The military-to-development transition: How 3 Marines found a new purpose

United States Marines with Afghan farmers during a fertilizer and seed distribution at Northern Marjah, Afghanistan. The food zone program, led by the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, assists farmers cope with a harsh harvest season. Photo by: Marines / CC BY-NC

Alex Martin wasn’t familiar with the concept of global development when he made a satellite phone call from a warship in the Gulf of Aden to Nuru International founder Jake Harriman.

He didn't have background knowledge of agriculture, education or health care, and he didn't know how he would put his skills to use in a development context. But he knew he wanted to learn more about the anti-poverty intervention Harriman had started in Africa.

What Martin did possess was 11 years of experience in the United States Marine Corps. After three tours in Iraq, he was deployed on a counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. In fact, he was reflecting on the successful mission he and his platoon had just executed — reclaiming a merchant ship and capturing the pirates who had forcefully taken it — right before he called Harriman.

“Even when we deployed, the mission had a different feel to it,” Martin explained. “It was more: ‘What are the causes behind this? Why does this problem exist?’”

These were the questions that prompted Martin to reach out to Harriman, himself a Marine who founded Nuru, an effort to fight poverty and promote security through hyperlocal, self-sustaining and holistic development assistance in remote, rural communities.

Four years after that call, Martin is living in an austere, challenging environment and working with a small team of dedicated professionals, just as he had done in the Marine Corps. But now, as Nuru International’s outgoing team leader in Kenya, he has retired his military uniform and instead identifies and trains local leaders to design and implement solutions to the community’s needs.

Though the differences are many — learning how to farm millet, sorghum and maize, for one — Martin has found his abilities to mobilize a team and perform mission-driven work have made for extremely translatable skills, and he isn’t alone.

Ali Riazi, too, felt compelled to engage with citizens of developing countries in a different capacity than his 8 years in the Marine Corps dealing with counter terrorism and intel matters allowed.  

“I realized ‘OK, there’s conflict here,’ but I was engaged on it from one side, one perspective, and realized we weren’t doing anything to address the root causes, to reduce suffering, to reduce harm,” Riazi said.

Now the senior protection policy advisor at InterAction, Riazi went on to complete his undergraduate degree in international development and conflict management after leaving the Marines.

But Nuru’s tendency to hire veterans is unique, and not every relief or development organization embraces military men and women on their staff, Riazi told Devex.

“It certainly is a road less traveled … I think that it’s hard for folks to make the connection between military and what’s performed by development workers,” Kevin Wilkins, a former Marine, presidential appointee and Peace Corps volunteer told Devex. “I’ve always challenged that premise.”

The transferable skills are many, and so are the cultural workplace differences. But if military men and women can properly translate their background for development professionals, the transition can be a smooth one — and extremely worthwhile, according to these three veterans.  

Transferable skills

Development professionals — and recruiters — can agree that working well in a team, drawing on a sense of duty, adapting quickly, possessing a strong work ethic and a variety of cross-functional skills are not only attractive, but necessary to succeed in often harsh environments with a myriad of unexpected challenges.

According to the the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it is just these characteristics that military veterans bring to the workplace as well.

Military personnel are often cross-trained in multiple skills, have experience in varied tasks and responsibilities and appreciate the challenges and satisfaction of a job well done, according to the Veterans Employment Toolkit.

“Adaptability is ingrained in the Marines,” Wilkins said, adding that teamwork is considered an essential part of daily life. “It’s being able to treat your peers, those well above you and below with respect, while also still knowing your place.”

In the military, the mission comes first. Having the ability to follow through on assignments, even under difficult or stressful circumstances, is fundamental, so “if there’s a test around every corner like in the Marine Corps, I don't want to just pass it, I certainly don't want to fail it, I want to knock it out of the park,” Wilkins said. “There’s a strong sense of when I commit to something, it’s the organization, mission…I want to live and breath it and want to succeed.”

It’s this attitude that has aided Wilkins in his development career, from program director for GrowCocoa, to director of operations and Africa business development for CG/LA Infrastructure to his current role as consultant for sustainable sourcing, partnerships and livelihoods program design and delivery.

Exact transferable skills depend on each individual’s background in the military — if you were a computer programmer, an administration professional or in the artillery unit, for example.

Riazi had exposure to police and armed actors in different conflict scenarios, including Egypt and Iraq. Because he was used to dealing with armed actors, he was more nuanced in his understanding and could build rapport with them, he explained.

His most transferable skill? Reaching out and building relationships, from the civilian on the street to the mayor, civil officials and police, and having that ability to build friendships and share information.

