James Malar, Communications & Engagement Advisor, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations

Remote regional Australia

Networking is what you make of it. If you are the sort of person who is happy to meet new people, chat with them and keep in contact with them, then acting in that way would be second nature, and for me that is largely what networking is about.

Name: James Malar Current Position: Communications & Engagement Advisor – International Program
Nationality: Australian Organisation: Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations
Qualifications (and University): LLM (Law, Governance and Development) from Australian National University; LLB/BSocSc (Politics) from Macquarie University
Years of experience: 1 in development/7 overall
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: linkedin.com/pub/james-malar/4a/626/3
Languages (and level of fluency): A little bit of Spanish


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

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) aims to eliminate HIV in Australia, Asia and the Pacific. AFAO is the national federation for the HIV community response. We provide leadership, coordination and support to Australia’s policy, advocacy and health promotion response to HIV/AIDS. Internationally we contribute to the development of effective policy and programmatic responses to HIV/AIDS at the global level, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.

When did you first start working in international development?

I have only been in international development for around 12 months.

What was your first international development role?

I began as an intern for the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights with a particular focus on Myanmar. The role was based in the ESCAP offices in Bangkok.

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

Having left five years in the Commonwealth Public Service, I was hoping to move directly into a paid position. These positions can be challenging to obtain, can take a while to process and can be expedited by having a professional social network on the ground in the area you wish to work. Therefore I looked to pursue an area of personal interest – human rights in Myanmar – in an unpaid capacity while also seeking a paid position. While the unpaid position was the result of only one application, the opportunity to work in my current role was a product of several applications.

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.

My non-development career provided a solid foundation to move into international development. I had experience working in human rights, policy and legislative development, environmental management, and cross-cultural engagement through various government positions. I found a great deal of the skills were of great assistance in helping me to adapt to my new working environment. So I suppose that while many of the skills were adaptable, there were many other challenges that come when working in the development context.

I certainly haven’t followed a linear career progression, but each role I have undertaken has been linked to themes that I am passionate about and consequently I have found each role to be rewarding – that for me is certainly the key to building your experience, skills and knowledge.

What was the nature of the first organisation you worked for?

My first roles were in Government and the UN. The Government roles exposed me to an environment that offers flexible working conditions and sideways movement but also fosters career development. However, it was an environment where process (rightly or wrongly) is often as important as content. The UN offered no escape to the bureaucracy, and the individualised nature of many people’s work can make it quite an isolating environment. That is in no way meant to derogate the talent of the workplace, but is more a comment on the culture of the workplace. This was very different from how I had expected the UN to be and this greatly contributed to the appeal of the engaging and interpersonal nature of my current role.

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

My experience in the field was largely in the Australian context, having undertaken a range of community engagement activities in regional and remote indigenous Australia. Internationally, my field experience was limited to studying abroad in Latin America and undertaking a postgraduate fieldwork subject in South Asia.

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

Cross-cultural engagement is central to my current role, so having a background in this sort of work (even if in a different cultural context) was an advantage when applying for my current role and has helped me deliver outcomes in that role.

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

Networking is what you make of it. If you are the sort of person who is happy to meet new people, chat with them and keep in contact with them, then acting in that way would be second nature, and for me that is largely what networking is about. Some people are obviously quite fake and shallow when approaching networking and at the end of the day many people can see through this quickly. Genuine networking – meeting new people, discovering new cultures and making an effort to remain in contact – is something that has been valuable for me.

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

There are great rewards in development, however, there are great personal and professional challenges. Before embarking on a development career arm yourself with the wisdom of people who have gone before you – both the romantic and not-so-romantic notions of development. There are many pieces written on this and you should seek out some reads that work for you.

I found the following helpful: know a little about the culture and context you will be working in (anything from living conditions, climate, to reputation of the organisation, to cultural faux pas) before you arrive; be prepared both for challenging circumstances but also for things going wrong and not working out at all as you had hoped; be resilient; don’t forget about people back home – keep in contact and do not lose sight of the value of your friends and family; and, possibly the most rewarding, embrace the location and culture where you are based.


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