Top tips on building a career in aid and development

Chaired a great panel on this at the LSE last week. The speakers were from the big donors – bilateral ones like DFID and USAID, regional banks like the ADB and EBRD, and a World Banker to add the multilateral view, and from all stages of their careers, but their advice applies pretty well to the rest of the aid and development sector. They were asked to give their top tips to a room full of global bright young things. Here’s a selection:

Courage, humility and moral compass: it’s not just about geek qualifications but the kind of person you are. You will face scary moments – embrace them; you will get called out for arrogance – listen and learn. And do not abandon your moral compass – it is, after all, at least partly why you are looking for a job in this odd neck of the woods.

Stay mobile: the speakers had moved around a lot both within and between institutions and across specialisms. They didn’t overplan, but grabbed opportunities as they arose. Some got a start in what are often seen as the less sexy departments (fund raising, admin), but then moved across to programme and policy jobs.

Travel wisely: If you’re a northerner, overseas experience can boost your CV and your confidence when talking to seniors, but it depends on how you do it. Try and travel with a real, substantial purpose, not just voluntourism. Always beware of substituting/squeezing out local people who are perfectly well qualified for the job.

Keep learning even once you’ve landed a job: languages, tech, keep studying.

It doesn’t have to be like this……

Appreciate yourself: ‘be an advocate for what you’ve done – don’t discount it’

Build your soft skills: comms and influencing are valuable everywhere, not least in making stuff happen within large bureaucracies – ‘be a persuader’. Learn how to ‘read a room’ and develop empathy for those you engage with. Be patient til you see an opportunity (often born of an institutional crisis), then grab it (which you can only do if you have learned how to ‘dance with the system’ in which you operate, working out how decisions get made and how to influence them).

Networking: Everyone went on about the importance of networking – putting yourself out there, sticking your face in front of big cheeses, getting their cards, offering to help, asking the first question. Volunteer for stuff. I started to feel quite queasy. For anyone who is not an extrovert (which included me and several panellists), that sounds like torture. So what about careers advice for introverts? Do you just have to fake it til you make it, or is there some other way to prosper without subjecting yourself to endless, excruciating ‘networking opportunities’?

Finally, the panellists were asked what practical skills are likely to become more important over the next few years. They come up with a mix of the new and the timeless classic:

  • All things MEL and Quant are only likely to increase in importance (whatever your misgivings)
  • Data viz
  • Draft and synthesize concisely – practice doing a two page exec sum of your college essays! Alternatively, learn to blog…..

Here’s some other related posts (and please add your own links and thoughts):

Update: Lots of interesting social media convos kicking off on this post, eg my old mate Makarand Sahasrabuddhe reckons it’s all to northern-centric and has posted a great response on how this topic looks from the Global South.

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15 Responses to “Top tips on building a career in aid and development”
  1. Interesting. But a tad global North centric, I am afraid. From what I have seen in nearly 12 years in International Development on the back of 14 years of work in India compels me to say something slightly different. Sorry if the comment is longer than the post 🙂

    The options and routes of building a career in International Development differ depending on whether you belong to the ‘developing world’ or the ‘donor world’ – nothing correct or incorrect about it; just the way it is.
    As far as entry is concerned
    * If you are from the developed world that is home to International NGOs and / or bilateral donor agencies, it is much easier to get in even at a very young age. Even a college degree in a related field – economics, politics, law, sociology, development is more often adequate to get in.
    * If you are from the developing world, it is much more difficult. The biggest difficulty is the entry barrier. This is NOT deliberate but just there. One can get an entry into say an INGO or Donor or multi-lateral agency but it is more often in the country of your origin. Making the move out takes years and years of work and establishing one’s credentials. You could do that by specialising in a narrow field or broadening out to a general management role; the path depends on your native skills and aptitudes. Alternatively it requires serious academic credentials to get you in sooner but then acquiring those credentials takes a lot of time.
    Another entry avenue that is open to people from the developed world is that of volunteering. I have many colleagues who took ‘break years’ and went off to work in remote developing countries at a very young age. This option is neither culturally nor systemically available to students in the developing world. Naturally the rich experience that the students or young professionals garner holds them in good stead when they finally decide to make a career in international development.

    Continuing to be in the field and making a career is another game: As far as continuing is concerned, I must say that the playing field is a bit more (I say a ‘bit more’ because in institutions like the European Union (the development wing at least) you cannot even get in unless you are a citizen of the EU). If you are seen to do good work, you normally can make the move and continue to be in the field and build a career in the technical and / or management line.

    The issue with organisations like the United Nations, World Bank etc are different. These organisations are truly global and therefore try and have a representation of all member nations in their ranks.

