Switching careers into international development

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people from the US & Europe who were interested in switching directions and working for IPA, or in development more generally, so I thought I’d share some of the advice I gave them here. This will be the first post in a series on this topic, as there’s a lot of ground to cover!  These suggestions are aimed at people who have finished university with a degree that’s not related to development, or who have been working in another field for several years.  If you’re still in university (and not making student loan payments yet), it’s generally easier to take courses or pursue internship opportunities related to development; Chris Blattman has some advice for how to do this, as does Aid Leap.

The first thing to realize is that “international development” covers a diverse range of organizations.  (Apologies for the acronym soup which follows; it would have taken too much space to write out all the names.)  Many people think of “development” as humanitarian aid, like that provided by major NGOs such as the ICRC, CARE, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders, or as the work done by UN organizations like the WFP, UNHCR, and UNDP.  However, development programs are also run by the governments of low income countries (practically by definition); by smaller national or international NGOs which focus on specific sectors, such as Pratham in India (education), SKS Foundation in Bangladesh (microfinance), or the Life & Peace Institute across Africa (conflict resolution); and by local NGOs in low income countries, like these in Ghana and Uganda.

There are also organizations which don’t directly implement their own programs.  Instead, they may provide technical assistance to governments and NGOs (like Engineers Without Borders and the Access Project) or evaluate other organizations’ programs (like IPA and JPAL).  There are also development consulting firms (like Chemonics, Dalberg and Abt Associates) and think tanks (like CGD, USIP and ISS Africa).

The funding for these organizations comes from many different sources. There are bilateral government donors, such as USAID, DFID and JICA; multilateral donors such as the World Bank, IDB, ADB, and AfDB; and major private funders, like the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations.  You could work for any one of these organizations, in ways ranging from organizing food aid delivery in Darfur to funding the local court system in rural Brazil to evaluating the impact of a new latrine design in the slums of Mumbai, and say that you’re working in international development.

All of this should indicate that if you’d like to switch careers into “development,” it helps to have a specific idea of the regions/topics you’d like to work on and the type of organization you’d like to work for, as well as a relevant skill set.  I think it’s generally to the credit of our age that so many recent university grads are interested in working in development, but this means that it’s a competitive job market.  You need to show potential employers that A) you know what type of work they do, B) you have a very clear idea of why you want to work there, and C) that you either have useful skills or are in the process of gaining them at present.  The next few posts in the series will cover the process of clarifying your interests and gaining skills and experience after leaving university.