Development Studies is fun, but is there a job at the end of it?


Studying development is fascinating, but will there be jobs for students once they graduate? I chaired a careers panel for LSE students recently, where a variety of alums, now rising up the greasy poles of the aid industry, came back to share their thoughts.

One recurring theme of the evening was the kind of skills and knowledge that will be needed if the aid industry lives up to its promises and heads South, giving priority to local organizations in humanitarian response, pushing power and resources down to developing country affiliates in INGOs.

At least half of the students in the room were from developing countries, and they will duly head off to work in government or local organizations. But what about the Europeans and North Americans – is aid still a career in those countries?

Our conclusion was that the answer is yes, but the careers and skills required are likely to look very different. The old days of the white man in shorts, heading off to be an expat and running projects, look numbered. Good thing too. Those jobs will be done by local organizations, or local staff in international organizations, who are far better placed to ‘dance with the system’ of local power and politics.

But lots of other roles will remain, including:

dilbert job interviewCampaigns and Influencing: already a growth area in the INGOs, there will still be plenty of things to do on global collective action problems like climate change and tax havens, and on northern skulduggery – corporate misbehaviour, arms trade, abuse of refugees etc. But campaigning within developing countries will, quite correctly, be run and decided by local organizations and staff. Not much role for whitey there.

Soft skills like facilitation/ convening and brokering: one increasingly recognized role for outsiders is to act as an honest broker, bringing together different local players in search of solutions to particular problems. My favourite example is our work on water and sanitation in Tajikistan. Facilitation is just one example of the soft skills that will increasingly be needed. It’s not about digging wells or building schools (why would you ask foreigners to do that?)

That echoed a recent study on ‘The Career Paths of International Development Studies Graduates in Canada’, which surveyed nearly 2,000 graduates, with an average age of 26, and concluded:

‘The skills and competencies that IDS grads identified as most important for finding a job included the transferrable skills of writing, communications, interpersonal and cross-cultural communications and especially networking. Respondents emphasized repeatedly that finding a job requires the capacity to build strong professional networks.’

Private Sector: as long as there is global trade and investment, there will be a need for advocacy to improve how it works for poor people, whether as producers, consumers or affected communities. Engagement with big international companies will need to involve local people, obviously, but also those who can mobilize opinion in companies’ main markets.

Fragile and Conflict states: these are the places where aid is likely to remain a significant player, and when statesngo logos are absent or predatory, localization is likely to be harder. Unfortunately, they are also the hardest places to get anything done! Lots of opportunities for research and practice there (I’m involved in two such exercises, led by LSE and IDS).

Tech: our speakers were ambivalent on this. On the one hand, silicon valley types think they can solve just about any development problem with a suitable app; on the other hand, there are loads of local geeks and startups in just about every country, who are better placed to understand local context and needs.

But overall, I still worry about how many northerners see development studies as the start of a career, when the whole North/South aid frame that underpinned the creation of ‘development studies’ is becoming increasingly redundant. The Canadian report concluded that you should study development for your soul, more than your future wallet:

‘IDS graduates experience significant challenges in breaking into the job market, particularly in the international development sector. Just 19.2% of IDS grads reported that their jobs were directly related to international development, while almost 40% reported that their jobs were not related at all. However, respondents also reported that regardless of their careers, their IDS educations had profound impacts on their world views and their ongoing values and behaviours as global citizens.’

For more background on careers in development, check out Maia Gedde’s book – still the best thing I’ve come across. Also worth checking out this free online guide on ‘How to Get a Job in International Development’ from Michelle Rebosio.

Please add links to other advice and tips in the comments section.

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25 Responses to “Development Studies is fun, but is there a job at the end of it?”
  1. Interesting post! I assume you’re talking mainly about master’s students … and I wonder if the picture is slightly different for PhD’s? We’ve just totted up where the PhD’s that graduated from the Global Development Institute in the last year and were pleased/surprised to see that 23 of 32 (72%) are now in development related roles. Some of these are within academia – and to be fair, quite a few people were from the Global South in the first place. Still, research and academic positions might be worth throwing into the mix as other potential career paths.

