Jobs in development cooperation: A primer

An aid worker talks to earthquake victims during an assessment by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection in Turkey. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-SA

A gender advocate lobbies politicians in Washington to increase funding for girls’ primary education in Haiti. Researchers meet in Rome to discuss ways to improve crop yields in the Horn of Africa. A Korean tech specialist travels to Bangladesh to help upgrade the country’s IT infrastructure.

Their focus may differ, but they all work in the growing field of international cooperation — and chances are their work is being supported by what is called official development assistance: funding provided by governments and other donors through bilateral or multilateral aid.

The foreign aid industry attracts people with a variety of backgrounds and expertise, from global health to governance to food security. It offers a gamut of opportunities as well, from short-term consulting assignments in the field to permanent staff positions at headquarters.

Here’s a look at some general trends of working in global aid.

Relief vs. development jobs

Humanitarian aid tends to focus on short-term, lifesaving assistance, while international development is meant to address the root causes of poverty, making it a longer-term effort. Cumulatively, funding for both reached nearly $150 billion in 2010.

Some humanitarian crises endure for years — emergencies due to armed conflict, for instance — which may leave donors struggling to transition from short-term relief to longer-term development efforts. As such, the distinction between relief and development jobs isn’t always clear.

That said, relief workers often serve as first responders in case of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, providing emergency medical and food assistance. Many relief workers serve on a voluntary basis. Recruitment as well as deployment to the field is fairly quick, usually within days after a disaster strikes.

The recruitment of development professionals usually takes longer, and much of it is being done by NGOs, consultancies and other organizations that are implementing donor-funded projects in the field. Hiring managers tend to look for technical experts with management know-how, solid writing and foreign language skills, and experience working in the target region.

A field project normally includes an overall leader (called chief of party by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for instance), as well as technical experts and administrative staff focused on issues such as accounting, communications, procurement and information technology. Other positions may open depending on a particular project; they may have a hand in building local capacity, for instance, or in monitoring and evaluating operations.

Full-time vs. consulting positions

Permanent positions — from entry- to senior-level — are mostly based at an organization’s home office, and hiring tends to be handled by in-house recruiters.

Consultants are normally recruited for temporary assignments. They serve as advisers or help implement field projects, and are thus often hired not by the funding organizations themselves but by their implementing partners. Many aid groups use a database to keep track of qualified experts they may tap in case a suitable project comes about.

Local vs. international hires

In an effort to encourage homegrown development, aid groups have been ramping up the hiring of local staff — mostly as support staff and technical experts. That said, seasoned expats will likely remain fixtures with field projects, primarily as senior project administrators.

International staff members, unlike local hires, often travel abroad to participate in field projects. With the right education, experience and performance, local hires may be able to advance and become part of an organization’s international staff, travel to headquarters or join other field projects abroad.

Similarly, it is possible for foreigners to join field operations as a local hire, although this rarely happens. That’s why at the Asian Development Bank headquarters in Manila, expect Japanese and U.S. professionals to account for the biggest chunk of the international workforce, and Philippine nationals to make up much of the local, administrative staff.

Specialists vs. generalists

What drives a career in international development — generalist or specialist skills? This question has been debated for years, and its answer depends largely on one’s career goals.

That said, most senior consultants and aid officials can point to management experience as well as technical expertise. An example would be an engineer who has led a World Bank-funded project focused on the provision of clean water, the disposal of wastewater and the prevention of floods.

“There are typically no senior-level positions for generalists,” Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs has said in a paper on careers in development consulting.

Smaller organizations may rely more on generalists than larger ones, including for administrative functions such as human resources and accounting. And, generalists appear to fare well in humanitarian missions.

“I would say that those that last the longest in [humanitarian relief] are the people that are more generalist and that have particular management skills,” Claus Sorensen, head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office, told Devex in an interview in late 2011.

Entry-, mid- vs. senior-level jobs

Transferable skills are key for those transitioning into global development work. Recruiters tend to count only the experience that is related to a specific vacancy, which means that a senior professional transitioning from the private sector without much relevant work experience may only be competitive for midlevel jobs in international development.

If you’re trying to work in the field, international experience tends to be a prerequisite.

So, how do you hone those crucial transferable skills? Consider taking up internships or volunteer opportunities, and find a mentor in the sector you’re interested in.

Some governments sponsor paid volunteering schemes for their citizens — the U.S. Peace Corps, Australian Volunteers for International Development, or the U.K.’s International Citizen Service, for instance.

Other aid groups are grooming the next generation of leaders through a variety of trainee programs. Coffey International, for instance, operates a program for engineering students, and most multilateral banks operate junior and young professionals programs.

Public vs. private sector

There’s no shortage of organizations working in international cooperation, from government agencies to multilateral banks, from charitable foundations to advocacy groups, from NGOs and consultancies working in the field to think tanks and research institutions driving innovation.

Add to that the lobbying firms, communications shops, social businesses and multinational corporations that work with more “traditional” aid groups to reduce poverty around the world, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to make an impact.

Increasingly, these organizations work in partnership and employ businesslike return-on-investment calculations; as a result, there’s less of a distinction between public, private and nonprofit jobs.

So, which are the largest institutions working in development cooperation? Check our lists of top aid groups in humanitarian relief and other sectors, as well as in global development hubs such as London, New York, Paris and Washington.

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About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.