International Development: Is it For You?

by | June 25, 2009

The rewards of working in international development tend to be better understood than the challenges.  Indeed, most young professionals and volunteers are attracted to the field for the glamorized benefits of world travel, learning about new cultures, and making a difference in the world.  These are great aspects of the field, but it is equally important to understand the many challenges and long-term issues of a career in development. Particularly for professionals (e.g., full -time employees and not volunteers) the field has a number of aspects that can make career management, advancement, and life balance a challenge.  These issues will be examined in the following chapter. 


CHALLENGES AND REWARDS 


Most of the rewards in international development are directly linked to the challenges, because the work is so closely tied to dealing with these challenges. 


Fund raising is a collaborative but constant need 


No profession is without the need to generate revenue.  Private sector firms needs their customers, governments need taxpayers, and development agencies need donors.  To be fair, the donor/development agency relationship is far more cooperative than these others 

but it is also more concentrated.  Most development agencies depend upon two to five sources for the majority of their funds, making these relationships very important and the overall organization highly susceptible to fluctuations in funding.  The result is that fund raising and donor relations can sometimes seem like the main focus of development agencies. 


The work is meaningful but it is rare to see the results 


One of the most rewarding aspects of the field is the opportunity to do meaningful work that focuses on improving living conditions in developing countries.  Even the most cynical development workers generally share a sense of idealism for the changes that can, and do, 

come from the work.   However, it is every easy to lose sight of the long-term results of the work, especially when faced with daily reminders of the overwhelming nature of the challenges. In addition, the results often take years to materialize, and even then, there is 

rarely a major change in conditions.  The results of development work are much more gradual. 


It is a learning-oriented field, but deals with the world’s worst problems 


As an industry, international development offers an environment of constant learning.  This includes not only new technical skills and knowledge areas but also learning about new cultures and languages.  While these are positive aspects of the learning, there are also 

social issues that international development deals with.  For example, domestic abuse, corruption, poverty, and human trafficking, to name a few.  It requires a lot of fortitude to be exposed to these problems on a daily basis. 


The lifestyle can be fulfilling but also very challenging 


There are many positive aspects of the lifestyle for development workers, both in the field and at headquarter offices.  These include the opportunity to travel, good benefits, and working in incredibly diverse surroundings.  In field offices, the lifestyle also includes the fun and challenge of living in a foreign environment and learning about a new country.  Some field office staffers are also compensated at an international level, allowing them to live a very comfortable local lifestyle.  However, there are many challenges to living abroad, in a developing country.  Some of these include the difficulty managing daily chores like laundry, paying bills and using the internet; increased visibility as a foreigner makes crime a bigger risk; and the lack of services, such as reliable health care or international schools for children. 


The field is constantly changing 


Development is a dynamic industry that is evolving rapidly and, as a result, jobs in development are also changing constantly.  Most people working in the field rotate to new positions every two to three years, and many people working in headquarters change positions almost as frequently.  In addition to physical job changes, the focus of projects changes over time to meet the needs of the developing communities where an organization works, as well as the availability of funding.  This change has an added benefit: work is seldom boring or repetitive, but it can also be stressful, especially for people who value job security or have families that need some stability. 


THINGS TO THINK ABOUT 


International development is an industry unlike any other.  By definition, the work deals with some of the world’s most pressing problems in some the most challenging environments.  Travel, language study and the constant need to secure funding often make international development more of a lifestyle than a career, and it is important to think carefully and objectively about the industry as part of your career planning.  Some key issues that can affect career development are highlighted below. 


The value of private sector experience in the nonprofit sector 


One very common question among people just starting their careers is whether or not to get private sector work experience before finding a job in development.  There are many opinions on this topic, and no single right answer.  As a general rule, private sector experience is an advantage when applying for a job in development as long as it has some relevance to the position.  That is certainly not to say that it should be seen as a prerequisite, and more and more professionals enter development from the beginning of their career. 


There are many benefits to working in the private sector before development.  Salaries in the private sector are usually higher so many people work until they pay off their student loans or other debt and then find a job in development.  In addition, a private sector background can sometimes make a candidate more competitive in international development, particularly for management positions or technical areas 

focused on private sector development.  Obviously if you are going to advise governments in developing countries on reforms to their manufacturing industry, you will need experience in this industry.  Finally, a private sector background is also helpful for people who want to transition out of development and into the private sector. 


Historically, there were fewer non-volunteer positions in development for younger professionals, so the private sector was a common way to enter the field.  As the industry becomes more professional (often by mirroring the practices of the private sector), there are an increasing number of opportunities for young professionals as well as more appreciation for the unique skills that come from development work.  For 

example, the skills that a volunteer attains through her work are often considered as important to success in a development job as the skills that might come from a similar path in the private sector.  These include abilities such as communications skills, first hand knowledge of developing communities and the ability to live and work in challenging environments. 


Family and lifestyle considerations 


International development tends to be a young field, dominated by people in their 20s to 40s.  This is due to many factors that make the industry more appealing to younger professionals, but some issues also make it harder to stay in development later in a career.  Some of these include: 


Job security 

Even the largest development agencies are prone to changes in staffing.  As one area of development becomes a greater priority (for example, public health in Southeast Asia), another area usually suffers in donor attention (e.g., environmental conservation in Southeast Asia).  Organizations and, as a consequence, development workers who specialize in the former area will find it harder to fund their work and either shift in focus or pursue increasingly limited opportunities.  As a result, long-term employment with a single organization is more the exception than the norm in development.  This is less of a problem for younger professionals early in their careers who can afford to spend a few months finding a new position, but for more experienced professionals the lack of job security is a significant drawback. 

Some areas of the field with better job security are donor agencies and multilateral organizations. 


