Tom Kirk

How has Covid changed the picture on Aid/Development Jobs?

Guest post by Tom Kirk

For the last few years, I’ve co-delivered an MA module on influencing, activism and campaigning with Duncan at the LSE. For the last lecture, we always ask students what two topics they would like us to delve into in more depth. They’ve plumped for everything from leadership and how INGOs are responding to critics, to social accountability and our own personal career failures (quite cathartic, actually). Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, advice on how to get a job in the aid and development sector is always top.

So how has Covid changed the panorama on aid jobs? These are anything but ordinary times and, I suspect like many, I have spent a lot of the last year worrying about where the sector is heading, and me with it. This has only increased as the British government has outlined what ‘Global Britain’ will look like, and the cuts to aid and research have begun to hit home.  

What to say during such times? Below I’ve paraphrased my hour-long lecture (I’ve skipped the where to find jobs bit) with the hope that others will add to, nuance or debate my broad-brush advice in the comments. We force our students to read F2P2 at gunpoint so I am sure they would appreciate your input.

Starting with major trends that will likely outlast the virus: Students’ positionalities will continue to be the biggest determinant of their career prospects. Early career opportunities are concentrated in the global north. This is not to say one cannot find a way in elsewhere, but the competition is arguably fiercer and the paths opaquer. My knowledge of routes in is also largely limited to my own and immediate colleagues’ experiences.  

The sector’s swing towards fragile and conflict affected states will likely endure, as will debates over what to do about poverty in middle-income countries, the localisation agenda, #AidToo and the political causes of underdevelopment. There are also two ongoing blurrings: firstly, between humanitarian and development activities, sometimes called the ‘nexus’; secondly, between the types of ‘developmental’ activities and programmes implemented by states and civil society organisations in their own back yards, and those implemented elsewhere. Here, I’m thinking of everything from cash transfer and digital ID programmes to participatory democracy and accountability and transparency initiatives. Across all of this, evidence, results, and value for money will continue to be championed by aid donors and generate jobs for geeky graduates.

With regards to what will likely change or accelerate due to the virus: Aid and development funding will be increasingly politicised and more ODA will be spent by non-development focussed departments and private consultancies. There will be further folding of dedicated aid departments into others and an increase in Aid for Trade. An expanding set of aid actors and development banks will continue to shape what development looks like in much of the world. A possible speeding of the localisation agenda will occur, but the perceived loss of power means it’s probably not going to be substantive.

Pragmatic students should aim to be in security, health and disasters preparedness, or RCT wonks, with those interested in the politics of poverty thinking about legal activism, professional campaigning or CSR. Serious consideration should also be given to putting their analytical skills to work for social movements with clear goals or aims to eventually capture formal political power.

This is because the space for generalists will likely be squeezed as funding is funnelled to projects with clear feedback loops to the ‘national interest’, and away from risky or hard to measure institutional reform or democratic deepening programmes. And because the closing/changing space for civil society demands both more radical and better targeted activism.

I also lifted a bunch of practical top tips for getting started from sector veterans. The main advice is to network, network, network. This involves putting yourself out there: attending events, cold calling organisations (it’s not illegal), asking people you admire or want to learn from for coffee, going abroad for your first position and having a ‘presence’.

The latter means being known as someone interested in a specific issue or region. This can be as simple as retweeting others’ musings, to blogging, writing opinion pieces or research. Introverts may quake at the idea of self-promotion, but there are enough niches in this sector that I suspect most can find a groove.

There is also the need to learn soft skills, from writing succinct emails and presenting to convening colleagues, working across cultures, delivering bad news and asking for help when you’re a bit stuck. It’s amazing how formal education doesn’t equip one for these things. They can be learnt through internships, but those should only be undertaken if paid or you get to shape what you do and when.

Chief among the more cerebral pointers is advice to stay humble, have courage and follow a moral compass. Your guiding frameworks and principles will and should be challenged by the sector. Often you will have to change your focus or speciality as the place you work in, your understanding of it and opportunities evolve. This can mean moving sideways in your organisation or career. And it will also likely mean many years of comparatively low pay as you find your feet.

These characteristics also require accepting that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, with even the nature and goals of ‘development’ heavily contested. Although a truism, it is surprising how much of my colleagues’ and the sector’s wider navel-gazing stems from such things!

Lastly, I gave a bit of advice on the academic route. I generally only advise a PhD in development if you do it part-time or want to be a full-time academic. To my mind, a PhD is about as valuable to most of the sector as an MA and it can completely stunt your soft skills growth. The methods you’ll learn really only matter on the research side of things or for some policy jobs.

Yet, part-time, it can be a great way to gain experience, build your networks and find your groove before looking for roles. But bear in mind, a PhD is akin to willingly undertaking multiple solo lockdowns whilst everyone else parties in the sun. Or is that just how it felt for me?

And that was about it for this year’s helping of pessimism-laced optimism. Please do chip in below with your own thoughts.

