Starting a Career in International Development

Many people dream of helping people in developing countries to lift themselves from poverty and improve their lives. Motivations for a career in international development range from starry-eyed idealism or a desire for cross-cultural experience and travel, to a specific desire to use one’s skills in a particular region.

Because so many people find international work to be exciting, and because opportunities in the field are limited and require specific skills, the job search can be extremely competitive. To be successful, it’s important to gain an understanding of the field, the types of organizations involved, the types of jobs available, and most importantly, the skills and experience needed.

Types of Organizations

The types of organizations that work in international development can be split into several categories.


There are two main branches of international “aid” work. Relief work focuses on more the short-term alleviation of poverty, such as providing housing to the homeless in a refugee camp or food aid to those who are starving, or emergency assistance in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster.

Development work focuses on longer-term solutions to problems, such as economic development; entrepreneurship, small business, and microfinance; education (including international educational exchange); health (such as maternal and child health, immunizations, HIV/AIDS etc.); agriculture and food production/security; water, sanitation and hygiene; ICT (Information and communication technologies for development) etc.. Each of the mission areas requires specific technical expertise.

Funders vs. Doers

Funders are organizations that provide the financing for development work. These include:

• Government (in the US, USAID is the most prominent, but other agencies such as the State Department, Department of Defense, and sub-agencies such as the Dept. of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service also play a role; other countries have their own aid agencies like CIDA, DIFID etc.)

• Foundations and philanthropies (including family foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; community foundations; operating foundations etc.)

• Individual donors (typically donating to NGOs)

• Multilateral organizations (including the United Nations and its affiliates, as well as international banks like the Asian Development Bank, etc.)

Do-ers actually implement the work, run projects and programs, organize policies, advocate on behalf of their constituencies etc. These include:

• Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or Nonprofits

• For-profit contractors (like Chemonics, DAI, MSI, etc.)

• Government agencies (some work is actually conducted by DOD, State etc.)

• Multilateral organizations.

Hiring Methods

It should be noted that the hiring methods of these organizations differ tremendously.

For example, nonprofit organizations and for-profit contractors may be open to networking and referrals and may appreciate volunteer experience the most. Government agencies like USAID often hire only through extremely competitive special fellowships like the Presidential Management Fellowship or through contracts via GlobalCorps, and are quite difficult to enter. The multilateral organizations have an even more difficult hiring process—and often have quotas limiting the number of people they can hire from different countries. Applications for both federal government and multilateral government require much more in-depth resumes and application forms than for nonprofit and government.

Types of Jobs and Specializations; and Skills Required: NGOs and “Do-ers”

Looking specifically at NGO jobs and other “implementation” jobs in international development, there are two main types of jobs, the support jobs and the program delivery jobs. These can be sub-grouped into “headquarters” (US) jobs and “in-country” jobs in a developing country. In a tiny nonprofit, one or two paid US staff might do just about all of these jobs; while in a huge NGO, these jobs might be quite specialized.

Headquarters Jobs: Support

There are certain jobs that will exist at any nonprofit organization, which don’t always require as much mission-specific expertise. These include:

• Fundraising and contract development. The essential reason there is a headquarters office of a US-based NGO is to raise money. Position exist in grant writing or institutional giving as well as the many layers of individual giving, including annual campaigns

• Accounting, finance and operations

• Human resources—though you might have to have some amount of international recruitment experience to qualify, which is different from regular domestic experience.

• Information technology

• Communications

• Advocacy (sometimes is available but is a bit rarer in the international development space)

Headquarters Jobs: Program-Related

• Program management (titles include, in order of most entry-level to highest-level: program assistant, program coordinator, assistant program officer, program officer, program director, chief of mission): These jobs require serving as a liaison and technical support provider to program staff who are “in-country.” In order to be effective in such a position, a candidate must have enough understanding of how international development works as well as cross-cultural differences to be helpful to people in-country. Therefore, to obtain a position in program management in any large NGO, typically a candidate must have:

* 2 years of recent international development work or volunteer experience, in which you have built real program management skills. Travel, tourism, or study abroad alone does not really qualify you. I strongly encourage people who are serious about international development to consider joining the Peace Corps or other international volunteer experiences—but to know that many other candidates also work in the Peace Corps and so this type of experience is necessary but not sufficient on its own to qualify you.

