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A Beginner’s Guide to Working in Sustainable Aid and Overseas Development

We can change the world. We’ve all felt it, that overwhelming urge which every permie gets when they graduate from their PDC, that burning desire to share our excitement, to spread the good word, to let the rest of world in on the little secret we’ve just discovered: “We’ve got something here that can really help us all, if you would only just listen!!



And it’s true. We are on to something. We really can solve all the world’s problems in our gardens.

Though before we beginners rush out to save the world, it is important that we step back, slow down , take a brutally honest look at ourselves, and identify the gaps in our experience, knowledge, abilities, and skill-sets that we need to fill – before we take the plunge of working in international aid.

The old saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and this is especially true when it comes to foreign aid. Listen to any seasoned permaculture aid worker long enough, and they are bound to tell you dozens of frighteningly embarrassing stories of well-intentioned aid gone wrong, or at least being less effective than they could have.

After completing my 72-hour PDC at the Southern Cross Permaculture Institute (SCPI) in December 2011, I was eager to rush out and do my part to help end poverty: Geoff Lawton style, of course, turning deserts into gardens, lawns into orchards, and wastelands into overflowing cornucopias of productive land.

After all, I have ten years of experience in small business, taught finance and real estate all over the State of Hawaii, and was able to make a lot of people a lot of money back in the days when I ran my little firm. Surely, I told myself, I had something to contribute?

Rick’s daily commute to teaching
a PDC in Nepal, 2001

So I asked Rick Coleman — who in his 18+ years teaching permaculture has worked in some of the harshest conditions, on every continent [except Antarctica], with some of the poorest people in the world — if I had what it takes to work in Overseas Aid and Development.

His answer was direct, painfully simple, and borne from the frustrating perspective of bearing witness to countless aid agencies inadvertently making mistakes – and risking countless lives – in well-intentioned, but ill-informed efforts to make a difference:

Have you ever grown enough food to feed your family?

Erm, hmmmm, uhhhh…..Right. Good point. He had me, and he knew it; and so he went on to say:

When we work in the developing world, the stakes are very high: if you make a mistake, someone goes hungry, someone cannot feed their child that day. We must design carefully to avoid precarious situations, or we are taking extreme risks with people’s lives.

Bill Mollison said it himself, in the Global Gardener series where he takes us on a tour of his tropical garden:

Once you’ve set up your own home, so that you can leave it for 2 or 3 months and it just gets better, so that you are free to travel, then you can go and teach other people. — Bill Mollison

Then, perhaps sensing that in three short sentences, he may have crushed all of my hopes and dreams for ever working internationally, Rick planted a seed:

You can build upon your strengths and experience in business and finance, and take that and translate it into permaculture aid. For example, micro finance and enterprise development could become your core strength in this field.

You can grow into an effective teacher, though first you’ll need to study the pedagogy of how to teach permaculture — it’s one thing to tell, and quite another thing to teach.

…and so seven months later I wake up in a ger [yurt], my belly in knots from too much tsu-te-tse [traditional salty milk tea] drunk the night before, and dash outside, into the achingly cold morning and over to the pit latrine at the edge of the hasha [family compound], which has been dug barely high enough so that I can avoid embarrassing splatters — if I can only squat deftly enough.

Class photo in Zavkhan Province, Northwestern Outer Mongolia

I’ve spent the last six months living and working on Rick’s farm: shoveling shit into no-dig garden beds, wheeling wheelbarrows around landscaping projects, swinging a hammer, slinging straw bales around houses made of natural and recycled materials, loving every mud-splattered minute of it and doing all I can to learn and skill up, and somehow be helpful enough to justify a spot on the team for his next overseas consultancy….

And now, I am waking up in the Outer Mongolian province of Zavkhan, supporting a Sustainable Aid consultancy for ADRA Mongolia, who has sponsored us to teach the country’s first-ever Permaculture Design Course, to the nomads whose herds had been decimated by increasingly harsh winters.

Rick’s team includes Kat Lavers [of Transition Towns Darebin and The Plummery Urban Permaculture Demonstration Site in Melbourne], a young though experienced permaculture teacher and activist, and, well …me. Bek, my good friend and PDC classmate is also there, because he is a native of Mongolia, and also happens to be the Director of Food Security for the NGO – who have done a good job in laying a foundation for permaculture to become well-integrated into their design solutions and operations by investing in their staff’s permie-powers.

Petrol pumps, previously considered to be an asset, were re-classified by
students as a liability – in favour of RAM pumps, which have only two moving
parts and harness the river’s flow to pump water up to the growing plot

You should try gardening here: -40°C winters, ancient beach sand for soil, a super short growing season, and little access to water. Some co-operatives are watering 20 plus acres by hand, and apart from that, Mongolians don’t even like to eat vegetables – they’ve never had the luxury of being able to choose a vegetarian diet.

