4 tips for program country nationals to launch an international career

“Localization” is a popular buzzword in the development community, so how can you make a successful jump from local employment to an international career? Photo by: Mish Sukharev / CC BY

Global development organizations increasingly look to hire local professionals to lead their projects over flying in international candidates. Last year, 62 percent of recruiters surveyed predicted that the preference for hiring local candidates will only increase in the coming years. This is likely to continue to impact development career opportunities around the world.

In many countries, educated, experienced local national development professionals are taking the lead on tackling development challenges in their own communities. While these aid workers should continue to see increased opportunities in their home countries, what if they want to apply their experience in other countries around the world?

Getting that first overseas job is challenging for anyone who wants to work in international development. And while the push to hire local staff is creating more opportunities for professionals in-country, it’s also making it more difficult for them to find work in countries outside of their own.

Looking for a career transition? Here are tips on breaking into global development from another sector, taking your career international — or domestic — and how to translate your skills to resonate with recruiters.

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Here are four tips for local development professionals to take their careers international.

1. Start at the regional level

One of the reasons organizations often prefer hiring someone local is that they will already know the language, culture, political environment and systems that will impact the work. However, when recruiters can’t find that expertise in-country, they will often look to neighboring countries.

Start by applying to jobs in your region, where you might share a language, similar culture or political history.

You could also try to find positions in a regionally focused program based in your home country. For example, a project organizing efforts across East Africa and based in your hometown of Nairobi may offer opportunities to travel and work in Ethiopia, Tanzania or Uganda.

2. Go to the hot spots

If you are willing to work in a fragile state, look for opportunities in places such as South Sudan, Yemen, or Afghanistan.

These countries receive a large portion of foreign aid funding, meaning a lot of jobs are available, but organizations struggle to recruit professionals to work in these areas.

Read the Devex 2017 Hiring Trends Report to learn where else recruiters struggle to find candidates.

In a conflict or post-conflict environment, many local professionals have left and international candidates are less interested in posts where they cannot bring their family or may face additional risks.

When organizations struggle to find qualified candidates, they will often overlook requirements such as experience working outside of your own country. With less competition, you might be able to find the break you need to get that coveted international experience you can then use to find work in more secure posts later.

3. Try to relocate with your current employer

If you work for a larger international nongovernmental organization or consulting firm, chances are they have projects going on all around the world. Prove yourself a capable, hardworking professional who gets results, and they may be open to providing opportunities for you to work elsewhere.

Talk to your current employer about your desire to work overseas. Give them examples of where you would like to work and explain why you would bring value to the role. This is best done toward the close of a project or large initiative so it won’t appear like you are shirking your current responsibilities.

4. Apply for international vacancies with international organizations

Large multilateral organizations, including the many U.N. agencies or development banks, hire both local and international positions. While they are not easy to land, an international position will give you the opportunity to work in many places around the world throughout your career. Many professionals have found success transitioning from a local position to an international one within these institutions.

Devex conducted a survey of our members to understand their perceptions of and interest in working with these large international organizations. A surprising revelation was that while most professionals thought of these agencies as a desirable place to work, 20 percent had never applied.

Many professionals felt that these institutions favor Western candidates and that they were not wanted. However, many of these groups are in fact actively seeking more qualified candidates from what they refer to as program countries. If you haven’t considered — or applied — for one of these positions despite meeting the qualifications, give it a try.

Have you successfully made the leap from local development professional to international? Share your experience and advice in the comments section below.

No matter if you're a recent graduate looking for your first job in the field or an executive level professional looking for your next leadership challenge, Career Navigator offers articles, reports, videos and online events to help guide you on the first step, or next step, of your professional journey. Where do you want to go?

This article was last updated on 19 March 2018

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.