June 10, 2012

How to work in International Development

Water Delivery in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
About 2 or 3 times a week I receive emails from curious individuals or graduate students looking for opportunities to work in international development.  Some of these inquires are also for urban planners interested in working in post-war reconstruction or in active conflict zones, but are unsure where to start.  If and when I have the means, I do my best to extend opportunities their way, but it just depends on the timing.  Often too, people are looking for general advice, which is difficult, as everyone working in this field tends to have a very individual path.

I do at least have  few general lessons which I can share:

  • Go to graduate school.  A graduate degree is essential.  I was once advised to get 2 graduate degrees, one that is technical, and one that is more contextual and social science oriented.  I followed this advice and it has served me well.
  • Learn to write.  Good writing is important because you will spend long hours writing reports.  Most "aid workers" do little more than stare at computer screens all day.  That of course is a different problem altogether, but being a good writer will get you the job.
  • Languages help but aren't critical.  If you want to work in South America or West Africa, Spanish and French will be essential but beyond that... I wouldn't worry about.  If you didn't grow up bi or multilingual there will always be lots of people better than you at languages.  So  try to learn one if you can, but don't worry about mastering it.  More importantly, just try to learn the local languages the best you can wherever you happen to eventually work.  You can improve your job options more by mastering a hard skill rather than a language.
  • Acquire technical skills. The ability to do GIS, database construction and management, and statistics are in constant demand.  Web skills are good too.  I was once told that people either work in management or have an actual skill, but managers are commonplace, so its better to do the latter. I've found this to be quite true and therefore have little difficulty acquiring new contracts.
  • Identify a high-demand geographic market.  One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was to move to Washington DC, thinking I would find a job in the aid field.  There is a reason everyone there works in fundraising.  In general, the location is over saturated and much the discourse is very out of touch.  On a similar note, many people think "I want to work in Africa" so they move to Nairobi and try to find a job.  Of course you can find what you want in both places, but it is difficult.  A better option is to identify a city with a lot of cash and a high demand for skilled people (regardless of their experience).  Kabul and Juba are good examples. 
  • If you are a US citizen, consider joining the Peace Corps.  I did not, but in retrospect, it would have made life easier if I wanted to join the USAID machine.  
  • Try to work for MSF.  I have more respect for Medicine Sans Frontiers than any other NGO in the world.  They are highly capable and highly respected.  If you work for them for 2-3 years, you will not have difficulty moving into any other organization (though you may not want to at that point).
  • Unfortunately most people who want to be aid workers find themselves working for free for 2-3 years.  I did my fair share of volunteer work as well, but looking back, I don't think it was the best idea. In fact, I'd argue this way of thinking is greatly antiquated and undermining.   Perhaps a better path is to pursue work in the private-sector, working in engineering, research, business or otherwise, and after a few years, cross over into for-profit development work or with a large-scale INGO.