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How to get a job in development: the definitive (368 page) guide

August 17, 2016
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Because I’ve been having a lot of summer conversations with graduates and others wondering how to get a job in aid and development (and I have to admit, also because I’m up against a deadline and have no time to blog), thought I’d repost this ever-popular 2015 intro to a very useful book, plus other links.

How to get a job in aid and development? That is the question hovering over lecture theatres and seminar rooms everywhere, 9780415698351as students rack up those debts and wonder if/how they will ever get a job which both fulfils them and keeps them solvent.

Up until now, the only place to refer people has been long lists of links, a scatter of websites like Devex or AidBoard  and random posts from people like me (my post also includes links to assorted aid gurus blogging on this topic).

Now, there’s something much more substantial. This week, Routledge is publishing ‘Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide’ by Maia Gedde, with a foreword by me. It’s 370 pages of invaluable material, but it costs $60 in paperback – maybe one for a library order?

The book provides a brief history of the aid business and explores some of the aspects that attract people to the sector (as well as the common concerns). Then it gets into the nitty gritty – how to ‘break into the sector’ (routes, qualifications, volunteering, job searches and interviews); career development; working as a consultant or starting your own NGO, ‘returning home’. Then a monumental typology of 54 different thematic areas, job functions or areas of expertise (impressed yet?), each with advice on the nature of the work, the main employers in the sector and what they will be looking for.

Here’s my foreword:

‘Reading Maia Gedde’s wonderful guide to working in international development brought home to me how lucky I am. And how old. I started working in development NGOs in the late 1990s, after a 20 year random walk involving a physics degree, backpacking, human rights activism, journalism, a Latin American thinktank and a spell keeping London nuclear free. Things are a bit better organized now – I probably wouldn’t give the younger me a job.

The aid business has professionalized over the last few decades: aid agencies have grown enormously in size and sophistication, with a rise in specialization (humanitarian emergencies, advocacy and campaigns, long term development, new academic disciplines). It has internationalized, with the old domination by ‘white men in shorts’ giving way to a much more global intake of personnel. And it has prompted a boom in students seeking qualifications and ways to find that cherished job where you can get paid (a bit) for changing the world.

But that is where international development has so far failed. It has not put in place the kind of entry schemes (graduate entry, sponsored degrees, professional qualifications etc) and career ladders that other, more established professions have introduced.

In part, I am glad – there is something about making development too slick, too much of a formalised career that could undermine the political and moral basis for getting involved in the first place. Excessive professionalization could exacerbate the current tendency to try and distil development into an apolitical technocratic exercise, when the reality, whether a country or community prospers or languishes is determined above all by issues of power and political struggle.

dilbert job interviewBut even if a conveyor belt from university to country director might be a bad idea, it is still worth helping those desperate to get a foot on the ladder before they become disillusioned and drift off to other destinies, and this book makes a real contribution. Not only does it chart the full range of potential jobs and their concomitant lifestyles, but it illustrates it with hundreds of quotes from the men and women who are currently doing them – the whole aid business becomes humanized along the way. Gedde helps the reader sift through the options, finding those that most fit their character and expectations. She even throws in a handy dummy’s guide to theory and practice in development.

For years, I have felt a slight twinge of guilt at the inadequacy of the advice I have dispensed to bright eyed graduates asking how they can get a start in the aid business. Now I know exactly what to recommend, and for that, I am very grateful.’

And the Guardian’s also running an extract from the book today.

13 comments

    1. Most of the really interesting development jobs are outside the UK. This is a growing trend as development agencies catch up with the fact that global power is rapidly moving south and east. To be at the heart of the action, you don’t want to be in the UK.

  1. I can’t honestly say that I welcome this – as far as I’m concerned, it’s just another nail in the heart of development – but given that it exists, will Routledge release a low-cost e-book for people coming up in countries that have more of a stake in, and might need more help in getting, a job in development? It doesn’t have to be immediately – say after a year of physical sales – and Routledge could charge based on IP address of origin, presumably.

