How to get in to the international aid sector

“What is the graduate programme that I can apply to for this sector?”
“Without a Masters will I be unable to progress at some point?”
“I only speak English, does this mean I have no chance?”
“I can’t afford to live in Geneva without a paid job, does that rule me out?”

Any discussion of how to get into the aid sector inevitably includes these kinds of questions. It’s a tough sector to crack in to and there are numerous stories about the rules of entry. Many of them are fiction; some however, are sadly true.

If I was designing a new aid sector, then one of my first priorities would be clear career pathways. It might not sound like a key element in a sector established to help those in desperate need. But I disagree. This is a sector that should showcase accountability, transparency and empowerment. One of the best ways to do so would be to role model it from the outset – entry to the sector. If its members are surrounded by these behaviours and values, then it’s inevitable that they will be manifested in how the work is undertaken. Human beings are known to imitate the environment they reside in.

Currently there are few career pathways for entry to the aid sector. And those that exist are not permanent – the UN recently closed its Youth Professional Programme, previously known as one of the entry points for young enthusiasts from around the globe. A similar DFID scheme, has just been reinstated (DESA) but for the past five or so years had no fresh intake.

For economists, the Overseas Development Institute runs a fellowship programme that gives graduates of economics and statistics an opportunity to get decent overseas work experience. For budding humanitarians, the EU Commission runs its volunteer programme based on a short period working in an INGO headquarters and then two stints of experience in the field. Neither of these programmes guarantee a job at the end – I don’t believe they should – however, they do provide respected work experience: one of the most treasured assets of those applying to the sector.

If I had to pull together a list of what the sector currently sees as ‘ideal must haves’, it would look something like the below. Please note, this is not what the aid sector should be looking for in new entrants (a completely different discussion), but what the international aid sector currently does look for in new entrants at international or regional level (i.e. not field level).

• A professional qualification (i.e. doctor, accountant, HR expert, engineer etc) or a relevant masters level degree
• Fluency in English and the ability to communicate in another language
• Experience of living and/or working abroad
• An understanding of the current issues in the sector
• Transferable skills such as budget management, people management, project management, computer literacy

Again, this is a list of ideals – this does not mean that if you are missing one or more of the list, you have no hope. Not at all. But if you are looking to improve your chances and have time and resources to invest in yourself, getting one of the above would be a great start.

Sadly, a lot falls down to who you know and/or luck. Many colleagues have told me they were in the right place at the right time, or that someone they knew from a previous job had helped them out. It’s wrong and I find it a very difficult pill to swallow, however, it is the reality. And before we throw away the whole idea of working in the sector, it’s important to distinguish between different possible approaches to this problem.

Firstly, you could focus entirely on networking – pimping yourself out on Linkedin, hanging around pubs near INGO headquarters, attending every talk or debate with homemade cards etc. This might work but it’s exhausting, and often difficult to demonstrate your skills and abilities over a glass of wine after a debate on lessons learned from an emergency response you weren’t part of. That’s setting aside the fact that many of us just aren’t any good at networking.

Secondly, you could spend time speaking to and reading about those who are already in the sector. There are numerous memoirs written by those who’ve worked ‘in the field’. These stories don’t give you experience but they do give you an insight into a sector with numerous facets. Similarly talking to and listening to friends, relatives, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, alumni from your school, who are or have worked in the sector, again gives you a chance to learn about what it looks like in reality. This knowledge should lead to better decisions about what positions to apply to, and to a greater success rate.
Finally, seeking advice from current or previous aid workers on your CV could make a serious difference. Did you know that when you were in charge of the number of barrels of beer in the basement of the pub, you were actually using similar skills as required for stock control or warehouse management in the field? Certain terms and ways of describing things can get your CV on the ‘to interview’ pile.

Ultimately, the top three tips (which you will have heard before) are:

1. Get field experience
2. Choose internships carefully, many INGOs and international organisations are churning through interns with little prospect of a job at the end
3. Be flexible in what you will do and where you’ll go

Here are the things we wish we’d known before we entered the aid sector. Look out for future blogs in this series on professionalism, recruitment and internships.

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28 thoughts on “How to get in to the international aid sector

  1. I really wish we had a good idea of the ratio of who got their first job/internship from knowing someone, being in the right place at the right time, or by cold applying to a job. Currently I don’t know anyone who got into aid from simple applying online. Could just be me though.

    If you’re in the US I’d say…

    – Get involved online. Join AidSource, joined LinkedIn groups, etc.. You never know who you’ll meet!

    – Volunteer somewhere. I’m surprised this isn’t put out there more. Before my first internship I volunteered at a small global health org at a hospital helping with their WordPress site. That experience was a huge boost.

    – Most importantly *be prepared for it to take time*. The referral to my first job abroad was from someone I met over a year before that. It takes time to build relationships where people can trust you enough for them to tell their friend, “hey you should hire this kid they’d do great”.

