Lisa Townshend, International Programs Officer, UNICEF Australia

Phsar Beung Keng Kang, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It is important to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this industry before committing to it and know at least where you stand on these issues. It is possible to have a career in this industry without living in war-zones, and if that’s what you want, then you need to know which path to take.

Name: Lisa TownshendMain country of residence: Australia Current Position: International Programs OfficerOrganisation: UNICEF Australia
Qualifications (and University): Master of Peace and Conflict Studies (University of Sydney); Bachelor of Arts (History & European Studies) (University of New South Wales); Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) (UNSW Institute of Languages).
Years of experience (development/overall): ): Less than 1 year in development / 7 years overall
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address:
Languages (and level of fluency): English (native speaker); Spanish (conversational fluency)


What is the nature of the organisation you currently work for?

UNICEF Australia is the representative body of UNICEF in Australia. The primary purpose of National Committees in industrialised countries such as Australia is to advocate for the rights of children and raise public and government awareness of issues affecting children around the world. UNICEF Australia’s international programs work in conjunction with UNICEF key areas including child nutrition and health, maternal health, education, water and sanitation and child protection. Domestically, UNICEF Australia works to improve policy on issues concerning the most vulnerable and marginalised children.

When did you first start working in international development and what was your first role?

I first started working in international development this year, in 2014, as an International Programs Intern with UNICEF Australia. I was offered my current position as an International Programs Officer upon completion of my internship in the International Programs team.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get your first role? Was the role paid or unpaid?

My internship with UNICEF Australia was unpaid. I applied for this position – it was a new internship program offered by the organisation in Sydney. However this application was far from my first. Previously, I had applied for various other positions and internships including federal government graduate programs. I had applied for at least 20-25 paid and unpaid positions whilst I had been completing my Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. In addition, I had been a very active volunteer with my department at university and within social justice student organisations on-campus.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferable.

Prior to deciding to work in international development, I worked in the corporate sector in Sydney and also as an English teacher in Sydney, Cambodia and Spain. I decided to pursue a career in international development whilst living and working as an English teacher in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had always been interested in working for an international organisation and on issues related to rebuilding communities and institutions post-conflict, and in Phnom Penh I was able to see first-hand how aid and development can positively (and sometimes negatively) impact on people’s lives. I decided I wanted to be a part of that but I knew that it would be a competitive and challenging personal and professional goal.

I started to actively make the transition from being a full-time English teacher to international development when I enrolled in my Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in 2012. I had been living in Spain for 3 years and knew that studying in Australia and developing contacts in the NGO community here in Sydney would be more beneficial to ‘hit the ground running’ so to speak. I knew that this Masters would be my ticket to successfully entering into this new professional space and so I set out to do as much as possible at university. That was both studying and learning as much as possible but also volunteering and getting involved in as many related activities as possible. I became the student representative at my university centre – the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) – and volunteered with a student-run organisation, the Global Social Justice Network (GloSo). Whilst these volunteer positions did not get me any paid work per se, I developed invaluable professional and academic contacts who I later used as references. It also demonstrated my passion for the peace and development industry.

As an English teacher I knew I had developed relevant and useful skills for the development industry, however the challenge for me was to demonstrate how these skills were transferable. I would say my transferable skills included cross-cultural communication, project management, planning, leadership and autonomous working abilities – all skills relevant to any position in international development. In my current role at UNICEF Australia, I use many of the skills I developed over the course of my teaching career, and in particular, knowledge gained from living and working in different countries.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role?

