Work in global development — without heading overseas

An entrance to the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Photo: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND 

Many professionals choose a career in international development precisely because they want to live and work abroad. But there are many reasons why aspiring aid workers should consider a career in their home country, even if positions may seem less glamorous.

If you come from a major donor country like the United Kingdom, Australia or those found in North America or Western Europe, chances are you can find a job working in global development without packing your bags. NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies that fund them typically have significant headquarters locations that employ hundreds of development professionals at all career levels.

Whether you’re just starting out, looking to make your next career move or reaching the final chapter of your career, here are seven reasons you should consider a domestically based development job.

1. It’s easier to break in

International jobs in global development present the classic chicken and egg scenario: You can’t get an overseas position without previous overseas work experience. So, how does anyone ever break in? The answer is that many aid workers start their career in their home country working at the headquarters of an international organization.

Previous field experience is often not a requirement for these kinds of entry-level positions, and a study abroad or international volunteer experience may be enough to help you stand out from the pack.

Many home office positions fall under the generalist category and don’t require a high level of technical expertise, which can be hard to demonstrate early in your career.

READ: How to get that first aid job in the field

2.  Localization means less overseas jobs

Increasing local ownership of development programs — including staffing projects with local professionals rather than flying in expats — is a trend that is not likely to dwindle. Projects that five or 10 years ago may have employed as many as 10 expat positions may only employ one today.

International development professionals who aspire to a long career posted overseas may find these opportunities diminishing.

READ: These are the practical realities of localization

3.  It’s easier to balance for dual-career couples

A significant challenge for aid workers is juggling a career that can require frequent moves and relocation with family. For dual-career couples, it can mean long separations when both cannot find work in the same city or one partner taking the back seat to the other’s career.

If you are based in a city like London, Canberra or Washington, D.C., it can be easier for you and your spouse to both establish careers, whether or not your partner also works in international development.

READ: Dual-career couples on the move

4. It provides more stability

Many aid workers loathe the idea of living in one city the rest of their life, and stability may actually be considered a drawback. But after years of not knowing where your next assignment will be, packing up your household and frequently saying goodbye to friends and family, the idea of staying put in one place where you can establish roots may sound appealing.

Home office positions are also typically not tied to a specific project, unlike many overseas positions. This means you won’t have to lobby for a new job once your current project ends and can more realistically build a career without hopping frequently between employers.

5.  But, you can still scratch that travel itch

Being based in your home country doesn’t mean you won’t get to experience different cultures or have the opportunity to work directly on the ground with local beneficiaries and stakeholders.

Home office positions, particularly at the mid to senior level, entail a lot of international travel. It may be two weeks to help the startup or close of a project, a regional tour to deliver a series of trainings or a month-long assignment advising the local staff.

Headquarters-based aid workers can still amass a collection of passport stamps and frequent flyer miles and build up a track record of overseas experience.

READ: How to transition from generalist to specialist

6.  Positions are available at all career levels

For entry-level professionals, looking at home office positions can be a practical approach to getting your foot in the door before transitioning to an overseas position once you gain more experience. But that doesn’t mean you have to eventually move abroad to establish a lifelong career. While for some positions it can certainly help to have field experience, there are many paths in international development, including corporate communications, business development, recruitment and human resources where you can find opportunities at all career levels up to executive.

Aid workers who are looking to transition from the field to their home country — for many of the reasons listed here — can find opportunities that won’t necessarily mean taking a step back in their career.

READ: 6 tips for working your way out of a conflict zone

7.  A fulfilling job with the comforts of home

Working on issues like global health, poverty reduction and disaster response are what inspires mission driven do-gooders to this sector. However, if you don’t have the temperament to live in some of the more complex environments development work entails, a good middle ground can be a job in your home country that contributes to the global good without a lot of the sacrifice some aid workers take on.

To view a list of full-time home office staff positions based in donor countries, check out the Devex job board.

Are you a home office development worker? What do you like about your job?

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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.