  2. I really hope that “development studies” is not the way into a career in development. I am glad to read that it isn’t any more. A few years ago, the Australian Council for International Development invited me to give a talk about development studies. My talk was titled: “Do not study development studies”, or something like that. My point was that what developing countries need is advice from people who have the right skills and expertise. If we need to build a bridge, get me an engineer. If we need to improve service delivery in local rural clinics, get me a public health professional or a medical doctor. We need labour economists to address joblessness. We need scientists to help improve scientific research skills.

    The Aid Industry today, fuelled by Development Studies, produces generalists who claim to know “about development” or that can “understand developing countries”. Here is a quote:

    “So-called development experts (what is a development expert, by the way? How can anyone be an expert in ‘everything’?) stand between real experts: between public health professionals in the UK and their peers in the developing world, for example. They claim that they are necessary to translate knowledge and to adapt it to different contexts. They claim that this translation or brokering requires some kind of expertise that only development professionals have. They often claim (and this was claimed a few times at the conference) that a British or Australian policymaker, for example, would not be able to understand the differences between the context in their countries and those in others, say, in Malawi or Peru. By this they suggest, although would not dare say it, that Malawian or Peruvian public health professionals would not be able to understand their British or Australian peers; that they would not know what could be adopted and applied in their own contexts; that they need to be helped; things need to be explained to them; that the decade that Peruvian medical doctors need to study before they can be considered as experts in their fields is not enough; or rather, it is enough to be allowed to work in US or European hospital but not enough to make public health decisions about and for their own countries.

    This is of course not true. Anyone can see this. But it is also patronising and arrogant. ”

    I really hope that more and more “development professionals” are choosing to study more traditional professions (with a proper discipline) and pursue more traditional career paths (and become real experts) before they attempt to fix the rest of the world.

    You can read the speech here:

      • Ray

        ” the transferrable skills of writing, communications, interpersonal and cross-cultural communications and especially networking.”

        A cynic might say – this means writing nice reports for donors, and knowing who can help get you your next job?

      • Fiona Bradley

        I had that career path. There are just a handful of international jobs in my profession and I was lucky to get one of them. This path meant I was able to build rapport with local organisations and colleagues on the basis of a shared professional understanding. Very important for facilitation and convening, which my job was mostly about. It was always interesting to contrast with the development professions and funders who came in to do projects with the same colleagues, a totally different relationship. I did have to learn some things about development so that I could apply for and implement grants, design capacity building interventions and do evaluation, but blogs, ODI reports etc go a long way.

    • Taylor Braun-Dorrell

      Having studied political science and now Development Management at LSE, I normally give younger students Enrique’s advice about specializing in another area (medicine, engineering, etc.) and using that for development. However, I don’t think that the idea of development studies broadly is completely obsolete – it can still complement more traditional studies like we have with economics and development economics.

      I also believe that having an interdisciplinary approach can be helpful for generating questions about what development means to different individuals and how different policies and programs have unintended consequences. Just because you are from a country, it doesn’t mean you will understand what everyone thinks. If you are an economist, you may think that a dam project is good because it will bring economic benefit, whereas locals of an area that will be affected may not see the benefits in the same way.

      Like many of the students in my program, I often lament the fact that it seems like the conclusion to every lecture is a one-size-fits-all policy for development doesn’t work, but if you come from a more traditional discipline, like engineering, it’s less likely you’ve had the same questions posed each week and you may be less inclined to think critically about the work you’re doing.

      All in all, I think the shifts in development work that the panel discussed will change the field immensely, but so long as there are development projects, I think that development studies in one form or another still has a place.

    • I have no idea what is being taught in development studies to enable grads for job market yet we are living in a world where interdisciplinary approach is needed to solve complex issues, recent phenomenon of COVID-19 is an evidence of it. Development studies might give an approach/mindset to solve health issues of communities at a larger scale while having experts from community and specialized fields. Coming towards tech or ivy league approach which many INGOs are attracted to, lacks in depth analysis of local approaches to solve the development issues.

      • Duncan Green

        Totally agree Muhammad! We need to be training people to be humble and observant ‘dancers with the system’, not arrogant know-it-all technocrats!

