In my daily emails, I often get letters from professionals, both entry level or late career, asking how to break in or make the transition into the international development sector. Although an individual may have international experience, this does not guarantee a lateral move or easy entry into the international development sector. The development sector can be attractive to college graduates and also executives weary of the ups and downs of labor market affected by cyclical economic fluctuations. Development sector jobs, which are created and funded by large donor organizations and their contractors, are less cyclical and include the various posts needed for managing/implementing foreign aid, humanitarian programs/projects in developing countries worldwide. Such post may be challenging but they are attractive and even addictive to those who crave adventure, travel and excitement of creating solutions or resources that can make a big difference.
It is best to start in your own environment and build from the networks close at hand. Start by building up your international networks, by speaking to people who volunteer for overseas projects, and join those projects. Seek out international projects around your town, such as international church projects, college exchanges, rotary. Look for fellowships, internships. Add your international experiences to your resume.
Read everything you can – the world wide web is a great place to find information about international development. I also suggest you visit websites where you can view the various international positions and consultancies offered by international development contractors, such as DEVEX.com, Reliefweb, Communication Initiative Vacancy Service, Peace Collaborative Development Network, and others that offer many resources to help new entrants break into International Development. Or go to my website, Aines International, http://www.internationalink.net and click on the “Blog” and the “Resources” tabs. This web page will connect you with many of the organizations offering paid or volunteer opportunities, as well as other the international development organizations that provide valuable networks for connecting to others like you. You’ll learn how to access and navigate among the many donor organizations and their implementing partners.
It is not hard to break into international work, but you can’t just step into the high paying, long-term jobs. Like everywhere else, one has to start at a lower level and be fastidious about building international development experience. Most jobs in the international development sector require prior experience (paid or volunteer). At first it will be a few weeks at a time on volunteer projects, but be steadfast in building up your body of international work.
Some ways to start getting that experience is through volunteer organizations. Some organizations offer multiple yearly opportunities and others offer short term assignments for 3-4 weeks. In either case, they’ll match up the skills/talents of volunteers to the needs within a target community in a developing country. Most volunteer experience will be in the areas of enterprise development, food security, and agricultural development.
The U.S. Peace Corp is also a good long term volunteer assignment that provides good training for people to break into international development. It is a two-year volunteer commitment. Many of the international workers I know today started that way. Other countries in Europe and Africa also have similar services. Inspired by the Peace Corps experience, the mission of CorpsAfrica was started during 2012, to provide young adults across Africa the opportunity to serve as volunteers in their own countries to find solutions to poverty by starting at the community level.
There are other organizations that may have volunteer opportunities, such as CDC Development Solutions (CDS). And don’t forget to check out Doctors without Borders, Engineers without Borders, Lawyers without Borders, MBAs without Borders, Teachers without Borders, and many other professions now seeking volunteer expertise in many countries in need. These are excellent international development experience builders.
As for paid work, some of my clients say you should be looking at organizations like Care International, Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam, Refugees International (RTI), or even www.idealist.org — anything to break into the international arena. Some of these organizations seem to have more opportunities for people building up their international resumes. For paid humanitarian/relief organizations, a great job board is Relief Net.
It is not the only way to do it — many people get recruited because they have a needed expertise, or they happen to be at the right place, right time. However, often it takes a lot of time in low-paid or unpaid assignments until one day you find you have broken in!