  2. This book is a great initiative for the sector as a whole. Even for aid development workers based in the South, like myself, it is more useful than the unreliable websites with “hints” from people who might wish well, but come out short of actually helping those who are seeking to make a career in the area. Then Duncan writes, “There is something about making development too slick, too much of a formalised career that could undermine the political and moral basis for getting involved in the first place. Excessive professionalization could exacerbate the current tendency to try and distil development into an apolitical technocratic exercise.” I must say I’ve get the point (it happens in Brazil, as well), but I think it has hurt more than helped the sector. As I happen to be a black man, this state of “arrested professionalization” means lack of formal structures that can allow minorities and women to not only get into the field but to have hopes of a long and fruitful career, despite its standard practice of termed contracts (the two are not mutually exclusive, but the combination makes it a lot harder for certain groups to “remain in the game”). I see the dangers of becoming apolitical, but who can deny the impacts of a “club” mentality to the diversity of the sector? I wonder if this isn’t an idealization on the non-profit nature of the sector; a romantic take that works counter to its potential to “practice what it preaches” and to benefit from being more diverse and inclusive. Oxfam International, after all, has a black woman from Africa as its main officer. Sadly, similar examples are still very few.

    1. Thanks Athayde, really good point on the dangers of informality leading to a white male Northern Old Boys Network retaining control

    2. I love the phrase “arrested professionalization”! However I don’t think that professionalization works in the favour of more diversity in the sector – there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift. I know that it was not the assumption of the author, but this book will be targeted at and accessible to a demographic that are over-represented in the development sector. That same demographic has access to the resources that give them a head-start and the background that make them more favourable hires for development organisations. That’s not a problem with the book – it fits neatly into that system – but it’s a problem with the sector.

  3. Good point, Paul. It’s a case of “we’re screwed if we do and we’re screwed if we don’t”. Case in point: HR departments. If a cultural shift happens, having a solid HR means an aid organization is better prepared to implementing changes. As is, however, HR staff is usually to blame (perhaps unfairly, as they don’t make final decisions) for it’s widely (as in overall, not only for aid organizations) acknowledged as being the first wall women and minorities hit.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Duncan – a relevant and timely resource for graduate students in international development, humanitarian and peace-building programs here in the US and elsewhere. I look forward to reading it to see how the author discusses the critical attributes and attitudes that development practitioners ought to have before they are catapulted into helping or “experimenting” in other people’s societies and communities. During CDA’s Listening Project fieldwork, aid recipients across 20 countries where we listened consistently pointed to a link between lasting, positive aid outcomes and the characteristics and competencies of aid workers. Taking time to build trust, listen to and get to know people, understand the context and the power dynamics, be present and follow through on promises were all listed as contributing to effective assistance and outcomes. Conversely, conducting extractive research or experimenting with different approaches for their own career advancement, spending ostentatiously, being stuck behind desks and computers and always being in a hurry were seen as ineffective, disrespectful and unethical. CDA’s Listening Project findings were echoed by Severine Autesserre in “PeaceLand: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention” which is a fascinating study on how and why international interveners act the way they do in “host countries” and how they are perceived by other actors in the context.

  5. It’s hard getting a job in international development in the UK. It is even harder if you are not British/white. This makes people working in the sector uncomfortable as they believe themselves open – the fact is that there is a silent discrimination going on. The fact is that when I go to joint UK NGO meetings: the room is always full of middle class, white British females and a few middle class white British men with the occasional Aussie in the mix. Oxfam GB is a another place like that. And my own organisations keeps hiring the same profile even when we have candidates representing different nationalities/groups (who are some times better). So here is my advice if you are not British, not white: get a job abroad, Geneva, Brussels…

    1. It’s worrying that so little has changed – I started working in UK NGOs in the mid 90s, and the demographic in those joint meetings was one of the reasons that I stopped working for UK NGOs. (The one exception, interestingly, was International Alert, the conflict resolution organisation, which was more diverse.) Is this one of those issues where everybody knows what the solution is, but nobody’s prepared to take those steps because they’re too tough?

  6. As a matter of interest, did anything happen regarding Paul C’s excellent suggestion that Routledge release a low cost e-book after a year of physical sales??

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