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  • Writer's pictureRobert Peel International

Employability in the International Development industry.

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

What makes a good international development professional?
The international development industry is populated by a diverse group of people from a wide cross section of disciplines. These include special forces soldiers, to softer skills, such as experts in human resources and community engagement.
How then, does someone wanting to enter in to the development world prepare himself orherself for their career choice? The answer is the same for all questions: “it depends”.In this case, it depends on two things: First, the area of development they want to get in to,and second, their current skill set or qualifications. Each will drive the other.
The international development world is (at its most basic level) split in to two branches. First, the humanitarian Non – Government Agencies such as International Red Cross, Medicine San Frontier, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam and a whole plethora of others. Then there are the private companies, some not for profit, who do contracted and sub contract work for mostly western government departments and international government agencies such as the U.S. state department, EU Development Funds, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United Nations.
NGA’s tend to deal with issues such as agriculture development, water supply, public health, education, child protection etc. Whereas the government organisations deal with security, justice, policing, and governance usually in partnership and very close liaison with the host country government. This is not exclusively the case, however, and there are a lot of crossover programmes and contracts. NGA’s also tend to be able to go to areas where governments are unable to, except when they are engaged in direct intervention, such as live war zones and across closed borders.
In terms of skill sets all programmes will have common elements. There is almost every conceivable type of programme, from high-level government capability development (around such things as government financial controls and policy) to building affordable housing. All programmes need managing so there are a lot of people drawn to the industry via programme management experience and expertise. There is always a financial control required so financial managers are part of the structure as is supply chain, warehousing, procurements, legal services and security.
There is then an element of technical expertise around the design and implementation of the programme, so for instance, if the aim of the programme is to train and mentor the police of a certain country, you would expect to see a heavily weighted programme to support this with a number of policing experts. The same would be true if the aim of the programme was to supply heavy equipment for infrastructure building, it would be reasonable to expect technical experts with construction experience to be an integral part of the programme staff.
The first question anyone aspiring to get in to the international development world should ask themselves is: What sort of organisation do I want to work for? The answer will once again depend on what they want out of the experience personally. Do they want to be involved in humanitarian work for NGO’s, funded by charities and international agencies? Or development work funded by governments? Both options have pros and cons attached which could be discussed extensively, but eventually it comes down to an individual choice.
The second question would then naturally be: What do I want to do within the career path I have decided on? Followed by, what skill sets will I then require and what have I already got?
All are fairly obvious questions, but surprisingly, ones which don’t appear to be very common. Most people who are in this field tend to have arrived without giving it much thought. Some tend to believe that their previous position or experience is enough to secure themselves a second career. However, some do see the career path before them and do plan.
I recently delivered a lecture for a master’s course in a northern university, when this subject came up. Every student in the class of 35+ considered that they did not have the required skills and experience to enter the international development world. I suspect if I had been speaking to a similar group of American students they would have had a totally different outlook on their own employability. The group I was addressing were second year psychology students most of whom were interested in criminology and criminal psychology; not a natural fit for the international development industry at first glance but, once you break down what they have studied in terms of human behaviour and how people interact with each other in stress situations the picture starts to become different. When further questioned about what students did outside university, the picture changed again. Some worked in banks and financial institutions, some were members of reserve armed forces and others had previously been engineering and media graduates. All are skills that are in demand in the development industry.
University degrees are not compulsory for this line of work but if you have other skills and qualifications a suitable degree can only enhance your employability. Some international government agencies, such as the UN insist, on a minimum of a master’s degree for positions above a certain pay grade.
There are several universities which offer degrees up to master’s level in international security, governance and development. (As well as terrorist studies at diploma and certificate level.) More are becoming available all the time, Liverpool University is about to launch a new degree course which centers on the development industry professionals and people who want to enter the industry. The course is modular, so it encourages the use and enhancement of existing skills as well as providing academic underpinning of their knowledge.
None of the above prevents anyone who wants to enter the industry just going for it, as extra skills and qualifications can be acquired whilst in the industry. The advantage of this strategy is that you would have a better idea of what you wanted and needed to obtain for your chosen path. The opportunity to speak and learn from others about what is required and the different methods and career streams can also not be underestimated once immersed in the industry.
I have personally worked with people who are on programmes because they are: Lawyers, police officers, soldiers, analysts, researchers, programme managers, linguists, town planners, builders, engineers, politicians, experts in communications, IT, finance, supply chain, procurements, project management and HR. I’ve also worked with specialists in land mine clearance, bomb disposal, first aid, emergency rescue, strategic communications and marketing.
Living and working away from home is not for everyone, but if these are things that you can deal with, then there are many rewards that come with international working. The chance to travel to otherwise unattainable places (or at least unusual) is a big pull for some people.
The financial rewards can also be excellent, but be aware that there is usually a reason that you are being paid well, that could be because the programme is in a dangerous or hostile environment, or because the living conditions are challenging, for example. All of these factors should be considered when you are presented with a contract.

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