Development jobs: What you need to know

By Devex Editor 16 September 2008

Considering a career in international development?

The following tips, gleaned from communications with Devex’s network of more than 250,000 international development professionals from around the world, may help you get started.

Understand the types of positions available

Professionals often will speak of their interest in an international development career. But what they envision is often vague and doesn’t fit with the types of positions available. It’s an oversimplification, but there are essentially three types of jobs in international development. If you understand what each entails, it will be easier for you to position yourself for a job or assignment.

Technical expert

This is what many professionals think of when they envision an international development career. A technical expert is someone with a high level of expertise in a particular field such as infrastructure, irrigation, water and sanitation, public health, food distribution and assessment, judicial reform.

These positions are generally attached to specific projects funded by governmental donor agencies including the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.K.’s Department for International Development. These agencies normally have tight restrictions on the qualifications for technical experts. It is not uncommon for requirements to include many years of professional experience and an advanced degree, plus particular foreign language skills and substantial in-country experience.

If this is the type of position you are seeking, it’s important that you have sufficient technical expertise in a particular field or fields. If not, now is the time to build your qualifications toward positions of this kind. In addition, technical experts generally work in the country a project is based in. So, depending on your career level and the sector in which you work, be prepared for long-term assignments (1-3 years) in a particular country or region, and/or frequent short-term assignments to multiple locations. Such work often takes place in post-conflict regions or in areas without the comforts of cosmopolitan cities. Consider whether or not this is really what you want before investing your time and energy in this career path.

The image of humanitarian relief workers doling out food and medicines in refugee camps is, in many ways, an incomplete picture. Many international relief agencies send abroad mostly technical experts with substantial field experience and specific skills. Less skilled work can often be better managed with local talent. Thus, even those with a strong interest in assisting humanitarian relief efforts around the world should consider the importance of bringing technical expertise to bear in a field where it is needed, such as health care, energy production, water and sanitation or logistics.

Project manager

If you want to work on international development projects but don’t envision yourself spending so much time in the field or you do not qualify as a technical expert, consider a position in project management. These jobs typically are located either at field sites or local country offices of development consulting firms or non-governmental organizations.

A project management position entails all aspects of coordinating development projects, including the managing a - national and expatriate - staff and the meeting project objectives. Administrative functions may involve basic duties (expense reports, invoicing, and paperwork of all kinds) and, depending on seniority level, it can include project direction, technical advice, coordination with donor agency and local government officials, and the publication of project reports.

A project management position is often the first stop for young professionals interested in an international development career. With successful performance and the right projects portfolio, some short-term travel is often possible, and this can provide the experience needed, over time, for a position as a technical expert.


If you are less interested in the operational activities of development projects, but rather in the underlying issues and policies that relate to global poverty, consider a position as researcher. These positions typically exist at think-tanks, nonprofit institutions (often those that are more engaged in advocacy than in implementing projects), and development agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency or the Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As with other positions, there is a spectrum of opportunities, from research assistant positions for recent graduates to more senior positions that often require a post-doctorate or other graduate degree. These positions are often based in the capital cities of the world’s richest countries, but many researchers engage in field research and thus make short-term visits to developing countries in the course of their research.

Other positions

These three broad categories, taken together, account for most entry-, mid-, and senior-level, if not executive-level positions. But there are some other types of positions worth noting. Firms and NGOs that receive funding from development agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank or Germany’s Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit need to maintain close relationships with these agencies and produce proposals to receive funding. As a result, there are typically positions that entail proposal writing and business development at many development consulting firms and NGOs.

In addition, the provision of technical experts for projects around the world is an enormous challenge - matching the right expert to the right project is no small task - and there are many positions available for international development recruiters. These positions often require knowledge of how specific development agencies work, as, for example, USAID and EuropeAid may have very different rules and regulations to comply with when it comes to recruiting technical experts.

There are many positions that blend various aspects of these job types, but a clear understanding of each and how you can contribute to these types of positions will be enormously helpful as you position your career in international development.

Promote your skills

It is common among international development professionals to have multiple resumes. Each version highlights and emphasizes a different core skill area to best position you for the wide range of positions available.

As you seek to promote your skills, consider the many job opportunities available by carefully searching job listings on and other Web sites. Select only those positions for which you are truly qualified, and create multiple versions of your resume that directly address specific positions. A general resume is much less likely to be successful, particularly if you are seeking a position as technical expert.

Our is a rapidly changing industry and there are new areas of prominence and focus each year. To be best positioned to promote your skills, it is critical that you remain aware of the latest sectors of prominence, funding trends, and activities of the world’s leading NGOs and companies.

Networking still matters

Even in an age of online job postings and resume databases, networking makes an enormous difference. In-person meetings help enormously to build relationships with a wide array of international development professionals. To facilitate these kinds of connections, Devex, for instance, provides an online networking directory international development professionals may use to connect with colleagues, find old friends, and introduce themselves to professionals working at donor agencies, NGOs and in the private sector.

Wherever you live in the world, make an effort to get to know donor agency officials, academics as well as NGO and private sector representatives working in international development research. The personal connections you develop can be enormously helpful in navigating the complex and ever-changing and growing international development industry.

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