I lived and worked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for 9 months prior to obtaining my first development job. I believe my in-country experience was what made me a competitive candidate for my first paid position in the development industry. I left Australia to travel after I finished my first degree and became an English teacher in order to live and work in non-English-speaking countries. The first position I got was with the Australian Centre for Education (ACE) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I believe this experience was invaluable for me as at this time I realised I wanted to work in aid and development and contribute to making post-conflict societies more equal and peaceful. Working in-country also provided me with the insight to know whether I wanted to work in challenging conditions and for organisations that sometimes dealt with painful and devastating situations. I think that working in-country for at least one year is a good period of time to find your feet in a developing country, develop meaningful professional relationships and develop a good understanding of the challenges in a particular community/industry.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

I definitely consider field experience important in obtaining development work, and even more useful for your first development position. As I mentioned above, I believe my experience in Cambodia (despite being for a short time) was a competitive edge for me in gaining my current role with UNICEF. The development industry is incredibly competitive and it is necessary to provide potential employers with more reason to hire you over someone else. Experience in-country not only demonstrates your knowledge of the development industry ‘on the ground’, but also your vested interests in such employment. Furthermore, personally, I believe it is difficult to understand how development actually works without spending at least some time (more than 3 months) in a developing country, either as an intern, volunteer or employee.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

I think that networking is a useful tool to gaining knowledge about the development sector and also to meet people who might be able to assist you/mentor you professionally. However, I do believe networking is overrated as a way to gain employment in the industry. Many positions cannot simply be given to people you meet at an event, and often people are ‘snagged’ as volunteers rather than paid employees. This may sometimes develop into a paid role, however, often it may not. In my experience, networking has been beneficial as I have made invaluable contacts who have become friends and professional acquaintances who have then been a source of advice and knowledge in gaining employment. Also, going to events shows your passion and interest for the sector, which I believe is a must in gaining employment.

In brief, what other roles have you had throughout your career and if you did not start your career in development what was your previous profession?

I started my career as a Project Manager, Conferences for corporate conferencing company, Liquid Learning. I worked there for approximately one year and then I decided I wanted to travel, live and work in other countries. I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and worked as an English teacher at the Australian Centre for Education (ACE) for about 9 months before moving to Spain to continue working as an English teacher. One of my first goals was to learn a second UN language, so I moved to Madrid and learned Spanish. I lived and worked in Madrid for 3 years and in that time I taught English to adults, adolescents and children. I worked in a bilingual public primary school where I developed vital skills in working in a cross-cultural and bilingual professional environment. After this time I realised I still wanted to work in aid and development and returned to Australia to complete my Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

The main advantage of the work I’m engaged in currently is that I am gaining a lot of skills and knowledge about development programming and practice. I am also gaining insight into how UNICEF works globally, which for me is important and valuable as I believe UNICEF does incredible work and I’m honoured to be a part of it. I also wake up and am excited to go to work – I love being at UNICEF and being engaged in ‘development work’ – whether that be reading and analysing reports or writing program summaries or even menial tasks. I’m so happy to be there and at the end of the day, that’s what matters to me and that’s what encourages me to do good work.

The disadvantage is that a lot of the work I do is much more program oversight and administration. I want to be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ and even though I’m gaining insight into what happens in programs in-country, I’m realising it’s hard to get to that from Australia. On that note, it is a challenge knowing that some of the most interesting development work (in my opinion) is carried out in-country. If you are interested and willing to go and work in the field then there are consequences of that – being away from friends and family and the problems involved in maintaining relationships overseas from time to time. And then, when you return, life is not always the same and it can be hard to re-connect. This means that you need to make not only professional choices but also personal and lifestyle choices if committed to working on the ground.

I think it is important to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this industry before committing to it and know at least where you stand on these issues. It is possible to have a career in this industry without living in war-zones, and if that’s what you want, then you need to know which path to take.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

The most important piece of advice anyone ever gave me was not to compare yourself to anyone. Far from being clichéd, I think this is critical when fighting for jobs in this incredibly competitive sector.

1. Know what you want and what you can do.

2. Be passionate, positive and don’t give up on what you want.

3. Be informed on the issues you’re interested in and what jobs might be relevant. To get that you need to read a lot, go to events, learn about the issues and the sector and talk to people about how they got in.

4. Finally, never think that your skills are not relevant and good enough for a popular agency – you just need to clearly articulate how skills from a different industry are relevant and useful to a potential employer.


Image credit: By Sundgauvien38 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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