Free online aid and development courses for penniless graduates

November 5, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

While we’re all chewing our nails about the US election, here’s recent LSE Masters student Hanna Toda with a post on how to keep learning while job-hunting.

Job applications can be an anxious waiting game for many students who have just finished their degrees. It can also feel exciting and/or overwhelming at how much more there still is to learn about…everything.

So I recently reached out to Duncan and asked whether he knew of any free online courses to build some skills for when I’m not job searching or counting grains of rice.  He was kind enough to post my question to the twittersphere and got a number of responses with a bunch of recommendations. Thanks! I’ve reviewed these learning platforms and compiled a broad run-down of each. While several of the them offer graduate degrees and certificate pathways, this review will focus on individual courses relating to international development.

Did I mention these are FREE?!


Kaya describes itself as a humanitarian leadership academy and boasts an impressive archive of 450+ courses that fall under five topics:

1) humanitarian essentials

2) Technical sectors

3) Programmatic support

4) Safety and security and

5) management essentials.

The user-friendly interface is clean and simple and each course page lists the objective of the course, what you can expect to understand by the end of it, as well as an estimate of how long it will take to complete.  Most courses take a couple of hours to complete while others can be more extensive as part of a learning pathway. Past learners can leave reviews of the course along with a star-rating which allows you to see the most popular and recommended courses.  You can track your progress using your learner dashboard and upon completion, some courses give you the option to download a certificate or a digital badge.

Overall, I’d say that Kaya feels like when you walk into a specialty cheese shop. Just bear with me for a second. The people who go there are only there for the cheese – none of that fancy chocolate or some other tomfoolery. It’s catering specifically for humanitarians and development professionals so you don’t have to waste time sifting for relevancy.

A stand-out feature is that the courses can be accessed from your phone with the Kaya Mobile app which allows you to download the courses for offline usage.



Agora is a learning hub for UNICEF’s staff, partners and supporters as a resource for career development and capacity building but it’s open to the general public and offers self-learning modules, videos and events. While UNICEF’s mission is specific to protecting the rights of children, they also cover key topics such as using data for the immunization supply chain, integrating gender based violence risk mitigation, humanitarian cash transfers and an intro to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). There are no ratings, reviews or in-depth syllabus overviews. While the interface isn’t as sophisticated or user-friendly as the bigger, general learning portals, it’s still a great introduction to the principles and practices of a UN agency.


If Kaya is your local cheese shop, then Coursera is Tesco. Coursera offers a range of topics and skills across various disciplines. Each course page has tabs that offer information on the instructor, a detailed preview of the syllabus, reviews from past learners, enrollment option and an FAQ. 

While many courses have an audit option where you are able to view the course materials for free, to access graded assignments and earn a certificate will cost you. The courses can range from a few hours to a couple of months. Because of enormity of it, I’d say like with any large grocery shop, it’s in your interests to already know what you want before you venture in – which skill or topic you want to learn about. “Why is it important to be conflict sensitive in DRR” and “Social Norms, Social Change I” come highly recommended. Maybe take this course and then follow it with “Osteoarchaeology: The truth in our bones” to have some fun facts to share in your next Zoom call.  


EdX is another giant in the online learning community and has a similar model to Coursera in that it offers self-paced free courses. But if you’re looking for a verified certificate, it’ll cost you. While the search term “international development” did yield some courses on the SDGs, I found that browsing through social sciences and humanities courses had more relevant results such as child protection, global health and poverty

When you click on a course page, it follows a similar format to Kaya and Coursera and gives a helpful snapshot of key information. What makes EdX’s interface unique is that most courses also have a short introductory video, which I found to be engaging and informative.  It should be noted that the majority of the courses run for several weeks, which requires a greater degree of commitment. I’ve heard through the grapevine that the human rights courses offered by Amnesty International are excellent.

Disaster Ready

Disaster Ready

As the name suggests, this learning portal is specific to the humanitarian and development field and claims to be the largest online learning library for humanitarian and development professionals. The courses fall within seven categories:

1) humanitarian essentials

2) safety and security

3) management and leadership

4) staff care and safeguarding

5) technical sectors and themes

6) program support

7) professional development.

Within these categories are an impressive range of courses on various specializations such as food security, gender, WASH, monitoring and evaluation, fundraising and donor management, procurement and logistics and international humanitarian law. What’s unique is a ‘duration filter’ – if you happen to find yourself with 15 or 30 minutes to spare the filter allows you to effectively find courses that you can do in that period. You can also customize your profile to display new and popular courses based on your favorite subjects to stay up to date on new offerings.

And there you have it! This is by no means a complete list – if anyone has any knowledge of more free courses for international development graduates, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

Update from Duncan: egg-on-face with my Oxfam colleagues – forgot to ask Hanna to plug our ‘Make Change Happen‘ MOOC on campaigns and influencing, which apparently has loads of aid sector peeps signing up.

November 5, 2020
Duncan Green