  3. Mike Dendle

    It is, of course, obvious that International Development Studies courses do not equip you to “do development” in a foreign country. The proliferation of these courses in universities was simply a response to what was happening on the ground as INGO’s were on the rise in the North. The people who were early on involved in these INGO’s usually learnt on the job and soon realised what they didn’t know- that “development” was a contested, political, messy, hotchpotch of half thought through and often experimental interventions in other people’s (foreigners) lives. Most real work to change lives comes, however inadequately and often painfully, from governments with the budgets to match. Most “small-scale” human centred development projects which attempted to give agency to people and some control over their lives required a different set of skills. These “soft” skills were learned on the job (if you were on the ground), usually from locals or taught through community development courses that were as appropriate in the North as in the South. Engineers, for example, are taught to solve problems-development workers were taught to ask questions, because the answers came not from a course in development studies (or engineering) but from the people themselves. Doing “real” studies like engineering, medicine and the like are useful for transferring skills in developing countries-but there is no reason to suspect you are doing “development” by using these skills.

  4. Andres Gomez de la Torre

    It was good to share this space with you last week! Hopefully, most (if not all) of the self-proclaimed “international NGOs” have realised by now that they are in desperate need to evolve. This if they want to respond to a very different context than the one they faced in their origins (or even 5 years ago). I would argue that the same principle applies to the Academia, and not just to “development studies”. I am wondering though what is the “state of play” that students discuss in these forums/spaces? what is the picture of the world that their Lecturers share with them? what are students doing to inform themselves on the evolving roles of “northern and southern” actors? Are students fully aware of the real capacities in “the south”; the evolution of partnership approaches; the shifts in power dynamics and influence? Sometimes I am a bit surprised with the number of job applications with such an unrealistic expectation of what a “job in development” within a northern-based agency entitles. Development/humanitarian and Academia (and students themselves) may need to do bit more on this front. Your note is a good contribution in that direction.

  5. Masood ul Mulk

    Local Organisations replacing international organisations in development and humanitarian work is highly exaggerated. This is not because many local organisation do not have the capacity to deliver but stems from the fact that upward accountability requirements are heavily loaded against local organisations. In Pakistan we find that in some of the most hostile areas local organisation deliver the entire humanitarian aid on the ground. But there is total black out of this by international organisations who would happily show the entire work to their efforts. A beginning for local organisations could begin by atleast be open about the data. Giving them a role will only come later

  6. Jonathan Tidd

    Support from outside and independent specialists can potentially offer real value for local organisations. The benefits they bring are independent challenge and a new way of thinking that people within the organisation may well not be able to do because of local political constraints. Trusted outsiders can be useful in steering a path through difficult decisions and can be instrumental in gaining the understanding, commitment and buy-in of internal stakeholders. There is also real value in speaking truth to power. Does this sound like development? Actually, its a description of how management consultants providing support to private and sector organisations. The market for this huge in the UK and USA, because their interventions often work well. Reading the contributions above, I wonder if a similar approach, where the receiver of such services are firmly in the driving seat, could be the future of development?

  7. George CPI, ACMA

    “Facilitation” is not, in my mind, strong enough to describe what a foreign advisor is supposed to do in developing countries. Based on my fifty odd years of work in such countries I would describe the assistance work somewhat differently. I would rather use words like “inspiration”, or “discovery”, because that would be, in fact, what the ADVISOR would be required to convey and convince the citizens in the developing world and bring them to develop themselves and their country at the same time.
    One must bear in mind that all developing country are bound to, sooner or later develop and develop fast and well, should they discover the proper way to do it.
    Proof of my assertion resides in the fact that China that was, rightly or wrongly, considered, less than a hundred years ago nothing better than a typical developing country, may soon become the “most developed country” in the world, besides being the richest, strongest, and most populated one.

