Want a job in development? 'Look broadly,' NGO chiefs tell students

Madeline Clark, a student of University of Texas at Austin and an AidData summer fellow, works with Nepal’s Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension, and Development staff in Kathmandu. Getting a job in the field of international development is more challenging than before. Photo by: Alena Stern / USAID / CC BY-NC

As aid groups, nongovernmental organizations and donors focus more on local partnerships and country ownership of critical programs, international development jobs are slowly, increasingly harder to find.

“The opportunities that I had are not the opportunities that you will have,” Tessie San Martin, president and chief executive officer of Plan USA, told students at Georgetown University on Thursday.

The truth is — international expertise is not as in demand as it used to be as the industry goes local, she explained.

“We’ve got hugely capable people in all the countries where we work. So we’re not looking to bring expats,” said San Martin, whose organization works to address the needs of children through community engagement.

Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI 360, expressed the same sentiment.

“When I think of the market for skills today, compared to the market when I started — that was in 1980 — it’s so much more competitive and difficult,” he admitted.

But San Martin also stressed that there are all sorts of opportunities for students and young professionals looking to tap into development if they “look broadly” and consider careers that aren’t necessarily as traditional as her own.

“There’re all kinds of different career paths,” she said, highlighting for instance opportunities in social impact investment with corporations working overseas.

Barbara Turner, president of the Center for Human Services, agreed.

“There … are a lot of private industries now that are really understanding that the Third World is indeed the marketplace,” said Turner, adding that many companies allow employees to take sabbaticals to do development work overseas.

But for young professionals looking to stick to the traditional route and steer clear of the private sector, Fine had some words of encouragement.

“On one hand it’s a tough market, and that’s just a reality. On the other hand, we live in a globalized society. So there’s more interaction, more exchange and in some ways more opportunities to participate and engage in that interaction than there was 30 years ago,” said Fine. “So if it’s your passion, and you pursue it, you’ll find opportunities.”

He added that language skills, overseas experience, tech savviness, and a business sense are critical skills to demonstrate to potential employers.

San Martin underscored the importance of getting a master’s degree, while Turner stressed the career benefits of joining the Peace Corps.

“Almost all international development groups love when they see a resume coming in from somebody who’s got the Peace Corps experience because they’ve really been out there on the ground,” she said.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.