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.

The Fear of the American Embassy is the Beginning of Wisdom

It seems that there is really no end to the quest for the American dream. I drove past the American embassy recently and the people standing in line to attend a visa interview could have easily made the hundreds; all would have paid a non-refundable fee of about $200 for short stay visas to the land that flows with “milk and honey”. People say that for all it stands for, might, smart(s) and all, if one succeeded with the US embassy, how could they not make it on US soil? Over half of those people will be denied visas and tens of the “lucky” ones will be turned back by Homeland Security upon arrival in the US. I have since stopped asking why the numbers swell given the treatment and outcome. I could see that everyone was in line, quite uncharacteristically, standing patiently, waiting to be ushered in. You see, the fear of the Americans is the beginning of wisdom; there are armed Policemen standing around, blocks of concrete cut off the lane on which the Embassy building stands; an imposing and aesthetically unappealing concrete safe haven. I saw a heavily pregnant woman standing in line, supported by a man, who stood by her right, a minor distortion to the straight line of people.

“Is that woman pregnant?” My sister asked loudly, voicing my thought.

“Nobody will give her that visa, she’s made a huge mistake coming here,” my niece quipped from the back seat.

Even my niece knew?

I was reading about a woman who lived in the US from when she was a 9 year old child, and was deported several years later in her adult years, and it occurred to me that perhaps a quick reform of the US immigration system would bring a lot of these games to an end. Millions of people around the world in an attempt to provide the best for their loved ones continue to risk alienation and the unknown to cross borders into what they hope is the answer to their search for a better life. Migration and a perceived better life or better opportunity is almost like a drug; it is addictive and “users” will do anything, anything, to achieve it. Scam schemes abound, from fraudulent so-called immigration lawyers, to domestic human traffickers, there are more and more victims every day. We have heard stories, where the quest for a better life has caused relatives to become stowaways, to sell their own into slavery as batter to migrate, and even after deportation, they scrape up all the money that they have to pay legal fees to appeal a case which their families and their lawyers know they cannot win. You see, not too many people want to live in a country where everyone is a Government unto oneself, where families pay for and provide their own security; no matter how ill-equipped, where people generate their own power and water supply, and rely on a praying and fasting church group every time they have to travel by air or road. Who wants to live in a place where Civil Servants embezzle pension funds of citizens and go scot-free? Nobody wants to live in a society which neither recognises hard work nor rewards it. Nobody wants to live in a society where politicians feed fat on the nation’s treasury and preachers live extravagantly off the generousity of the widow’s steady stream of mite. But I digress.

I imagined the pregnant woman answering the questions posed by a visa officer whose mind has already been made up, as had mine, that she was not going to visit relatives living in the States as she claimed, but was planning to take advantage of the “citizenship by birth” clause for her unborn child. A safety net really, the parents’ gift to their child.

I wished I could stop and take the woman’s number, just to keep in touch and hear her rejection story, to discuss her motives and the waste of money which this venture surely was.

“She should have attended this interview immediately she found out that she was pregnant, before she started showing,” my niece again.

So this is where we are, even from the mouth of babes, everyone knows how to beat the American immigration system for a better life, but most people come out defeated anyway. And they will do it all over again, shaking knees, sweaty palms, quivering lips and all.

Am Not Better Than You Am Just Worried About You

Last week, I made another trip to the hospital! A visit in a series of visits that have come to torment me. Another friend, another diagnosis, another wave of helplessness crashing into already existing feelings of restlessness. My 30s have come with a certain awareness, where I am now comfortable in my own skin, yet I have a yearning for a certain “Je ne sais quoi”. Those feelings aside, I walked up the stairs to the ward where he lay; a strong wave of antiseptic and fried plantains hit me. I do not know if I can eat fried plantains anytime soon. His eyes were closed, his stomach swollen, his skin sallow. Another victim of kidney wahala; three dialysis sessions have now been done with a fourth being planned and donations made by “friends” as health insurance does not cover renal problems. How clever! We smiled and chatted a bit of this, a bit of that. We prayed, I wished him well from the bottom of my being. Hardly enough.

As I drove home, I saw T in my mind’s eye, laughing at me and my worrying. I called him, dreading it, knowing that we would fight, the cold type where no one said any angry words. Knowing I could never tell him the depth of my worry, knowing i could not share all that I was feeling.

“How far? I just visited someone in hospital…just go and have that cough checked out…cut down on red meat and alcohol. Try to lose some weight…blood pressure and kidney functions.” I muttered, embarrassed, but also sad at my embarrassment and fears and inability to say it all.

I saw an awesome post by Matt Thomas where he addressed the pertinent issue of outsiders intruding into one’s life and offering unsolicited advice. Surely that is not extended to family?

Ramblings of a Recently 30 Woman, Project Management Professional, International Development Enthusiast, Globetrotter, Writer and Happy Shutterbug®