  8. Issah Sayibu

    Having studied development for both my undergrad and grad education and looking back to what is missing in the skills needed for the job market development, I do think there’s the need to redesign curriculum in development that will require students to taking core courses in econometrics, stats, data mining or data science in general(these skills help in landing jobs in research fields).
    Also important is foreign language requirements where students who want to work in the Latin America should taking courses in Spanish besides English…like wise French and Portuguese and Arabic to work in parts of Africa and the middle-east. Been multilingual is essential to landing development assignments (especially …short term consultancies).
    Essential Software application savy in GIS, Salesforce, project management Softwares like Microsoft Project, and more telling statistical software packes like R, Stata are becoming the most sort for skills to partner development related careers.
    Innovation/design thinking and social enterprise development are becoming the reigning matching skills to thrive beyond the mere qualifications development practices to thriving well as smart -development practioners of today and the future

  9. Alejandra Carvajal

    Is development obsolete because the global north won´t find jobs on it? isn´t that full idea anti-development? I agree that there is no need to study development in a “northern” country although it has its benefits as a point of encounter for people from different countries which provides a richer international experience in that sense. I don´t love the “whitey” approach of the post but I guess is directed to the target readers of this blog. In any case, I don´t think it should provide conclusions about development as a whole just because the idea of “a white man in shorts is numbered”. The quick conclusion that people from developing countries will just get jobs on local NGOs and government is quite simplistic, leaving out other alternatives that would be interesting to discuss like the possibilities of south-south cooperation, their role in international organisations, their possibilities in social entrepreneurship, etc.
    These questions are important because despite an increase in the localisation of program implementation, there is no doubt that a big share of development agenda still comes from the north, for a simple reason: the donors are there, the high-paid jobs are there, the expats with full benefits come from there. As long as this is the situation, at least some of those should study development, just to keep in mind that they shouldn´t take the decisions on their own and to think twice when setting the double standards for salaries local vs. international.

  10. baqir ali

    i have been working since 2009 when displacement started here in FATA region of Pakistan. Now its almost three years i have no job and the development sector is squeezed mainly due to suspicious data collection from INGOs as per the government narrative. Now i have postgraduate degree in economics and there is very little chance of getting employed . So in my opinion Economics in our part of the region is just limited to being a professor at some university. I need help in this regard so i can pursue my career in social sector or in development sector.

  11. Rumbidzai

    Iam from Zimbabwe. I’m about to persue a degree in Development studies is it a wrong choice. In Zimbabwe they encourage it saying we will be employed in developed countries is it true that jobs for those with a degree in Development studies can be employed easily.

  12. Pac

    To me traditional subjects are very important and they are very fundamental to every human projects, but even in developed countries where those engineers have built those praised Infrastructures, issues like urban poverty, inequalities, gender based violence, climate change and all types of vulnerabilities and damages are also there. Meaning traditional fields are also no panacea. Then, development studies also aims for sustainable development and it deals with does issues stated above which engineers failed to. So to me they are they complete each other development studies only employs a broad perspective of development not just on obvious things like roads but also the sustainability and impacts on the people as well as the environment. Basically the idea of DS in not bad to me. However, the problem is to ordinary degree holders landing a job is difficult its also hard to make a business related to it. Briefly making money with it is hard it requires to be high profile. I’m writing this as a last year student in DS bachelor’s degree, I enjoy the topics we engage with but its hard to envisage how I will use them as an individual if I don’t land job. So this is how I see it. So, Any one who can help with tips and how I can make use of my life with this knowledge and if possible advise on how I can pursue postgraduate course not too different from DS but also separated to broaden career prospects will be highly appreciated!

  13. Xiaolin Wang

    Development is a complex and controversial problem, the knowledge relating to macro development is necessary, but the development combined with more traditional professions (specific disciplines) cannot be ignored and should be considered as the most crucial part if IDS grads really want to make a breakthrough in this field. Some basic abilities such as data analysis, foreign language learning and cross-cultural communication are necessities and interdisciplinary learning has become the basic quality of international development professional students. From my perspective, the expression that international development has no career future is wrong, I prefer to believe that the particularity and interdisciplinary nature of international development have high requirements for the career, which is difficult for many international development students to achieve such a quality. So we need to divide international development into smaller branches that match traditional specific disciplines; Moreover, Development has different focuses between individuals, regions, and different countries, specialized development problems pose great challenges to international development students, in addition to the enhancement of their own capabilities, building rapport with local organizations and colleagues on the basis of a shared professional understanding also plays a key role.