Why and How to Build a Career in International DevelopmentCareer Advice From The Trenches

A long-exposure photograph of a clock tower at night in a European city as traffic whizzes by in a blur

My current project is scoping the development of an employment hub for the Aboriginal community in the Goulburn Valley, a two hour drive from where I live in Melbourne, Australia. This has meant a number of quality long drives with a younger colleague who loves little more than to ponder questions about his future, and draining advice from me for his next career steps.

At first I was reluctant to position myself as someone with credible advice. I have preferred to imply that my career has happened to me, not been planned. But that is disingenuous. Everyone has a plan, and even if yours doesn’t go exactly, well to plan, if you desire a career in the international development or community engagement fields you need to build a plan. A flexible, open and agile plan, but a plan none the less.

This post is my advice on why and how to get a job in International Development. If you take one thing from this, then take this — it is a difficult field to break in to, but the personal and community rewards are unparalleled.

Immediately after I graduated from university, I worked for the United Nations in post-tsunami Banda Aceh in Indonesia. I then moved around Indonesia working for Civil Society Organizations and Non Governmental Organizations on both election and conflict reduction programs. I began to craft a niche for myself in community facilitation and monitoring and evaluation. My next move was to West Africa where I served as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development for an Elections based Civil Society Organization in Ghana, a position which was extended for me. I was then positioned to move around other West African nations working on designing programs to allow for greater voter education. I blog about these elections here.

So, maybe you are thinking about working in International Development- but that means the whole world, and where and how do you even start? Well, you have to answer one question first, and you have to answer it for yourself truthfully.

Why do you want to work in development?

There are few other fields to which this question is as relevant. Development requires sacrifices, and you have to walk in with your eyes open. In answering this question you need to reflect upon the following:

  1. Do I really want this?
  2. Do I have something to contribute to this?
  3. Have I set up strong workable networks?
  4. Have I adequately considered the risks?

So, you get beyond those questions, you’ve asked your family and you’ve researched the realities and you still want to work in the industry, or as we say “in the field”. The next step is to go to a developing country and work.

Breaking Into an International Development Career

Two things matter — persistence and value adds.

Development is a notoriously difficult industry to break in to. The first few steps are standard, you have to want it, you have to study it — or not. The reality is that perhaps your best “in” is to be qualified in an area of need such as project management or monitoring and evaluation.

So what do I mean about value adds? You need to do an internship or volunteer work, you need to network. Write for organization’s blogs, attend events and charity nights, public lectures and when you are there, let yourself and your interest in working overseas be known.

Be strategic in your search. Focus on a specific geographical area and a specific area of specialization. Spend time looking at online job forums (like Tapwage!), and at least get to know the names of the major organizations. Spend time on those organizations websites and determine what they need, and in doing that determine what you can offer them. To this end you need to review the donor countries lending policies and focus areas, because that is where the jobs will be. Don’t be afraid to cold-email people with your resume. Let other people say no to you instead of you prematurely turning down opportunities by not applying for them.

The biggest risk pay-off I have witnessed was a good friend from college who just turned up at a refugee camp. The biggest impediment to a job in development is that unlike big companies, small NGOs and even trans-national organizations don’t run graduate programs, and they don’t recruit in a similar or consistent fashion. Many are managing on minimal budget and don’t have HR processes. A further impediment is the entire industry is at the whim of the donor country aid policies.

The next step is similar as it would be for most jobs. Brand yourself. Highlight your strengths and knowledge across social media spreading a consistent message. Write a killer resume and cover letter (get professional help if you need). Work on the assumption that you will be googled and be aware of what your public profile looks like. Moreover, why not take the opportunity to create an online presence by perhaps blogging about what you know. Maybe even consider uploading videos and create your own YouTube channel of discussions. It helps to position yourself as a value-add expert.

International Development Degrees Don’t Matter As Much

There are many benefits to studying development as a degree, but it is anything but essential. You should familiarize yourself with some key texts, perhaps most saliently would be the “Do No Harm” principles, and you should do your best to prepare yourself for cross-cultural communication. More than a degree, you need to be self-aware and willing to learn.

Don’t be scared of a sideways career move. Certainly stop judging yourself against the career trajectory of those you went to college with. You are making a conscious decision to not make as much money as your management consultant friends, you are also making a conscious decision to postpone family life and ‘being settled’. But rejoice in the fact those decisions are willful…and remember, the world is your office.

So what might a career in development look like?

The Bad:

  • It is difficult

  • It is competitive

  • It can be exhausting and heartbreaking

  • You have to constantly question your value, your contributions and learning

  • You can’t be taught everything you need to know

  • You are taking a path others won’t take, you are sacrificing relationships and forcing yourself into a 24/7 job

The Benefits:

  • The skills are highly transferable, you will develop skills in a number of the key and identified skills of the workplace of the future. These include; cross-cultural communications, story telling, program design, problem solving, adaptability, humor, creative and adaptive thinking, and cognitive load management. You are dealing with lots of things, all day, every day

  • You learn to appreciate the little things that can make a big difference, the good stories, and the perspective

  • You work on projects you can believe in

  • You get exposed to new ways of thinking and new ways of implementing change

  • You get to see the world

  • You can make intense wonderful friendships with those around you as you work with them, you also take a risk of damaging your relationships at home- you have to work twice as hard. Of course all of this is a lot easier in these days of social media and the likes

For me, the benefits have far outweighed the drawbacks. I hope it does for you too.

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Eleanor Kennedy is currently a Capacity Development Advisor at the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Eleanor has nearly ten years of experience in international development and has lived and worked in Indonesia and West Africa. You can follow Eleanor on Linkedin, or on her blog, where she writes about elections.