    • Great advice Jeff. We are currently looking at the possibility of mapping all internships and then enabling them to be ranked or commented on by alumni. In the UK there is a campaign against unpaid internships so there is a big push back for advertising these kind of things. Due to the elitism. Know there is a similar movement in Canada too.

  2. Thanks for this post. It’s perfect for me: a recent undergraduate who knows I want to work in development but struggles to chart a course from here to there. My question to add however is this:

    You mentioned that this advice is to get a position in the regional or international levels. The advice is familiar to me. But what about field work? For me, this is my aspiration, but rarely do I see advice such as this for that path. Is that because there is no such path, all field positions being filled locally, or what have you? I’ve done my level best to sniff out similar position openings to what I’d like to do (agricultural development), but it’s hit or miss. It can be hard to even locate the job postings for that kind of work. Curious of your take on that.

    I’ve loved following your blog for the last year or so. Keep up the great work!

    • David – thanks for your kind words. It’s always good to know that we are useful/interesting. We are working on a second blog looking at exactly the issue you raise i.e. how to get a job in the field. It tends to be quite a different method if that’s where you want to head first. And in fact, our main suggestion is that if you want to work in an HQ you need to get field experience first so it’s somewhat circular! Look out for future posts.

  3. I’d like to make a special mention for management types as useful for international development. As someone who has interned quite a lot, I’ve come to think that having people who are specialists in making organisations work properly as a whole – rather than various programme specialists in an uneasy alliance – is a big area for growth in most larger NGOs.

    • Agree. Something we at Aid Leap have debated on various occassions. It’s not all about specialists. But these generalist positions or management specialists are currently few and far between. Give it another couple of decades and things might be different. There is a new generation growing with different experience/skill sets that are slowly moving into the sector. What will our future CEOs, Directors and Country Directors be?

  4. Thanks for this very comprehensive post! I agree that there is no one path, and the list of “expectations” seems spot on to me. There are some schemes (e.g. DFID’s) which don’t require a masters but it’s nevertheless very competitive to get in. So you do always have to demonstrate why you’re special through your interests or work experience (unpaid or paid). I also agree that getting advice on your CV/application is critical – at every single stage not just starting out. Every institution is different so contact someone in the one you are applying for for advice – via twitter or linked-in. Most people are willing to help.
    One path not mentioned though is through the broader civil service – whether in the UK or elsewhere. That was the path I took – and as the sector expands beyond using just “aid” as a tool for development, I think this will be a more and more valuable and valued path. Same goes for private sector – especially in an emerging or developing country. Worth looking into.

    • Great comment Hannah. There are an increasing number of people transferring from other sectors or the wider public sector. These people have transferable skills and can be of great value as they bring alternative ways of working and looking at things.
      Knowing what the organisation you’re applying to is looking for, is key to a succesfful application. Make sure they are really the right one for you by speaking to people who work there or regularly interact with them. There is a great variety in this sector at the organisational level.

  5. Very good post. Thank you for writing and publishing. There is a lot of opinion out there on blogs about how to land that aid sector job, and you sort of distill the best of it down very well.

    -The list of 9 things you wish you’d known is excellent.
    – I can’t help but add a link to one of my own old posts: http://talesfromethehood.com/2010/10/04/landing-an-aid-job/
    – I’m personally becoming ambivalent on the “field experience” bit (you saw my last post on WhyDev). I don’t think it’s helpful to think of “the field” as a box to check or an item to cross off of the to-do list. If the work that you do (that one does) in the aid sector is somehow inherently appropriate at or near the point of delivery, fine. Otherwise, I see this “field” thing as a distraction.
    – These days, when I’m involved in the hiring of expats into field positions (often), I prioritize those who have experience at HQ and/or who can demonstrate understanding of how the larger system works.
    – The MA degree (or equivalent) is a non-negotiable threshold requirement in my world.
    – Alanna Shaikh wrote a post, which I cannot seem to find now, where one of her points was to not be known as a complainer. Not everything has to be roses and bunnies, but people get tired of you if all you do is whinge about everything. What she said.

    • Thanks J. All very true. The ‘field’ experience is questionable and in fact there are an increasing number of people coming up through the HQ ranks without any field experience. Surely there are potential problems if we get to a place where the majority of senior managers have little or no experience in the field, or should I say, running programmes? We need a mix of both.
      Willingness to get on with it and not be self-righteous is extremely important, as Alanna says. The other thing regularly missed is the fact that you have to be willing to work with little reward or recognition. Something many of us overlook and continually brace ourselves against.

      • Yes, completely agree. It’s both/and. Senior managers, almost anywhere in the industry, with no practical understanding of how things work in the actual implementation space can be/lead to real problems.

        “Get on with it and not be self-righteous” — Solid copy, alpha-lima.