Riazi also draws on his analytical skills, especially being able to step back and analyze the situation in order to take measured, delicate steps to solve it.

Cultural differences

The transferable skills may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean the military to development transition is.

For one, even the financial ramifications of taking a position in development might be unrealistic, and an entry-level field position might not be possible due to other financial obligations.

“Some of my peers are interested in moving into humanitarian work, but they're not ready for extreme nature of how low the pay is,” Riazi said.

And there are still negative perceptions about veterans, especially when it comes to humanitarian work.

It’s important to be well-informed of these concerns, Riazi said, noting that many organizations don't want people who have military background working on peace building initiatives or on human rights projects: “They think that you're coming in with negative biases,” he said. Certain organizations must worry about the context they're working in, and what it would mean to employ a veteran there.

Riazi knows very few veterans specifically in humanitarian work. And if they are, they don't advertise they were in the military. Although this also depends on which military — were you a part of the U.S. military or in the Swedish or British Armed Forces? The perceptions will be completely different, he explained. If you were in the U.S. military, you wouldn't mention that while working in development in Iraq, for example. But in South Sudan, the background could benefit you.

The cultural difference of the workplace are also something to consider. Riazi, who works on human rights advocacy, was initially surprised by how many people needed to sign off on a particular message, compared to needing approval from one or two people in the military. This collaborative sense extends to many aspects of development work, and the lack of a top down structure is something that veterans would need to adapt to.

“In the military, you would have your group of men and women and you would say ‘here’s the problem and here’s what we’re going to do,’” Riazi explained. “In the NGO sense — whether in Baghdad, Juba or the Ivory Coast — it’s all about collaboration, sitting down at the table and getting people to agree on what the problem is and get buy-in from everyone.”

There aren't formal institutions in the aid community to inculcate leadership qualities, he added, which can have different ramifications. This might mean interacting with leaders who don't have the same understanding or foundation on how to approach a problem or  encourage responsibility.

The transition

It’s fairly easy to present those transferable skills in an interview, especially if you’ve studied what the organization is looking for. But first, Riazi suggested veterans consider a few simple things:

1. How do you like to work with people?

2. Where do you want to work? And for what type of organization?

3. What are you passionate about?

4. What can you contribute?

Then put together a skills-based resume, and keep it short on military acronyms, he suggested. Instead, present your experience using action verbs like “analyzed,” “wrote,” and “convened.”

Riazi, for example, highlighted that he had experience with peacekeeping operations in East Timor, worked with many different stakeholders and had exposure to international humanitarian law.

Martin, on the other hand, capitalized on his leadership experience.

“Look, we have a very important thing that is needed in development,” Martin said. “We have been trained on how to lead men and women in adversity.”

And adversity is something that development professionals face every day. Martin pointed to his and other veterans’ specific training on how to take groups of people, inspire them and put them on a course toward a successful end state: mission accomplishment.

“I might now know about agriculture or about microfinance, but I know how to lead people and I can learn the rest,” he said.

An interview is also the time to let a potential employer know just how hard you’re used to working, and how hard you’d be willing to work for them, Wilkins shared, adding that he is sure to highlight that he’s not afraid to work long hours or get dirty.

And don't let your pride of service get in the way, Wilkins added. If you're making the transition, you're transitioning to new chapter of life, so think about where your skills are and where you’d like to grow — but know that you probably won’t be entering the field with the same years of experience or education that many other professionals might have.


Smallholder farmers are the bravest entrepreneurs, which is just one thing Martin has learned since making the transition to development work.  

Prior to his own work in the field, he believed that development workers engaged in projects for a few months and then headed home: “It’s a culture I didn’t understand,” Martin said of who the development worker is, but he’s learned that many are much like the Marines he served with in terms of character and courage.

The importance of doing things responsibly is also similar — whether you’re fighting a war or engaging in a project with a community knowing you have to leave it better.

“Starting with the end in mind is so critical,” Martin said.

Local capacity building is another aspect that spans from military to development work, and it’s something Martin has seen done poorly and really well in both fields. Counterinsurgency is the same as counter-poverty, he said, in terms of the idea that the solution is in the empowerment of the people who are the biggest stakeholders.

And just as military men and women are working as part of a much larger mission and team, so too are development workers.

“You realize that you're just a small piece of the puzzle,” Riazi said.  

Those who engage in international development or join the military are often driven by a call to serve, Wilkins said. With that fundamental value in common, it’s no wonder veterans find themselves called to continue aiding developing communities.

Have you made the transition from military to development work? What were the biggest challenges? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Whether you’re a seasoned expert or budding development professional — check out more news, analysis and advice online to guide your career and professional development, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news every week.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

Join the Discussion