So you want to work in International Development?


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Duncan Green blogged about his top tips on building a career in aid and development. I thought it was too Global North Centric, so I decided to write about what it would mean for young people from the developing world who wanted to make a career in international development. I write this based on what I have seen and experienced in nearly 12 years in International Development on the back of 14 years of work in India.

The options and routes of building a career in International Development differ depending on whether you belong to the ‘developing world’ or the ‘donor world’ – nothing correct or incorrect about it; just the way it is.

As far as entry is concerned

  • If you are from the developed world that is home to International NGOs and / or bilateral donor agencies, it is much easier to get in even at a very young age. Even a college degree in a related field – economics, politics, law, sociology, development is more often adequate to get in.
  • If you are from the developing world, it is much more difficult. The biggest difficulty is the entry barrier. This is NOT deliberate but just there. One can get an entry into say an INGO or Donor or multi-lateral agency but it is more often in the country of your origin. Making the move out takes years and years of work and establishing one’s credentials. You could do that by specialising in a narrow field or broadening out to a general management role; the path depends on your native skills and aptitudes. Alternatively it requires serious academic credentials to get you in sooner but then acquiring those credentials takes a lot of time.

Another entry avenue that is open to people from the developed world is that of volunteering. I have many colleagues who took ‘break years’ and went off to work in remote developing countries at a very young age. This option is neither culturally nor systemically available to students in the developing world. Naturally the rich experience that the students or young professionals garner holds them in good stead when they finally decide to make a career in international development.

Continuing to be in the field and making a career is a different ball game.

As far as continuing is concerned, I must say that the playing field is a bit more level (I say a ‘bit more’ because in institutions like the European Union (the development wing at least) you cannot even get in unless you are a citizen of the EU). If you are seen to do good work, you normally can make the move and continue to be in the field and build a career in the technical and / or management line.

The issue with organisations like the United Nations, World Bank etc are different. These organisations are truly global and therefore try and have a representation of all member nations in their ranks. This has implications for those seeking to make careers.

To the citizens of the first world, these jobs are, well, just jobs and sometimes low paying ones as compared to the options available. Many a time posts apportioned to these countries go unfilled. If filled, the person has it for life unless (s)he makes a mess of it completely and hopelessly.

To the citizens of the developing world, these are often dream jobs. This is because of the salaries, benefits and prestige attached. Naturally there is huge competition for limited posts. This makes it difficult for them to get an entry. Once someone gets an entry, the exit barriers are so high (aforesaid reasons) that the place is effectively blocked till the person retires.

So, while Duncan’s tips are quite sound, even following all of them meticulously may not help if you are from the wrong hemisphere. Just the way it is.