Getting started in international development journalism

The term ‘development journalism’ only came to exist in the sixties, as media organisations in Asia and Africa responded to the growing number of aid agencies working in developing countries. As such, there’s no real set route to pursue to become a development journalist. Those working in the field now openly admit to having ‘fallen into’ the profession, through subbing, volunteering, and working for NGOs.

So if your goal is to report on development issues – be it food security in the Sahel, women’s land rights in Rwanda, or access to life-saving medications in South Africa – what can you do to steer your career towards becoming an international development journalist? I spoke to three experts – Sue George (freelance writer and editor of the Guardian’s annual International Development Journalism competition), Tom Murphy (blogger and journalist on humanitarian issues for Humanosphere), and Mark Tran, (correspondent for Guardian Global Development) – for their advice on becoming an international development reporter.

Gain a ‘level of legitimacy’

Tom Murphy: “There’s a whole language to the field of development and you definitely want to familiarise yourself with the names of all of these NGOs and some of these key buzzwords and phrases that are often repeated. That really helps you actually talk about it with the people that are involved and it helps you see between the lines. It’s really valuable when you can know what’s going on and be able to ask the right questions.”

Know your stuff … and pick a specialism

Sue George: “I think having a specialism within development is really important, actually, certainly if you’re trying to get started. I think that lots of people end up having that anyway. Maybe they have a country specialism because they know a lot about that country, or maybe they have a theme specialism.”

Mark Tran: “I think the best way to do this is to have a general knowledge of development issues and then have an area that you try and develop and deepen your knowledge of. It always stands you in good stead to know one particular subject, or a couple of subjects, that you know in detail more than others, but you need a broad general knowledge of the field as well. If you can combine the two, I think that’s the ideal way to do it.”

Identify neglected issues

Tom Murphy: “The over-arching thing that I think needs to be thought about more, and will be changing, is how aid is going to be different in the next few years. There’s this possibility that the age of the NGO might be coming to a close sometime soon, so what does it look like when Oxfam is becoming less relevant? And when do we reach that point?”

Sue George: “One thing I know that is not covered sufficiently is the area of non-communicable diseases [a non-infectious and non-transmissible disease]. The developing world is having increasing problems with things like heart attacks, diabetes and road traffic accidents. All these things are big, big problems in the developing world and I don’t think that they’re being looked at sufficiently… so someone could have a go at that!”

Prepare for the future 

Tom Murphy: “The most important (and also most boring) thing to know about is what happens after 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are going to run out and that is a major discussion that’s going to be happening at the UN in September. Whatever comes of that is really what sets the bar [for the future]. It’s going to have a long-lasting affect. The conversations are really weird and non-specific at this point, but when these goals start being hammered out, that’s going to matter a lot and that will change how people report.”

Keep your eyes peeled

Tom Murphy: “There are fellowships and there are opportunities. The Pulitzer Center is looking for people to report on global health. The International Reporting Project (based out of John Hopkins University) does trips. I went with them to Tanzania in October and I’m going with them to Brazil in March. They do a few trips per year; you go for two weeks and it’s a pretty neat opportunity to get your hands dirty. You get to work alongside some really stellar journalists from different subject areas and parts of the world.”

Get out there

Sue George: “One thing that might be a good idea if you’re really keen on doing this is to live in a developing world country for a bit. So let’s say you can speak French; maybe you could go to Senegal and see if there are any stories there that you could write about. You find out more and more about living in that country. You get really good contacts. You could pitch some stories to all sorts of publications and you would get to know the individuals there to find out what the stories might be.”

Tom Murphy: “Try to get out there and familiarise yourself with the region. When things that garner a larger attention happen, then you’re really well placed to do a lot of reporting for a lot of different places. A good example would be Westgate (the al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013). The major news networks from the US and Europe were pleading for anything and everything in terms of stories, so the people who were there who already knew the city and who knew Kenya, were able to churn out a tonne of stories. That’s a rare exception but these things do come up every so often, and when you’re there, you’re in a much better position than anyone else.”

Mark Tran: “It’s almost like trying to be a foreign correspondent and the best way is to be somewhere, where there is a demand for foreign news. For example, if you’re in somewhere like Afghanistan, development is also such a huge element of the story so you can end up writing about resource exploitation, education… so in a way, it’s like an extra dimension to foreign reporting. And with foreign reporting, the best place to do that is from a particular country or region. If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere interesting like Mali or Nigeria, development is going to be a very important part of the coverage.”

This article originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.


When I tell people that I’m going to Tanzania, the usual response is something along the lines of: “Oh, but it’s alright there, isn’t it?”, hinting to the fact that it hasn’t endured as many natural disasters or drawn-out conflicts as other African nations.