Living abroad 

Many people enter the field in order to experience firsthand the process of working in developing communities.  Living abroad, particularly in these environments, is incredibly rewarding but also very demanding.  Because of this, many international development professionals spend several years abroad but then transition back to their home countries. With their field experience, it is usually possible to find jobs in 

development in home offices of development organizations, but only in major cities like Washington, D.C., or London.  For people who want to live in other locations, it is often hard to find a suitable position. 


Family 

Marriage and children can significantly change the prospect of working in international development, primarily for field-based positions.  Families living abroad, usually in developing countries, face many challenges from finding employment for a spouse to finding schools for children.  In addition there are the very real concerns about the quality of health care, possibility for an active social life, and availability of 

family or grandparents.  Of course, none of these challenges makes it impossible to have a family and work abroad, and indeed hundreds of families do so, even in the most challenging environments.  Most development agencies also provide some benefits for families, such as increased cost of living adjustments, insurance and health care, while larger organizations often fund a portion of the costs for education. 


Some areas of the field less prone to these problems include home office positions with larger organizations, government development agencies, and multilateral organizations. Despite these family and lifestyle considerations, many experienced professionals do remain in the industry later in their careers and it is likely to become easier to do so in the future as development organizations become more professional. 


Languages, travel, etc. 


Many positions in international development include aspects of work that require greater levels of personal commitment than other industries.  These may include frequent travel, working in challenging environments, learning new languages and frequent long hours of work.  While positions in home offices may involve one or two of these challenges on occasion, they are normal conditions for field-based positions. Even for people who enjoy business travel and relish in the opportunity to challenge themselves, these conditions can become tiring over time. 


Transitioning out of international development 


All these considerations make it important, even when starting a career in international development, to think carefully about your options for finding employment outside of the industry as well. 


Entering the traditional private sector, say finance, marketing or management, with a background in international development is harder because there are fewer opportunities to get the skills needed by those fields.  As an applicant, you would have to clearly demonstrate how your international development experience has prepared you for the positions.  This is one reason that some people choose to get private sector experience before entering development.  


Some common industries to enter following international development include: 


• Domestic non-profit 

• Government 

• Academia 

• Consulting 

• Think tanks 

• Entrepreneurship 


Of course, going back to school for another degree is an excellent way to transition from international development into another industry, and almost any graduate program will look favorably on the diversity of experience that comes with international development. 


IMPORTANT APTITUDES 


The following list describes some of the personal and professional aptitudes common to most jobs in international development.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but rather to provide an idea of the various characteristics demanded in the field. If you share many of these qualities, then international development is likely to be a good match for you; if you do not, then you should look for specific opportunities within the industry that are the best match for your aptitudes.  


International development is well suited for people who can: 


Work independently with little direction 

Most development organizations are chronically understaffed with management support in short supply.  Employees are expected to work with little direction and take initiative to help the organization accomplish its goals. 


Work with teams of diverse people 

While the ability to work independently is important in development, so is the ability to work on small teams of highly diverse staff.  Almost all tasks have team components, and the ability to complete group deliverables either working in person with teams or remotely via email and phone is important. 


Communicate well 

Development professionals are constantly communicating.  Project clients, staff, donors, media, and managers all require a constant stream of information, and, in many cases, do not always speak a common language. Clear communication is a vital component of the work, and one that is constantly inhibited by poor or non-existent telecommunications and the distances involved. 


Work under tight deadlines 

Almost all work in international development is on a strict timeline.  Individual projects have their own specific timelines and donors operate according to deadlines for project proposals and reporting.  Regardless of where one works in development, deadlines are a constant aspect of the job. 


Write and edit easily 

Many jobs require a great deal of writing in various formats from technical documents to media stories to proposals.  Often these are structured documents that require editing a great deal of information to find the key points and present them in clear, simple writing.  Audiences are often extremely busy and unlikely to forgive poor writing, whether they are donors or government counterparts. 


Continue learning throughout a lifetime 

International development requires constant learning. Every new proposal includes the need to develop technical knowledge in a specific area and geography.  Many positions also require learning a new city, culture and language. 


Work and live in challenging situations 

International development professionals work in some of the most challenging environments in the world.  It is crucial that things like a week with no electricity, lack of email and telephone contact with loved ones, working in conditions of extreme poverty and taking a high level of responsibility for personal safety don’t inhibit the ability to complete daily work. 


Be creative problem solvers 

Due to the range and nature of the challenges in the industry, problem solving is a regular need - and in most cases, traditional solutions don’t work.  As a result, development professionals need to be efficient in assessing a problem and developing possible solutions that fit the unique context.  


HOW TO FIND OUT 


There is no substitute for firsthand experience.  Fortunately development offers a number of ways to get short- or long-term experience, and, unlike many other industries, even volunteers have an opportunity to do professional-level work.  


It is very valuable to get work experience at several different levels of development, not only on an actual project.  While working on the ground with a project is a wonderful and life-altering experience, it is not the easiest way to enter the field as a paid professional.  In addition to the project experience that many volunteer programs provide, it is worthwhile to get some administrative experience as well by working or volunteering with a headquarters office. This experience will often provide a better overall view of the industry and the types of work that are key to any development career. 


Beyond work experience, you can learn a lot about the industry by talking to current employees of development agencies.  Many people working in development are very receptive to speaking with potential development workers and will share their experiences openly and honestly.  If you don’t know a lot of people working in development, expanding your network into the industry should be a priority.  There 

are many networking strategies covered in Chapter 6 showing how to make these connections. 


Finally, you can discover more about international development by immersing yourself in the industry and learning as much as possible.  There are many books about it and a number of small trade magazines. In addition there are an increasing number of formal events for international development, including conferences, job fairs, debates and lectures.  Universities are also good sources of information and 

events focused on international development, many of which are available to the public. 


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