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13 Responses to “How has Covid changed the picture on Aid/Development Jobs?”
  1. Tracey Martin

    I understand that this was delivered to students who are already in a position to take a Master’s degree in the UK but I was a bit surprised by some of the assumptions:
    – that aid and development jobs in one’s own country (if that is not in ‘the global North’) are inferior and less to be desired. Certainly the system makes this the case but people who understand the context they are working in are far more effective than people who are sitting in an office in the global north in identifying what is needed and who has influence. We should be working to incentivise people to work first in their own country on social issues (and that includes the global north). And these are the people we should then be looking for in international institutions.
    – the idea that having a moral compass is ‘cerebral’ is also worrying – the sector should be underpinned by morality and a humility that we are dealing with issues that affect people’s lives.
    I’m left feeling that if those starting out in careers in aid and development today want to do anything useful then they could consider how best they can change a system that is currently skewed by racism and market practices. But then I think that it is my generation that has let that happen and I should do something about it.

    • Thomas Kirk

      Thanks for your comments. Nothing I’d disagree with there and lots I enthusiastically agree with.

      I was not making a comment on the inferiority of jobs outside of the GN, nor was I saying having a moral compass is a problem. They’re not and its a must. I’ll be crystal clear next time!

  2. Thank you for a brave start to the answer. I will contribute two points: hunger is still with us and will feature more as a result of the pandemic, and that the climate crisis has a stronger influence on development work.

  3. John

    1. At least initially (2022-2025) budgetary support rather than contracts will be the aid modality- a tough jobs market;;
    2. Localiz/sation will mean lots of host country contracts with host country firms. They will use Devex, Development Aid and LinkedIn to find resources. This will be high risk/low reward stuff but lots of job opportunities;
    3. Donors will need M&E, start-up specialists, evaluators, VfM specialists, etc. to come in and help the relatively inexperienced local firms at key points;
    4. Corruption risk will be very high, donor appetite for such risk will vary, but having some anticorruption experience/certificate etc. will be helpful for job seekers;
    5. Health and education will be big winners but mostly on infrastructure and technology – a feel-good commodity dump that can suck up mega millions. Some construction/renovation could also be expected; and,
    6. I think the development/humanitarian split will be more pronounced. We could be back to a permanent high-poverty underclass (see 1 above) and an “emerging market” group where trade and investment assistance predominate. Donors – and many embassies – will want to be with the latter. Economists and trade specialists (even if raw recruits straight from university) will find work.

  4. Titilope Fakoya

    Gender Based Violence has been exacerbated by the pandemic globally and many forms of vulnerabilities exploited. Whether this translates into more or less jobs in this field is yet to be seen, but the ‘shadow pandemic’ is very real and awful!

  5. Zohar Ianovici

    Great piece. I do worry about how, in our field, we tend to emphasize the importance of networking while simultaneously may write/ complain/report on the negative impact of cronyism on the governments/ societies we hope to support. I personally advise young graduates to start doing work of the type you mentioned (blog, community building, volunteering) so to exemplify their skills. Cold calling organizations and asking individuals for coffee/lunch might be effective but, in all honesty, not how we should manage a field that regards meritocracy is a higher value for effective governance.

    • Tom Kirk

      Good points! But I also fear job selection mechanisms that appoint people based on what school is on their CV or even worse what type of name they have. Perhaps, getting in front of potential employers can help to address such biases? But how to ensure everyone has a chance to?

  6. As touched upon by some of the preceding comments, the importance of major social issues in one’s own country ought to be prioritized. Often I am incredulous and upset upon hearing of the situation in certain indigenous communities not only in Canada, but USA, Australia, China and many European countries, all of which nowadays offer foreign development expertise whilst being unable to resolve longstanding issues within their respective indigenous and minority populations.
    In years gone by, there have been hundreds of reports of deleterious societal and environmental issues in these communities and their never-ending unmet basic needs.
    The selected executing agencies are purportedly experts in their respective fields. Many have been empirically unsuccessful, depending on the metrics used.
    The issue, in a sense, is that quite well paid, invariably well-educated aid staff, at all levels, have had a chequered record in international development for a variety of reasons.
    If we could point to effective participatory planning with minority groups within our own countries; if –in Canada, for example– we could prioritize and demonstrate positive forward momentum in basic water supply services needing about C$3 billion, then we may have the privilege to advertise, cultivate and disseminate our competencies abroad.
    But I question what right we have to market our expertise, promote our processes, systems, ideals and culture to improve socioeconomic, cultural, political and environmental conditions abroad, when major problems continue to exist in our own countries and we have been unable to properly, consistently, sustainably address them. To me, this is embarrassing and unethical. And it does not matter what political system exists in a particular country; every system must demonstrate effective, caring and successful improvement of the lot of internal minority communities before claiming superiority in advancing development elsewhere.

    • Tom Kirk

      Agreed, its look increasingly silly for Brits and others to bang on about ‘good governance’ and other such things.

      That said, I think ‘development’ may always struggle to move beyond someone thinking they have knowledge of how to do something better than someone else.

  7. ken smith

    Does nobody think entering the fundraising department on an iNGO is a way into the sector, and maybe slightly more open to a wider range of entrants than an unpaid internship. Even more controversially maybe the fundraising department could provide a satisfying career for Development studies students?

  8. Paulina

    Hello from Switzerland, the main hub of these kinds of jobs 🙂 the competition is really hard. Check this valuable resource from, mainly for Swiss, but good tips for everyone. As Cinfo published, all jobs are …conflict zones, coflict-affected areas. It is extremely hard to find a job, for instance, in Switzerland. I believe that the internship is the only way for students to access the job. Brits are privileged, as they are valuable for their proofreading skills (be ready to proofread all reports), and often dismissed as…lack other language skills (how to compete with Swiss, who know at least 3 languages and English of course, often 5 languages is normal).

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