4 Ways to Know If International Development Is Right for You
International development, also known as global development, represents a field guided by long-term goals for economic and human development on the international level. Potential target employers range from multilateral institutions, multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations, to think tanks, local grassroots NGOs and volunteer organizations. Recently, with corporate social responsibility gaining traction, business professionals across industries are also finding themselves engaged in development work.
International development is vast and you may want to identify a specific issue to focus on, a plus in a field with no clearly defined paths. “As a student, I received a Boren Fellowship through the National Security Education Program to study Portuguese and conduct research on youth and the media in Mozambique,” shares Laura Jagla*, communications specialist at USAID. “Through this program, I became interested in communication around international development, because my research honed in on how youth communicate education and health information through different media channels to change culture norms.” After identifying the area she was interested in, Jagla found a potential target employer. “I also participated in an internship with the Department of State in Rwanda, where I discovered that I was interested in the work of USAID.”
Navigating the world of international development is a challenge, so before embarking on your journey, review the four elements listed below to determine fit.
Passion for Social Impact
Organizations in the field work on projects targeting social and economic problems in developing countries, and issues on their radar include health care, education, poverty and human rights. As such, main motivators to pursue and sustain a career in international development are “good intentions and a genuine desire to make the world a better place,” points out Cheri-Leigh Erasmus, programs and learning manager at the Accountability Lab. Professionals in the field not only study the reasons social and economic issues exist but they also seek out solutions. “I like that USAID is a collaborative environment that involves teamwork and creativity to figure out solutions to development challenges, such as changing social norms around using digital technology or reducing gender-based violence,” says Jagla.
To ensure you land an opportunity that brings real impact, you may want to carefully research the players in the field. Some have voiced concerns as to whether organizations contribute meaningful change, which has moved the field in a direction of more empowering collaborations with local communities. In addition, you want to make sure you align your purpose with your target organization’s work and culture. Just because an organization focuses on an important social or economic issue doesn’t mean you will enjoy working there.
If you want to engage in social impact opportunities in college, you may want to check out Net Impact, a leadership accelerator for students and emerging changemakers. Net Impact chapters live in universities across the US and an annual conference in October brings together professionals from around the world.
The international development field is highly competitive, and although resources like Devex, an online platform providing news and job updates in the development community, can offer industry research, it’s networking that brings results. “Very few hires are done through job postings,” says Ronda Ansted, founder of Be the Change Career Consulting, through which she guides those interested in the international development and social impact fields. “Development is a tricky and risky enterprise, with lots of opportunities to make mistakes that could end up losing the organization funding so organizations are risk-averse with their hiring,” adds Ansted. “They would much rather bring in someone who is known.”
Once in the field, your patience pays off when you have “to work in multiple layers of bureaucracy,” advises Ansted. “Most people think -- and understandably so -- that international development is filled with working internationally and directly with communities to pull them out of poverty. However, a majority of development work is done in an office far removed from the projects, filling out reports, managing budgets and looking for funding.” It is, therefore, a good idea to complete at least one internship and develop a clear sense of what the works entails. “There are also differences between large, bureaucratic organizations and smaller ones with a grassroots focus,” says Erasmus. Do the work and talk to as many people as possible to figure out which one is a good fit.
Resilience and Adaptability
Getting a job in international development is hard but the work can be even harder. “Working with different stakeholders across the globe requires agility and willingness to learn,” says Erasmus. “Projects are never as simple as they look when plotted out on paper, because there are many actors and factors contributing to success.” A career in international development often takes you outside of your comfort zone, in an unfamiliar place, where you face infuriating issues. You may encounter obstacles that prevent you from achieving all you’ve set to achieve so “you have to get comfortable with failure,” adds Erasmus. “Sometimes things don't work as planned, and you have to be okay with that and walk away with the lessons you've learned.”
Although the work is meaningful and rewarding, burnout among employees in the international development field is a reality. “The possibilities of having global impact, traveling and engaging with different cultures can be alluring,” says Erasmus, “but in reality, international development is a fast-paced environment that may require lifestyle adjustments, and the parts that are romanticized come at a cost.”
The work never ends and your actions’ larger impact is often not visible so you may be disheartened by the continued suffering. Success in the field depends on your ability to function independently and learn on the go. “This is another aspect that I like about the field -- it feels a little bit like a university,” reflects Jagla. You learn about different cultures and ways of life, you learn how to communicate across cultures, styles and approaches, and you learn to pay attention to the small changes because the big picture may be lost.
“You cannot do this work, and do it effectively, without the ability to work with people from all walks of life,” says Erasmus, “and cultural competence is one of the most important traits to have -- and to build -- when entering the field.” Although as Ansted points out, “US students are most likely to work in Washington D.C., or New York,” having overseas experience under your belt is a plus when working on projects that impact people living in developing countries, and organizations are more likely to hire you if you have that experience. “I would highly advise studying/interning/working abroad, particularly in developing countries, to understand on-the-ground realities of people living in different communities,” says Jagla.
Many programs cater specifically to students interested in international development, such as the Peace Corps, the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Program and the Boren Fellowship. International organizations and local nonprofits also offer internships. “By gaining in-country experience, students will learn what niche within international development appeals to them,’ says Jagla. “They might become interested in education, health, gender equality, trade, energy or environmental conservation.”
If you are seriously considering a career in international development, please remember to keep your purpose in check. “Don't let your desire to help, your skills and academic background lead you to think that your work is to "save" the communities in need,” warns Erasmus. “You will be exposed to immense suffering, but don’t make assumptions about what people need. Communities have the best understanding of their needs, and I advise you to listen to them and work together to affect change.”
*Please note that these are Laura Jagla’s personal views and do not represent the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development.