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

August 17, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

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.

August 17, 2016
Duncan Green