I Want to Work in … International Development


Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi


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, human rights, 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 at www.prospects.ac.uk/international_aid_development_worker_job_description.htm

Why work in Development?

We must be the change we want to see in the world.

Mahatma Ghandi

Aspire not to have more but to be more.

Archbishop Oscar Romero  (assassinated  civil rights leader)

"In the West people have everything, but think they have nothing and in a way it's true: spiritually they are empty.

In the East many people have nothing but they are sometimes much happier."

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples

Mother Teresa

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 (www.bmj.com/content/311/6997/113), two main reasons were put forward:


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) www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/workabroad.shtml

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) www.progressio.org.uk/content/what-development-worker

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) http://practicalaction.org/becoming-involved-in-international-development-1

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, Community Service Volunteers www.csv.org.uk/Volunteer

How can I gain experience in development?

There are three main ways:

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.

The first two are often blurred: “volontourism”, where participants pay around £2000 for a volunteer placement that may be as short as two weeks, often combined with an adventure holiday or more traditional tourist activities, is a thriving business. In 2008, the Tourism and Research Marketing surveyed 300 organizations involved in voluntourism and suggested that the approximate market size was 1.6 million volunteer tourists per annum, and a total yearly value of 1.3 billion pounds www.villas.co.uk/articles/the-evolution-of-voluntourism.html

While there are many responsible organisations involved in this field, there is controversy about the necessity for, and ethics of, “voluntourism”. For discussions of this issue, see:

Does your home have something other than a dirt floor?

Does your home have a roof, a door, windows and more than one room?

Do you have a refrigerator of any kind?

Do you have a car, a microwave, a T.V., a computer and a video or DVD?

If you answered yes to the first you are in the top 50% of the world's wealthy.

If yes to the second, you are in the top 20%.

Yes to the third, you are in the top 5% and yes to the fourth, then you are in the top 1%.

caux round table


For a list of organisations that work directly with development projects to help volunteers find placements (often at a much lower cost) see the “Work Abroad” section of our “Work Experience” pages www.kent.ac.uk/careers/vacwork.htm
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”

(Jethro Pettit, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex)  www.guardian.co.uk/money/2008/jan/19/workandcareers.graduates2

“Think about which area of development you are particularly interested in. Getting some overseas voluntary experience can give you exposure to a variety of areas of development work and help you to decide what aspect you are most interested in/best-suited to. This can then help you to decide on which Masters, should you decide to continue studying. The key is to try and identify what area of development you want to work in, and to then build up your experience (academic or professional) in that area”

(Beth Goodey, Restless Development) http://careers.guardian.co.uk/careers-blog/international-development-careers

The Development Studies Association has a list of courses in development studies at  www.devstud.org.uk/directories/course

Department for International Development Graduate Development Scheme www.dfid.gov.uk/graduate

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 www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/mdgoverview.html

Information on the recruitment process is available at www.dfid.gov.uk/Work-with-us/Working-for-DFID/Recruitment-process 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 at www.dfid.gov.uk/Work-with-us/Working-for-DFID/Recruitment-process/Assessment-centres/Assessment-centre-exercises

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”

Further Information


If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following.  There would be:

57 Asians
21 Europeans
14 from the Western Hemisphere, both north and south
8 would be Africans

52 would be female
48 would be male

70 would be non-white
30 would be white

70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian

89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual

6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United States.
80 would live in substandard housing
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
ONE would be near death;
ONE would be near birth;
ONE (yes, only 1) would have a college education;
ONE (yes, only 1) would own a computer.

When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for acceptance, understanding and education becomes glaringly apparent.

And, therefore . . .
  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.
  • If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.
  • If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.  
  • If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more blessed than three billion people in the world.
  • If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
  • If you hold up your head with a smile on your face and are truly thankful, you are blessed because the majority can, but most do not.
  • If you can read this message, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world who cannot read at all.
  • As you read this and are reminded how life is in the rest of the world, remember just how blessed you really are!


Although see www.snopes.com/science/stats/populate.asp for some informed commentary on these figures


Last fully updated 2012