I am glad that I heeded Rick’s advice and took time to build my permie-powers, and then found seasoned, successful teachers willing to take me under their wing. This way I gain invaluable on-the-ground experience that cannot be gleaned from a website, classroom or two-week course [no matter how intensive]. I am able to collaborate on design solutions, make attempts at reading the landscape, and bounce ideas around within the safety net of my more experienced companions.

Most importantly, this minimizes the chances that I will make any beginner’s mistakes that could cause a family to go hungry.

A permacultural system looks at designing for the extremes. Especially when working in aid, we design first for Survival, then Subsistence, then Self-Sufficiency, and then Abundance of Harvest [where crops can be bartered or given away]. Finally, we can move on to Commercial production. — Rick Coleman

My primary role here is to support the other two, and document the project with photos, video, and a daily blog that we can use as a teaching tool for other permies wanting to develop the experience, knowledge and skills necessary for working effectively in permaculture aid. In true multi-functional permie fashion, I’ve also arranged with my AQTF, nationally accredited T.A.F.E. level Permaculture Diploma instructor that my blog can do double-duty and count towards my assessment tasks in the course.

My secondary role is to assist in setting up and conducting any practicums, like building a compost heap or any of the other fun learning activities every permie gets to do on their PDCs. Then, the best surprise ever: in week four of the project, Rick works with me and draws from my experience to develop a lesson plan for the session on micro finance; then he asks me to teach the session, and all of a sudden I am teaching business and finance to the descendants of Ghengis Khan’s fearsome army.

Dreams, even the really weird ones, really do come true.

Knowledge was transferring by day 2 of the PDC. Dead weeds, previously
slashed and removed from the site, were being collected and used as mulch


It’s now been four months since I got back from the Mongolian Permaculture Project, and I am currently living in an entirely different place (Hamburg, Germany), and working on new and different projects; but that, my friends, is another story for another day.

Right now we’d like to tell you about an opportunity to make your dreams [however weird] of working internationally as a permaculture aid worker come true:

Tosontsengel PDC Graduates, July 2010

The Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) and ADRA Mongolia are looking for a suitable candidate for an expenses-paid, 12 month volunteering opportunity, in conjunction with AYAD and ADRA. The successful candidate must be under 30 years of age, and have minimum qualification of Permaculture Design Certificate or equivalent diploma/certificate in a related field (such as horticulture, ecology, agronomy, etc.).

The official position title is “Food Security Technical Officer, specialising in permaculture and organic gardening”.

Duties will include: “assisting to teach refresher courses to Food Security Staff in permaculture principles and practice, developing appropriate permaculture manuals, conducting field assessments to community gardens, and providing technical advice and research on implementation of identified permaculture practices in the Mongolian context.”

The successful candidate will report to ADRA Mongolia’s Food Security Director, who is a PDC graduate with a background in agronomy and hydro-engineering.

You’ll have to be quick though, applications for the position close on January 19th, 2011 …. Share this article and help spread the word to anyone else you think might be qualified and interested!

Contact me on theGreenBackpack (at), or ADRA Programs Director Michelle Abel on mprograms (at) for more information and to get your application started.


  1. Great article and great advice mathew. I look forward to joining the permie aid team in the not too distant future!

  2. Hey Matthew
    At the time being I’m still in the process of building up my skills set, but thanks for all the information. A few days ago I demonstrated a banana circle at an organic agriculture training workshop in the Kalesty Valley of Nepal, volunteering with the Sustainable Agriculture Development Program Nepal(SADP), an invaluable experience. Keep posted for a possible article.

  3. Yes Matt I was screaming at the wrong date!
    I love your turn of phrase & how passionate & dedicated you are .
    Your vege plot at home is feeding the whole Lynch clan & sweet corn looking great .

  4. Thank you for this great article. I have been researching for a few months now on how I should go about changing my career from college lecturer to becoming a permaculture aid worker. You have answered a whole multitude of questions as it is a little unclear what avenues and opportunities are out there. Many NGOs websites are so vague about their aid worker roles its hard to know where to begin. So thanks for making things a little clearer.

  5. Glad you enjoyed the read.. for more information, and a first-hand account of making the transition, chk out my journal at Would love to hear about how your journey unfolds; let us know how we can support you.
    Cheers, -ML-

  6. Thanks Matthew for an inspiring informative read. I’m glad to read of the exciting opportunities that could come from completing the permie course.

    I am looking to do my permaculture course with southern cross permaculture, do you know if it is accredited?

  7. What a super story still having influence a few years later. I am looking outside my local area for purposeful work and your story is very meaningful at the moment. Thanks.

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