How To Find An International Development Job: Steps To Take

I met two VSO volunteers today, one came from Scotland and the other from Boston and it brought some wonderful memories back. From my undergrad days all those years ago, before VSO, I knew what I wanted to do. It was only a question of how to get in there. I wanted to work in development; I declared and spoke it as often as I could albeit being unprepared at the time. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to get in there, I needed to do my research; and I did. However, I wish I knew what I know now. it would have made the journey smoother and quicker. If you are even the least bit interested in this area, it is truly worthwhile to pursue; there is nothing else I would rather do (except maybe travel writing and photography, which am now exploring).

To follow a career in International Development, it is important that you strategise and do your homework because it hardly happens by chance. These are the pieces of information that every potential development worker needs to have:

  1. Have a clear understanding of Development

You want to read the history, the need, the various schools of thought around development. You want to gain an insight into the various issues plaguing the developing world. That is why this sector exists in the first place; those issues.  

Understand the various kinds of Development

In development work, all organisations and goals are not the same. The work done varies, from ethics and compensation, to rules of engagement and streams of funding. There is relief work which involves a lot of disaster response; and then there is Peace Building which has to do with a lot of post-war reconstruction. Then there is the Development Aid which is more long term and is done by a wide variety of organisations; this involves intervention in a host of different areas in developing countries.

Understand the various kinds of Development Organisations

This sector has a lot of players. There are the Multilaterals which include the UNDP and the World Bank. There are also the Bilaterals which include Aid arms of Governments including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), DFID(or UK AID) Department of International Development, CIDA Canadian International Development Agency. There are Commercial Organisations which are for profit and are involved in some aid development work. Research Institutions are also huge and these include Universities. Last but not the least are Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) which are the commonest and are found everywhere; in the donor countries and in the developing countries where the implementation happens. These include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Save the Children, PLAN and hundreds more.

Start saving

Now that you understand who your potential employees are, it is time to start saving money. It is important to prepare for the possibility of funding your dream, for a while at least. It is possible that you will not find a job immediately you start looking; it is also possible that you may have to fly out to the field just for the added advantage of being on ground. Save everything that you can. It can be difficult with all the debt and student loans that are unpaid still, but a little here and a little there over one year can make a huge difference.  

Familiarise yourself with the needs of the Sector

People always say that they “want to help people” and would like to visit the field and be”hands-on”. While that is a really good goal and thought, it’s time to realise that “more and more of the hands-on work is casual labour “. Even more shocking to some people is the fact that “most development work is office work”.  This is a career path, so just because it is called development aid, or humanitarian work does not mean that it is not run by professionals. It is. The areas of intervention are increasingly requiring specialists. This is no longer about helping orphanages or digging a well for clean water. It is now about systems strengthening for sustainability, capacity building and integrated supportive supervision. There is still the odd distribution of condoms to health facilities and/or most at risk populations, or Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets to household with communities, but those are done by casual labour really, while the experts do the tracking using datasent in from the facilities. Thus find out through “devex”, and “reliefweb”, to start with; what the needs of the sector are.  There are always some people who will have the opportunity to learn on the job, but there are others who will get in the door quicker just for the specific skills set which they possess. You want to be one of those. Just like every other profession, there are so many skills set required; from Public Health, to HR, to Democracy and Governance, Finance and Accounting, Operations, Procurement, Logistics, Communication, IT, Project Management, to Security, etc.

Develop your skills to speak to some of the needs above

For my undergrad degree, I went with English Literature because I was passionate about books and creative writing. That was my passion as a mid-teen. Then I realised what sector I was interested in, and quickly picked up a second language and invested in Project Management skills. Find out what your interests are and how they translate into an International Development job, hopefully it is something that you are already studying (or studied) and it fits into existing development needs. This makes it much easier for you to break in. Remember to develop some “across the board” skills like report writing and public speaking.

Start knocking on those doors

It is time to explore fellowships, internships and volunteering opportunities (in that order). Usually for those opportunities to count as something, in order for you to make an impact and vice-versa, it needs to be at least six months long. Start from your home country and keep at it, give yourself a timeline to break in. You may consider moving to the city that has the highest number of Development Organisations. Sign up for surveys, attend free lectures on Health, War, Social Reform, Aid Effectiveness, anything that you can, in order to put yourself in the same space with Development people. Express your intention to intern or volunteer, read everything that you can on the region in which you are interested. It is likely that someone will see your hunger and give you a break; albeit unpaid, to start with.

Take the Bulls by the Horns: Fly out

Find out more about the developing country and the region that you are most interested in; Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc. Make contact with a local NGO or an International one and fund your trip out. A lot of organisations will agree to take you in as long as it is at no cost to them and you will be of added value.

Finally, the key is really to read widely, work hard at improving yourself, and network. Attend parties, attend meetings, take notes (if you are already inside as an F, V or I), and offer to work extra, show that you are hungry for it and willing to put in the work. Try not to be too “in-your-face though, nobody wants a hounding job-seeker on their back. Focus on forging lasting friendships and people will be willing to put in a good word for you and opportunities for paid work will turn up.

Most importantly for people going to the field, be aware that your soft-skills are being evaluated, nobody wants conflict or rabble rousers on their team, so try to be amicable (be aware that the locals may  have a problem with you). I have heard local staff say that expatriates come from the “home country” as wet-behind-the-ears-volunteers, those same locals teach them the ropes because they know how it works, have more experience and have been doing the job for a while, and before they know it, the kid takes their jobs or the kid becomes their manager. Be aware of these feelings as you navigate the waters. Also, do not be a people pleaser, take work which you are not interested in, chances are that you will be stuck with that line of work as that is the experience you have garnered. Nobody wants to do work that they are unhappy with.

I have not covered all the steps to getting an international Development job. If you wish to add more, by all means do. Please add a few more, we can have numbers 9 and 10. Or more.

19 thoughts on “How To Find An International Development Job: Steps To Take”

  1. you are really a good webmaster. The website loading speed is incredible. It seems that you are doing any unique trick. Moreover, The contents are masterpiece. you’ve done a magnificent job on this topic!

    1. Hey thanks for your kind words,these are the kind of words every writer wants to hear about a piece. For the site, am not a webmaster at all 🙂 Just lucky with the settings I guess.

  2. Hi Anne,
    I recently came across your blog. It’s very informative, which I love!!! You seem to know a lot about various things. I just followed you’re blog and will be keeping up with your posts =) I’m a music artist/ philanthropist. There are a lot of things I’m looking to venture overseas for. Maybe we can become more acquainted =) Keep up the great posts!!!

    1. Hey thanks for stopping by, am not sure what region you are looking at going,or your specific interests in those areas. Feel free to send me an email. Thanks for your kind words and the follow

  3. Spot on! I’ve been working in development for a while now, but before I broke in I had to do some volunteering to acquire the experience I needed to work in my chosen area. Well written Anne Chia, keep it coming.

  4. Hi Anne, well written piece and very useful info for first timers looking to brave the development work – like me! Thank you for the tips.

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