* Fluency in an in-demand foreign language relevant to the geographic area where the programs are housed: French and Swahili for much of Africa; Arabic for North Africa and the Middle East; Spanish or Portuguese are the most important to consider. The more difficult or unusual the language, the more it will distinguish you from the competition (i.e. Arabic is highly in demand because it is so difficult to learn and because of increasing development and international relations work in the Middle East and North Africa).

* A Master’s degree in a relevant field, such as public administration, global public health, or another technical field is worth considering.

• Program evaluation/ Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E): these positions relate to researching the impact of development work to ensure that it is positively affecting those it is meant to help. An understanding of program evaluation and statistical analysis is important—but in addition, having the skills described for positions in program management are also important.

In-Country Jobs

Positions working at an NGO in a developing country are an excellent way to launch a career in development, either with the goal of staying abroad or returning to work in the headquarters (US) office. The biggest challenge of finding such positions is that an NGO will have to pay for your travel, arrange a visa, etc. and this costs them significant money; in addition, many “starry-eyed” idealists think they want these jobs and can’t handle the cultural and lifestyle differences they encounter once abroad—and have to be sent back to the US, at tremendous expense to the NGO. So, again, you face a Catch-22 because you need work or volunteer experience in a developing country first before you are qualified for a position—which is why I recommend Peace Corps as a first step.

Jobs at Funders

Some of the jobs at funders are quite similar to those described above, but there are certain differences. One of the main differences is that the program roles are focused more on monitoring & evaluation or technical support; whereas those in NGOs focus on implementation.

Where the Jobs Are

The vast majority of jobs in international development in the United States exist in Washington DC. Virtually all of the jobs in corporate contractors to USAID are in DC, as well as jobs at USAID itself and most NGOs. Some jobs exist in New York City, especially in programs related to human rights or affiliated with the United Nations. There are a handful of NGOs in other cities; for instance, CARE International and Heifer International are based in Atlanta, GA; Mercy Corps is headquartered in Portland, OR; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH, and Landesa are headquartered in Seattle, and World Vision in Federal Way, WA; and Partners in Health and Oxfam in Boston.

There are in-country positions in just about every developing country on earth, though some countries are too dangerous to have a large international development presence and others are “developed” enough to have fewer opportunities.

Pathways to a Career in Development

Over the last few years, I have seen many students successfully launch a career in international development. Here are a few pathways that have worked:

• Start with Peace Corps or other extensive in-country volunteering, followed by several internships and research experiences either in the field in a developing country—typically unpaid experiences, but occasionally paid—combined with fluency in a foreign language, and the MPA. Then, do extensive networking and informational interviewing, and/or get a referral from your graduate school’s career services via an alum of the program, to get an entry-level in-country position in an NGO paying quite little, plus living expenses; or a headquarters position as a program assistant, program analyst, etc.

• Similar to above, but becoming a finalist in a competitive fellowship program such as the Presidential Management Fellowship, leading to a position with USAID or State; or landing a competitive fellowship like the Catholic Relief Services International Development Fellowship or the American India Foundation Fellows etc.. After the fellowship, leverage the experience to land a position.

• Start without the international experience or Peace Corps, but get significant experience in fundraising and development and land a position in fundraising.

• Start without as much international experience, but have some other unusual technical expertise such as an engineering background that helps qualify you for specific jobs; or have another master’s in addition to the MPA, such as MPH.

• Start your own international nonprofit.

• Land a more administrative, entry-level position at USAID or similar using GlobalCorps.

• Do the Peace Corps, then use your noncompetitive eligibility to land a position in the federal government here or abroad.

Ask about my international development career coaching.

2 thoughts on “Starting a Career in International Development

  1. This is amazing! I am going through the process for IDFP right now and also looking at a position with a foundation working in the international community and this really helped me think more clearly about things. Thanks so much for a great and insightful post!

  2. Hi there, that was a great summary! I am interning at and I regularly screen c.v.’s with my team here as a first glance at entry level candidates. It’s true, we do look for 1-2 years experience and usually in mult-contexts so that we know people are diversified. If you have French then it really is a shoe in as a lot of the current disasters or conflicts are in the French speaking countries and there is a huge shortage. Peace Corps is a great option and we have a lot of expats in our pool who started that way. To try and help bridge this gap period where someone is coming out of school and trying to get into the sector we have developed our own program. It is called the Humanitarian Development Program. It is a three stage program; a first off consultation with an aid / development worker to try and target your career, identify an NGO overseas to volunteer / intern with and have a targeted TOR to develop experience, targeted training identified to also increase experience. It’s a pretty new program but hopefully it is going to help people have an easier step into the sector.. Cheers Michelle

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