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Geology for global development

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Image:  Tanzania - Protected water sources close to the local community can bring major benefits to both health and education 

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Geoscience has a crucial role to play in international development and the fight against severe poverty, says Joel Gill*.

Geoscientist 22.07 August 2012

Understanding groundwater can enable us to bring clean water to communities who previously had to walk several kilometres to fetch it. A thorough knowledge of natural hazards (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides) informs and improves disaster risk reduction. Engineering geology, agrogeology, sustainable extraction of natural resources, medical and contaminant geology, and climate change research all have the potential to assist development.

Image:  United Kingdom - World Walks for Water event 2011, Former Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, shows his support 

Many young geologists today are eager to get involved in this important work, applying geoscientific understanding for the benefit of the developing world. But while organisations exist for professional/later-career geoscientists in this area, there is a gap when it comes to opportunities for younger geoscientists.

Young geoscientists need the opportunity to learn more about how their skills can be used within development; the opportunity to gain experience, and develop the key skills essential to this kind of work. Skills such as cross-cultural communication and assessing vulnerability and resilience are not covered in traditional geoscience courses, though they are crucial in effective development. Moreover, even though a geoscience student may not plan to pursue a career in the development sector, gaining international experience and developing a broader range of skills will nevertheless improve his or her effectiveness, reputation and employability in our truly global discipline.

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The organisation Geology for Global Development (GfGD), established in 2011, is working to fill this gap between interest and opportunities. The organisation aims to:
  • Inspire and inform individuals (students, the public, policy-makers and politicians) about how geoscience can be applied to global development
  • Engage young geoscientists in key discussions between Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), governments and academia
  • Support individuals in developing skills, acquiring opportunities and gaining experience
  • Equip charities and organisations by communicating relevant geoscience simply and effectively.

Image:  Tanzania - Effective communication across cultures is important in many projects 

These core objectives will be pursued mainly through university groups. They give students with an interest in development work the opportunity to pursue their interest through seminars and discussion groups and by contributing to our wider work. At the time of writing groups run by one or two student ambassadors have been established at Cambridge, Leeds, and Leicester universities, and UCL. Three students who were keen to become involved right from the start were Laura Rose Wilson (LRW, University of Leicester), Claire Fyson (CF) and Tim Middleton (TM), both recently graduated from Cambridge.

Laura Rose Wilson said: “While studying geology I have found many students interested in using their geological knowledge to aid global development. However most find it a challenge to gain experience and therefore careers in this sector. On many occasions this is due to lack of funding, but another dominant factor is the lack of practical opportunities in developing countries, unlike the copious opportunities in industry and exploration.”

Claire Fyson says: “The GfGD University Group in Cambridge is an excellent forum for students to share and discuss ideas about development that are rarely covered in undergraduate geoscience courses. Our seminars have covered topics from earthquake education in Central Asia to the importance of hydrogeologists in post-tsunami disaster recovery work. In the future we hope to help members gain invaluable experience through placements with NGOs and other development organisations.”

Tim Middleton says: “GfGD can cultivate a generation of geoscientists who are aware of the huge power they have to help those around them. We can arrange seminars, post blogs and use social media to attract attention to what we are doing. We can complete internships, volunteer abroad and pursue academic courses with a development-related focus. We can also write advisory documents for charities, petition policy-makers and engage in debates. The crucial thing is to do it with enthusiasm and professionalism. We have an important message to spread and it’s paramount that we take it seriously.”

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University groups provide the springboard for students to get involved in GfGD’s national programme such as the GfGD blog, and developing resources for NGOs and universities. The opportunity to write for the blog, with around 4000 hits a month across the world, will help students to engage with the challenge of science communication in a development context.

Image:  Zambia – Assessment of sewage entering the water close to agricultural areas (Image courtesy Bruce Malamud, King’s College London) 

GfGD have also initiated an ‘advocacy programme’, promoting the positive role that geoscience can play in society and lobbying for the better use of geoscience within government development policy. GfGD took part in the ‘World Walks for Water’ event at Westminster in 2011, in which MPs came together to show their support for international water programmes. We hope that this advocacy will continue through continued attendance at such high-profile events, through scrutinising major legislation and lobbying Parliament to consider geoscience within development.

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Where does Geology for Global Development go from here? Plans begin with expanding and developing our GfGD University Groups. As these multiply, so must GfGD’s capacity to support their development; and so a National Committee comprising students and recent graduates will be established. A UK-based conference, aimed at gathering members from across our various university groups, is also on the agenda.

Image:  Solomon Islands – University of Leicester Students working closely with the Geological Survey in a knowledge exchange program (Image courtesy Sarah Hey, University of Leicester) 

Another of our aims is to establish UK-based summer placements through our relationships with NGOs – so putting geoscientists at the heart of the development sector. Such opportunities will help students cement their understanding of how development works from both policy and practitioner perspectives. Students will have the chance to consider if and how geoscience is used within this work, and so look for ways to improve its understanding among development practitioners.

The development of an overseas placement scheme will give students and recent graduates the chance to spend time working in less developed countries, fostering both soft and technical skills, and gaining important experience for career development. Placements will involve close collaboration with host country universities, governments and charitable organisations. This emphasis on strengthening technical capacity brings real benefit to host countries from the dialogue, skill sharing and knowledge exchange that is thereby fostered.

Finally, as always with an initiative such as this, there is the challenge of fundraising. The programme proposed by GfGD is ambitious, and many future initiatives will involve securing serious financial backing. We expect that university groups will play a role through organising fundraising events; and as well as making applications to grant-making bodies, we intend to establish opportunities for private sector sponsorship.

By getting involved in the activities of GfGD we hope that many students will begin to engage with the question of how to work effectively in other cultures, making projects more sustainable and reducing vulnerability through the improved communication of geoscience. There are many individuals and groups within the geosciences that have worked to share their knowledge and skills with those less fortunate - a far from straightforward task. What has been lacking so far, however, is a forum for young people - students and recent graduates - to get involved, and develop skills and experience. Geology for Global Development has an ambitious plan to help fill that gap - and in so doing, join the fight against global poverty.

Further information

Find out more by visiting the GfGD website (, Facebook (, or Twitter (@Geo_Dev).

* Joel Gill is the Founder and Director of Geology for Global Development (GfGD), and a first year PhD student in the Environmental Monitoring and Modelling Research Group at King’s College London. For further information you can contact him via e-mail ([email protected]). 


My thanks go to Laura Rose Wilson (University of Leicester), Claire Fyson and Tim Middleton (University of Cambridge), for their contributions to the content and review. Dr Bruce D. Malamud (King’s College London) and Sarah Hey (University of Leicester) provided images. Finally, many thanks to Professor Mike Petterson (University of Leicester) for helping to initiate this article.