I want to work in International Development

Find out how you can start a career in International Development. Here we list potential job roles and some of the leading companies in that sector.

Job roles

What is development work?

Many students and graduates see themselves as an aid worker or development worker. However, this role is very diverse and it is important to focus on what your interests, skills and qualifications suit you for within this sector.

Work in international development can include healthcare, education, equality, government, human rights, disaster prevention/relief, infrastructure, economics, sustainability, migration, security, conflict, agriculture, the environment, small business development, project finance etc.

Jobs may be based in a head office in the developed world or “in the field” and include administration, research, fundraising, training, consultancy, logistics, relief work and professional roles in healthcare, engineering and planning. For more about the role, see the International Aid/Development worker job description from Prospects.

Why work in Development?

Everybody will have their own personal reasons for wanting to work in development but, when this question was put to health professionals attending a workshop run by the International Health Exchange, two main reasons were put forward:

  • Altruism: wanting to help and empower others or share skills;
  • Personal development: such as gaining experience of different cultures, career development and adventure and a change.

Whatever your reason you will need to fully research the opportunities open to you, and think about what these opportunities can offer you and what you can offer them. In particular, do you have the qualifications and skills needed for those that interest you? If you don’t, how can you develop them? This may be a medium-term process involving further study, qualifications and work experience so patience, determination and focus will be necessary.

Points to Consider:

Your desire to help others, or your desire to travel, or your ambition, are not enough to work for the United Nations or any other international humanitarian or development organization. Developing countries need people with hard skills, skills they don't have (but that they want). They want to be paid to build their own schools, clean up after disasters themselves, care for their children, etc. (Jayne Craven, Coyote Communications).

Skill-sharing is a two-way process: the development worker will share their skills and knowledge with a partner organisation and/or with various communities and actors, and in return s/he also acquires and develops new skills and knowledge. A development worker is someone who is clearly committed to development, to fighting poverty and injustice, and has the flexibility and openness to work and live in a different socio-political, cultural and geographical setting (Progressio).

If you are considering a career in international development … you should bear in mind that most agencies are looking for a combination of qualifications and several years’ relevant work experience (Practical Action).

The skills and experience you gain through volunteering abroad can be just as well developed through projects in the British Isles. The head of a highly-regarded Bar Vocational Course (the qualifying course for barristers) once told me that one of his best students had spent their gap year as a volunteer in a hostel for alcohol and drug abusers in Dublin.

Students … should remember that their energy and commitment would not be wasted if they chose a UK gap year. Volunteers in the UK support offenders, young people in need and adults with learning difficulties, as well as helping people with physical disabilities lead more independent lives. Not only is the need to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime experience removed, but volunteers are entitled to free accommodation, food and pocket money.
Is Szoneberg, Director of gap year volunteering, (formally Community Service Volunteers).

How can I gain experience in development?

There are three main ways:

  • In a developing country - as a tourist/traveller
  • As a volunteer - in a developing country, in the UK or in another developed country
  • As an employee - in a developing country, in the UK or in another developed country

The last of these is probably most students' ideal option. It is the least likely for new graduates, however, unless you already have a measure of relevant skills or experience.

For a list of organisations that work directly with development projects to help volunteers find placements (often at a much lower cost) see the following pages:

Independent travel in developing countries, undertaken with an open mind and cultural awareness and sensitivity, can be just as beneficial as an organised volunteer programme.

Travelling to have a good time and interact with different cultures is just as valid as wanting to make a difference and help those less fortunate.

Sofya Shahab (Christian Aid)

Should I do a Master’s degree?

In this competitive field, a Masters is likely to be useful and, for some organisations (e.g. the UN and the OECD), is essential. However, even with a Masters, practical experience gained through volunteering or internships, will still be required.

My advice would be to try to get some experience first and then do an MA in a year or two. You will learn more and be more focused and clear about what you want to get out of it

Last year (2012) 53 graduates taken through the DFID Graduate Development Scheme and about the same number will be taken on in 2014. The closing date is the 30th of October 2013 for 2014. Only a very small number of recruits (two or three) come through the Civil Service Fast Stream. Applicants can apply to both the Graduate Development Scheme and Fast Stream as the applications and programmes are separate.

Roughly half the staff are based in London and half in East Kilbride near Glasgow and you will increase your changes if you apply to both locations. Half of the successful applicants had postgraduate qualifications. There is a chance to meet many high profile people: Bill Clinton, Bob Geldof, Bill Gates have all been in the office.

The scheme lasts 50 weeks and some graduates stay at DFID, some go onto Fast Stream , another popular progression is work within large charities. The DFID recognise that it can be difficult to get experience in international development. The primary aim of the DFID primary aim is the eradication of poverty therefore students should try to get work experience which shows a commitment to this aim e.g. a homeless charity. Work experience in the UK with a charity is often looked upon more favourably than students who have paid lots of money to volunteer abroad for 6 weeks. Students should know about the Millennium Development Goals.

Information on the recruitment process is available and there is very useful FAQ section on the web site.

Each role has core competencies and these are what you will be asked at interview: students should prepare two examples. Some students when asked to give another example often panic as they think this indicates their first answer wasn’t good enough - this isn’t always the case and can indicate the interview is going well Everyone at an assessment centre is good – try to give examples which show an impact on someone else, for example mentoring, coaching. A typical presentation topic could be "Should DFID be spending public money in the current economic climate?".
Students should use the information on the website to prepare for interview.

Overseas voluntary experience can give you exposure to a variety of areas of development work. The key is to try and identify what area of development you want to work in, and to then build up your experience in that area.


Where can I find jobs and internships in International Development?

Below are a few links to job and internship listings and organisations which regularly recruit graduates for work in the international development field. More listings can be found in the sites under “Further Information”

  • AidJobs
  • Idealist - thousands of not-for-profit and community organisations worldwide which you can search or browse by name, location, or mission for volunteer opportunities, jobs and internships.
  • Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) - runs a “Young Professionals Programme” for Masters graduates
  • 2Way Development - places 100’s of volunteers overseas every year to work alongside development charities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Find out more

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