This is partially true. Since independence in 1964 – when Tanganyika and Zanzibar united to form one country – Tanzania has faired rather well and avoided many of the catastrophes that have plagued its neighbours. This can be partially attributed to Tanzania’s first President, Jules Nyerere.

President Nyerere based his social and development policies on the concept of Ujamaa, a KiSwahili word meaning extended family or family-hood. It is most commonly distinguished by the notion that a person becomes a person through the people or the community. Nyerere emphasised the need for an African model of development in his blueprint, the 1967 Arusha Declaration – today known as Tanzania’s most prominent declaration of African socialism.

“It is stupid to rely on money as the major instrument of development when we know only too well that our country is poor. It is equally stupid, indeed it is even more stupid, for us to imagine that we shall rid ourselves of our poverty through financial assistance rather than our own financial resources… Firstly, we shall not get the money. There is no country in the world which is prepared to give us gifts or loans, or establish industries, to the extent that we would be able to achieve all our development targets… And even if all the prosperous nations were willing to help the needy countries, the assistance would still not suffice.”

Nyerere was a popular president and his leadership attracted worldwide respect for his consistent emphasis on ethical principles as the basis of practical policies. And Tanzania made great strides in vital areas of social development under his governance:

  • Infant mortality decreased from 138 per 1000 live births in 1965, to 110 in 1985
  • Life expectancy at birth rose from 37 in 1960 to 52 in 1984
  • Primary school enrolment was raised from 25% in 1960 to 72% in 1985, despite the rapidly increasing population
  • Adult literacy rose from 17% in 1960 to 63% by 1975, and continued to rise.

But like all political policies, Ujamaa was not perfect and cracks began to form. The oil crisis of the 1970s, the collapse of export commodity prices and the onset of war with Uganda in 1978 to overcome dictator Idi Amin all starved Tanzania of valuable resources, leading to two consecutive droughts.  By 1985, after failing to lift Tanzania out of its poor economic state, President Nyerere resigned voluntarily.

And today, while Tanzania may seem peaceful, luscious and bountiful, social and economic figures identify a nation in desperate need of development and growth. According to the UN:

  • Life expectancy average 58.25 years
  • There are 11 hospital beds per 10,000 people
  • 82.4% of the population live on less than a dollar a day
  • At the last count in 2002, there were an estimated 822 physicians across the entire country. As of 2009, there are 43.7 million people living in Tanzania. That’s roughly one doctor to over 53,000 people, give or take.

Fortunately, Tanzania is one of those countries that completely captures your heart and there are dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of organisations and social entrepreneurs working tirelessly to turn these figures around.

Forever Angels Baby Home is located in Bwiru, near Mwanza airport on the outskirts of the city. It was set up by British ex-pat, Amy Hathaway, and provides a loving and safe home for children under the age of five who were abandoned or whose parents cannot look after them. Forever Angels aims to reunite the children with their parents or close relatives or find suitable adoptive families.

The Mwanza Rural Housing Programme (MRHP) trains people from all over the region to make high-quality bricks out of agricultural residues, such as rice husks. These bricks are then used to built sturdy, permanent homes in an area where most families must re-build their houses of mud and sticks every year. After the initial training and support given by MRHP, most brick-makers go on to establish their own independent brick-making enterprises.

And lastly, Tanzaid, established by Victoria Randell, manages Kuleana Street Children Centre, a transitional home for children coming off the streets. The centre has a team of social workers providing regular counselling to each child before they return to their communities. Children are given the time and care to help them deal with traumatic experiences, talk about their family situations and think about their future. Life skills sessions are also provided covering subjects such as rights, responsibilities, behaviour, choices, hygiene, future options, drugs, sexual health and HIV awareness.

When I visit Tanzania in January, as well as spending time with the amazing kids at Upendo Children’s Home, I’m hoping to go out and visit these amazing projects and organisations, and others like them. If my internet connection holds out, I’ll report it all back here. Stay tuned.

The great blog avoider

Hi. My name is Katherine and I’m a blog-avoider. It’s been three months since my last blog post.

In the last three months, there have been times when everything has been happening all at once and I’ve hardly had a minute to pause, and there have been other times where nothing has been happening and I have had plenty of time to sit, contemplate and mull things over.

Either way, none of it has seemed worth writing about.

But this is just not good enough. (Even my parents have said those immortal words: “You need to start writing again!”)

But, quality is better than quantity, right? Right?!

The good news is that my horrendous blog-avoidance will be a thing of the past in a few short weeks. In January, I’m travelling back to Mwanza, Tanzania. Alongside some volunteering, I’m hoping to meet with some NGOs, social entrepreneurs and pioneering business people – particularly within the fields of development and global health. My journalist brain has already kicked in and I’ve been brainstorming some story ideas to get excited about.

And, depending on the access I’ll have to the Internet, I’ll be posting all my stories right here.