Considering a career in international development? Understand the types of positions available. Professionals often will speak of their interest in an international development career. It’s an oversimplification, but there are essentially three types of jobs in international development. Technical expert is what many professionals think of when they envision an international development career. A technical expert is someone with a high level of expertise in a particular field such as infrastructure, irrigation, water and sanitation, public health, food distribution and assessment, judicial reform. These positions are generally attached to specific projects funded by governmental donor agencies including the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.K.’s Department for International Development. These agencies normally have tight restrictions on the qualifications for technical experts. If not, now is the time to build your qualifications toward positions of this kind. In addition, technical experts generally work in the country a project is based in. So, depending on your career level and the sector in which you work, be prepared for long-term assignments (1-3 years) in a particular country or region, and/or frequent short-term assignments to multiple locations. Many international relief agencies send abroad mostly technical experts with substantial field experience and specific skills.
Project manager. If you want to work on international development projects but don’t envision yourself spending so much time in the field or you do not qualify as a technical expert, consider a position in project management. These jobs typically are located either at field sites or local country offices of development consulting firms or non-governmental organizations. A project management position entails all aspects of coordinating development projects, including the managing a – national and expatriate – staff and the meeting project objectives.
Administrative functions may involve basic duties (expense reports, invoicing, and paperwork of all kinds) and, depending on seniority level, it can include project direction, technical advice, coordination with donor agency and local government officials, and the publication of project reports. A project management position is often the first stop for young professionals interested in an international development career. With successful performance and the right projects portfolio, some short-term travel is often possible, and this can provide the experience needed, over time, for a position as a technical expert. If you are less interested in the operational activities of development projects, but rather in the underlying issues and policies that relate to global poverty, consider a position as researcher. These positions typically exist at think-tanks, nonprofit institutions (often those that are more engaged in advocacy than in implementing projects), and development agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency or the Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As with other positions, there is a spectrum of opportunities, from research assistant positions for recent graduates to more senior positions that often require a post-doctorate or other graduate degree. These positions are often based in the capital cities of the world’s richest countries, but many researchers engage in field research and thus make short-term visits to developing countries in the course of their research. These three broad categories, taken together, account for most entry-, mid-, and senior-level, if not executive-level positions. But there are some other types of positions worth noting. Firms and NGOs that receive funding from development agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank or Germany’s Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit need to maintain close relationships with these agencies and produce proposals to receive funding. As a result, there are typically positions that entail proposal writing and business development at many development consulting firms and NGOs. In addition, the provision of technical experts for projects around the world is an enormous challenge – matching the right expert to the right project is no small task – and there are many positions available for international development recruiters. These positions often require knowledge of how specific development agencies work, as, for example, USAID and EuropeAid may have very different rules and regulations to comply with when it comes to recruiting technical experts.
There are many positions that blend various aspects of these job types, but a clear understanding of each and how you can contribute to these types of positions will be enormously helpful as you position your career in international development. It is common among international development professionals to have multiple resumes. Each version highlights and emphasizes a different core skill area to best position you for the wide range of positions available. As you seek to promote your skills, consider the many job opportunities available by carefully searching job listings on different Web sites. Select only those positions for which you are truly qualified, and create multiple versions of your resume that directly address specific positions. A general resume is much less likely to be successful, particularly if you are seeking a position as technical expert. In-person meetings help enormously to build relationships with a wide array of international development professionals. To facilitate these kinds of connections, some companies provide an online networking directory international development professionals may use to connect with colleagues, find old friends, and introduce themselves to professionals working at donor agencies, NGOs and in the private sector. Wherever you live in the world, make an effort to get to know donor agency officials, academics as well as NGO and private sector representatives working in international development research. The personal connections you develop can be enormously helpful in navigating the complex and ever-changing and growing international development industry.