So you want to work in International Development?

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.


Here is an article from an industry insider written in the BLM protests that are sweeping the globe.

11 thoughts on “So you want to work in International Development?

  1. […] I joined Oxfam in May 2008 on the back of 14 years of work in the development arena in India. I knew about Oxfam even before I joined. I had met many senior activists who spoke warmly of Oxfam (that would be Oxfam GB) of the 1980s and 1990s in India. And why not? They had been supported in their formative years by Oxfam when there were not ‘names’. When support was not easily forthcoming. Their dreams nurtured, their passion recognized by an Oxfam that would find a way to support. Sometimes very innovative ways. Safe to say, I had a great opinion of Oxfam. You can imagine my excitement when the first opportunity I had to work in international development came through Oxfam. Even then I knew it was not easy to get a break in international development. I have written about the entry barriers here. […]


  2. A bit of a delayed comment, but perhaps the timing now makes it more apropos: Surely, it is not “nothing correct or incorrect about it; just the way it is” and “NOT deliberate but just there.” Surely, you have read about (including in this moment of renewing, yet again, one more time, thinking about institutionalized colonialism, imperialism, racism…), observed, and experienced deep knowledge inequalities that say, you can have all the learning, all the experience, all the know-how and know-what, even all the credentials, but you happen to be from the ‘wrong place,’ where those who “need development” need to be told “how to do development.” Surely, we understand this is not about individuals, not only about individuals, and their career paths. Surely, we cannot think of any of this as describing facts, giving tips, or reflecting on how unfair this is on the individual level… if the personal is not political in what we call international development, and if all those of us who are in it and can make change internally, and those who support us and can push for change externally, do not think and work it as an agenda of allyship for deep change, then I am not sure that we have not already failed – again. This cannot be, should have never been, an apolitical conversation to just describe “nothing correct or incorrect” and “nothing deliberate.” Not in 2020 it cannot be. Would be interested to read your reflections.


  3. Interesting that your post is titled “International” development. Most people make their careers (or not) in their home countries.


  4. Thanks Makarand. As a Peruvian without any international degree or experience becoming an international (outside Peru and later out of Latin America) was a “dream”. I actually met you in Uganda, it was my first opportunity in Africa after many many rejections (because people will say “Latin America is a different context”). It was Ayman who gave me the opportunity. But without that first person I am not sure I would have been able to cross the ocean. In Nepal, I met a a friend from Bangladesh working for SCI who managed to enter to UN system. We were all so happy for him, it doesn’t happen that often I think.


    1. Most of us from the Global South owe their first breakthrough to someone or to some element of luck 🙂 In my case both. Later on, of course, it becomes a matter of how well you do in your work.


      1. Hi Makarand. Good to read your blog from a southern perspective. Sometimes it’s right place, right time – is that luck? I think we make our own luck and it’s also down to a lot of hard work, determination and of course the right opportunity. I haven’t read Duncan’s blog but will do now

        All the best



      2. Yes we do make it possible for luck to tip the balance. Plain and simple luck does not cut it without something substantial behind it. But having a substantial body of work is, sometimes, not enough either. Ergo, the luck factor.


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