to see how the country you are visiting compares with others.

Databases and surveys you should look at before boarding your flight are:

The UN Data website also provides links to the national statistics office for each member country.

Find the relevant government documents

It is important to have an idea of the government strategy in the area that you will be working. For example,if you will be working in education you should read the national education strategy from the Ministry of Education.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find the ministry website or the documents you need. If you can’t find the ministry website try looking for the regional or country website for a relevant UN agency. They usually have a link to their partner ministry. For example, if you are looking for a Ministry of Health website you can usually find a link from the WHO country website.

Some UN agencies have databases of all the relevant documents for each member country. For example, the WHO Country Planning Cycle Database allows you to download the national health strategy for each country. It also shows how much funding has been provided by different donors.

Review the program documents

Before leaving ask the organisation you are working for to provide you with documents for the program you will be working on. You should normally have (at least) the following documents:

  • Proposal
  • Budget
  • Baseline Survey Report
  • Supervision / Monitoring Reports
  • Quarterly / Semester / Annual Reports

You should definitely read all the documents for the program you will be working on, but it can also be useful to browse documents from other programs too. USAID and DFID both have databases where can search for program documents by topic and country.

Connect with in-country staff at your organisation

While this may seem fairly obvious… it can be easy to get so wrapped up in planning a move and absorbing knowledge that time is lost for actually speaking with people. You should make time to connect with in-country staff (Skype and Google Hangouts are good) to help you prepare. Knowledge gained from others can help focus your preparation as they can highlight issues currently being experienced. Some people are also more likely to talk about topics that they won’t put in an email, and it is easier to discuss topics in-depth rather than going back and forth over email.

Connect with other professionals that are in-country

Some countries have a forum / group / association for NGOs that help to coordinate activities between different organisations. It can be useful (depending on what your role is) to identify and connect with members of other NGOs before arriving in-country. LinkedIn can be a useful place to start for quickly searching on people that are in-country and what they’re working on (although it will have gaps of people that do not have profiles).

Photo by Lynn Friedman

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About Piroska Bisits Bullen

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Piroska has worked on a range of international development programs involving local NGOs, international NGOs, UN agencies and government. She holds a Ph.D. in public health, has published articles in several journals, and was a speaker at TEDx Phnom Penh. Piroska is passionate about using scientific evidence and creativity to design programs that work.
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