Careers in International Development


“Chicken wrangling and other skills” (read on…)

I’m just back from an inspiring “Insight into International Development” event, the first we’ve run.

There was so much great info from the panel and the talks that I can’t hope to replicate them all so here are some edited highlights, with some practical tips on the key skills you’ll need, how to get experience, and where to find more resources.

Critical skills
Two core skills kept recurring:

Right from the start, Prof Maia Green drove home the message that cultivating “know who” is as important as know-how, particularly when establishing yourself doing consultancy work (which she does alongside her research).

Whether you feel it’s unfair or not, there were several examples of gaining internships or work experience with major NGOs through chance conversations at conferences or volunteering in the right place at the right time.

Don’t know anyone in International Development? You could do worse than hang around the coffee bar in Harold Hankins building and get to know some of our IDPM postgrads, several of whom have already worked in this field for the UN and other major NGOs. Or get on LinkedIn – there are specialist groups dedicated to those working in international development.

Find out where the opportunities are and adapt your interests and experience to take advantage of them. None of the careers of participants had progressed in a straight line. Each had woven a path through different areas, picking up skills and contacts which would be useful later.

Maia also demonstrated the importance of not being limited by “your field”, pointing out that although her PhD was in religious studies, she used her links with rural development communities in Tanzania to write on development topics. She also did a lot of dull policy report work which no-one else wanted to do, but it honed her policy experience and got her known as someone who delivers – essential in consultancy.

What other skills do you need?

Professional skills
Development work needs professional skills, but applied in a development context. Time and again, the panel mentioned financial management or accounting skills as being really important – if you want to do policy work, or find funding for projects, understanding finance is fundamental.

Project management, particularly PRINCE2 certification, is valuable in many areas, particularly with large organisations.

Fund-raising is critical to development work, especially in this financial climate. Even if that’s not the sort of development role you had in mind, it may give you the right contacts to help your move into the strategic or operational roles you’re really aiming for (yup, networking again).

Practical skills
Interested in the logistics of getting relief supplies to disaster areas – or just getting yourself and others to remote rural locations? Get a driving licence – preferably an HGV or a minibus licence, or at least experience driving a 4×4. And while you’re about it, learn some vehicle maintenance as well.

Desktop publishing and CAD could really enhance your IT credentials.

Advanced first aid could come in handy.

Creative experience (writing, photography, arts & crafts) is increasingly useful, for example in helping young people come to terms with traumatic experiences such as civil conflicts.

Don’t expect to work in Chile, for example, if you can only speak English, with a bit of French. It’s a global market you’re competing in, and most applicants to the UN and other worldwide NGOs will offer 3 or 4 languages.

And my favourite – agriculture or farming experience can come in handy if you’ll be expected to grow your own food or contribute to community life in rural areas. We now know that Emma Richardson, who works for the Manchester Leadership Programme, “learnt how to handle a chicken” as well as becoming a dab hand at locating a candle in the dark, from her time volunteering in youth and community work in Malawi.

You never know which one of these may make you the ideal candidate, but as a minimum, they’ll make your application stand out and mark you out as a practical achiever, rather than someone who just dreams of “doing good”.

How do you get experience?

Getting your first chance to work overseas is one of the biggest challenges for many people. However, if you start to get volunteer experience in the UK, you may get the right contacts or hear of the right opportunities to start to add short term overseas experience. Dave Spooner, from Weigo, pointed out that aiming for a month’s overseas voluntary experience at first is far more achievable than expecting to land a longer funded placement.

You’ll probably have to generate the opportunity yourself, for example by learning more about the overseas work of an organisation which you help in the UK, and having the nerve to ask the right person if you could help out. Having experience of how things operate in the UK part of the organisation, and other skills you’ve acquired, may be of use.

And although we were warned against just turning up in a country and asking if there’s anything you can do, Emma got her chicken wrangling experience by, well … just turning up in Malawi, finding a contact with VSO, who just happened to have lost a volunteer worker – which meant there was an unanticipated place available for a willing pair of hands (of course it helped that Emma already had lots of UK experience in youth and community work).

A real difficulty with many plum internships is that they are unpaid. If you’re determined though, you may be able to find your way through this. Tsvetelina Bakalova talked about several internships she’d completed, including with UNDP and the EU – but at least one of these involved her doing a full-time unpaid job, whilst also studying full-time for her degree. Nothing was going to stand in her way.

Further information
There’s a pretty comprehensive information resource, including dozens of web links, on our Starting Points sheet (downloadable from our website). There’s also a great glossary of the many terms and acronyms which litter this field on the DfID website.

We were also lucky enough to get some great additional information on careers from alumni working in international development, all over the world. Look out on our website for these profiles in the near future.