        “Willing to work with little reward or recognition.” I agree, and you’re right, of course. This is the reality of the industry. Many missives have been and could be written about the fact that the aid workers who seem to get the most recognition are not really aid workers at all (thinking of, say, Greg Mortensen, for example, or the D.I.Y. Nicholas Kristof prodigies).

        I wonder, though, if in the longer run this wouldn’t be something to actively try to change? Not that we should be all about congratulating ourselves on how awesome we are, but I feel as if what Dr. Anne-Meike Fechter calls “the academic invisibility of aid workers” is actually a real problem… Obviously the subject of wider discussion/more blog posts. :)

      • Fantastic. Lets keep the debate alive. And why not challenge ourselves and the new generation to continue to change for the better . . .

      • Hannah here again – just on “the field” work point… I think experience of designing or implementing some sort of policy in “a” country is really important for senior managers to have had – potentially more so than running specific aid programmes. But I don’t think it matters whether the country they’ve worked in is low-income, middle-income or high-income. The aim of this experience is to get an understanding and respect of domestic policy-making processes and unintended effects of well-intentioned policies. I think this kind of understanding will become even more critical as we continue to work in more complex development environments.

      • But that assumes the individual is able to appreciate that domestic policy-making processes are different in each country and so doesn’t assume that what worked in that one country where they have worked will work everywhere. i.e. the experience is about appreciating that contextualisation of theories and policies is key.

  6. Great advice. I remember once giving a talk to my grad school as an alum, and this student who was approaching graduation became really frustrated by my lack of advice about how to land that first aid job. “It’s hard. You’re doing all you can do. Just keep trying,” just wasn’t specific enough for her.

    The only thing I would add above is this: Speaking as an introvert myself, if you’re not good at networking, get good. Perfect your small talk. Practice on your friends. It will serve you at cocktail parties and at getting a job. (And then you can go home and read a book.)

    I did a post once on questions that one has to have ready, when inevitably interviewers say, “Now what questions do you have for us?” http://www.how-matters.org/2012/08/23/interview-questions-aid-organizations/ I’m always excited when I hear these from interviewees – hope they’re helpful to folks.

  7. I wonder if a good resource would be to work up a set of case studies of individuals and how/why they ended up working in aid. I’ll show you mine if a few others agree to show me theirs ;-)

  8. My Advice (you can also read about it here: http://wp.me/pYCOD-1m3) is, DON’T bother. The Aid Sector (or Industry) is not the best way to make a difference. Or at least, we should not confuse being successful in the industry with making a difference to people’s lives. Maybe this is not the place for this… but here are some more practical tips:

    1) if you are from a developing country don’t even think about staying development studies unless all you want to learn about is about the industry itself -its jargon, codes, practices, etc.- so that you can take advantage of it in favour of your own personal or national interests. You are better off studying a proper discipline (dev studies is NOT a discipline) like economics, engineering, science, anthropology, literature, teaching, health/medicine, etc. You will have a grounding that non of your development studies ‘experts’ will have.

    Also, remember that ‘development’ is a process. It involves all the things that developed countries do now. So if you want to do a masters or a phd in a developed country don’t join the ‘development studies department’ rather go to where ‘locals’ go. YOU can decide what is relevant to YOUR country. If you want to learn about public health learn from the people running the NHS not the people advising the people who advice the people who cannot figure out how to provide clean bed-sheets in an African or Latin American hospital.

    2) if you are from a developed country my advice would be the same. If you want to help them study a discipline, get a profession, pursue a career, learn about it, become a real expert, and THEN, only then, feel free to go to someone else’s country to tell them what to do. Take your time. You will be in high demand as a world known expert when you are a world known expert. Don’t be proud at becoming a Research Fellow at 26 or being hired as an Advisor in a key donor’s African office; if anything you should be concerned that the lives (and it is the lives) of millions of people have been place on your hands… what kind of organisation and industry would do that? We need to be humbler than we are and say ‘no, I am not ready yet’.

    3) But if you really really really want to ‘make it in this industry’ and do not care if your contribution is a positive one then tick all the boxes: get an internship in a darling of your county’s bilateral agency; intern or volunteer in a developing country (maybe while on a gap year); learn the jargon of the field you want to work in (that is what a post grad in development studies can help you with -money well spent); start a blog and ‘publish’ (employers like visibility and if you have lots of followers that they can claim for themselves then they will like you); apply to every scheme under the sun that would help you fast track through the hierarchies so that you can get very senior posts early on in your career; etc.

    People wanting to join the industry should notice that this is not for the poor or the working classes. If you cannot afford a few months or years of internships then think twice about it.

    But as I say, you can make a greater difference by not joining the industry…

    Oh, and if you HAVE to study development studies, then study under Uma Kothari.

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  12. Thank you for the useful post. Considering the costs of starting a Dev career, ie volunteering for a long term period, has pushed me to look at other fields of work too- not necessarily a bad thing.

    The government of Canada recently renewed it’s international development program for young professionals(IYIP). Hopefully positions will be available soon.

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