    * To the citizens of the first world, these jobs are well just jobs and sometimes low paying ones as compared to the options available. Many a time posts apportioned to these countries go unfilled. If filled, the person has it for life unless (s)he makes a mess of it completely and hopelessly.
    * To the citizens of the developing world, who are in the development field, these are often dream jobs. This is because of the salaries, benefits and prestige attached. Naturally there is huge competition for limited posts. This makes it difficult for them to get an entry. Once someone gets an entry, the exit barriers are so high (aforesaid reasons) that the place is effectively blocked till the person retires.

    • Yusuf Adam S.

      I think I concur with your points.
      As a post graduate of International Affair and Diplomacy, and with BS.c in International Studies, I have acquired a training on issues that dominate global agenda which include international development, politics, conflicts, peace and diplomacy, however, I have found it very difficult since my graduation (till date) to secure a job or work with any International Organization with such mandate that will enhance my career and make contributions to humanity. The challenge I am facing for have not secured job with International Organization most likely it is because I am from developing country. I would be glad to grab opportunity to working with IGO, INGO where my career will be enhanced. I would be passionate to secure employment with any international organization and serve humanity.
      Thank you!

  2. Duncan Green

    David Sulzbacher kicks off the ideas on ‘careers advice for introverts’ on twitter: ‘The book “Quiet” by Susan Cain has a lot of great information on this. My strategy has been to develop close relationships with small numbers of extroverts who value my behind-the-scenes work and to basically outsource networking to them. Would love to hear other strategies!

  3. Girish Menon

    I agree with Makarand’s comments (not just because he is my friend and I know him for 1.5 decades) but because he is very articulate in expressing what many of us have gone through – ‘entry level barriers’ just because you are not from the global north, and additionally as in my case, I do not have an Oxbridge / LSE/IDS or for that matter any of the western university degree. On the blog as such, I am also surprised that there was not much of a mention of ‘authenticity’ which is key, if you are truly mission oriented but advocates a softer version of just being more visible and pushy. And ‘humility’ finds just a mention, which is so important especially for the well-heeled LSE grads, many of whom are unlikely to have much of a lived experience. No wonder then that even with some brilliant academic qualifications, in my last 15 years in the UK, I come across so many well intentioned and bright people looking completely lost and struggling (but would not admit that for fear of losing out to competition!). Anyway, interesting discussion !

  4. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    Agree 100% with Makarand´s points. I´m also interested to think more about whether there are key differences between the paths of someone who wants to “build a career in aid and development” and someone who lands there based on their civil society activism. I realised the lines are often blurred, but there are also differences that I´ve often noted in the way people view their own role in “aid and development”

  5. David Grocott

    Building on your point about introverts, I wonder if there was any discussion about how people with disabilities (hidden or otherwise) should build a career in the aid sector? Most of this advice looks like it’s been given (and, presumably, applied) by a relatively small sub-set of the population!

  6. ken smith

    Is one of the north/south problems is for newbies starting out in the south that there are no less-sexy departments like fundraising to get a start in. A northern NGO employs relatively large numbers of fundraisers to communicate in a variety of ways to a large and varied audience. I’d be interested to know how a large southern NGO operates.

    • Ken, Most small NGOs based in the developing world do not have dedicated fund raisers. Staff and promoters often do what little fund raising they can. You need to be of a particular size to even afford a fund raising team, not to mention that you need to have the equity and brand recall to help fund-raising in the first place. In the Indian context I cannot think of many NGOs that have done this well. It does not help that Indian contribution to development remains very limited. Indians donate a lot for religious purposes, natural disasters, and charity (service delivery) but say empowerment or advocacy and there will be no funds from individuals.
      This means that there are few fund-raising careers really possible, whether at entry or senior positions.

  7. ken smith

    Hi Makarand , that’s very interesting. Are there fundraising careers within the sectors of religious purposes, natural disasters and charity ( service delivery ) where the funds are ? and is there no possibility for an individual to cross-over into empowerment and advocacy roles elsewhere. I think most northern NGO’s began with those roots too so maybe in time the organisations that are receiving Indian donations will develop in these areas.

    • Ken,
      Alas. Not in any significant way. Religious donations are more often about dropping money and gold in collection boxes. Humanitarian fund raising is against specific appeals, often by governments (Prime Minister Relief Fund, for instance). Charity (service) funding is often for food, clothing, and medicines. So no careers to be made, not in any significant way.

  8. ken smith

    Hi, I think there will be fundraising careers to be made in a place where lots of gold is dropped into collection boxes. But I take the point that there is no significant crossover into the typical policy and programme jobs of a northern NGO.

  9. Hello friends! My small contribution to this discussion is on the extra barriers we, women, face: mainly trying to develop a career in development (or any international social change sector for the matter) and maintaining family life (mainly taking care of children and/or arranging their care).
    This is not only because of gender roles regarding child rearing (in virtually all countries women the hegemonic view is that women should be the main carers of children), but also because of the cultural perceptions that still exist in some countries regarding women’s professional accomplishments vs. family life.

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