Working in the international development field is the best of many worlds. You have the opportunity to do good and well in life; travel around the world, live on stipends, get tuition reimbursement and student loan forgiveness. There are many incentives to working at places like Save the Children, the World Bank, or your country’s national development agency. This can be a very competitive sector to break into but with a plan of attack and a strategic mind, it’s definitely within your reach.
I’ve traveled throughout sub-Saharan Africa due to work, and trust me it’s been a long time coming. I’ve had to work throughout high school, college, and graduate school; I attended expensive private universities and the US Department of Education owns my first born. I didn’t have any hook-ups from parents who knew important people and I didn’t have any high profile professors vouching for me. I’ve had to consistently plan and re-plan every career move every step of the way.
Still, it’s possible to get that dream job, and this is what I think can help:
Never work for free
Seriously, this is a never ending cycle that you don’t want to get into. If you are a freshman or sophomore in college, fine maybe. You are only two years removed from high school and may not have a skillset to take to an employer. But, interning for free well into your 20s is absolutely unnecessary. You have to sell yourself and you can’t sell yourself cheap. By the time you graduate you have a skillset and should be able to express that in a convincing manner. Your language skills, your research abilities, your study abroad stint are all assets worth something!
If you think its okay to work for free just for the experience, you are beginning your career backwards. When you end up applying for a job and you need to tell them how much you were last paid, the fact that you worked for free at the UN will overshadow any work that you did there. It devalues your contribution to the organization you worked for, if you made a big enough impact they would have found a way to pay you. Just say no.
Begin learning a language
It’s so important, particularly if you are interested in working in sub-Saharan Africa. French is a vital tool that will propel your resume to the top of the pile even if you may not have that 3-5 year professional experience. Entering a language institute may even be more valuable than graduate school. Believe me, having a language is a shoe in for many international development agencies.
Find an actual niche/focus
It’s not good enough to say you want to work in international development, or in Africa. What do you want to change? Public health? Food security? Economic empowerment of women and girls? Reproductive health? There are dozens, if not hundreds of niches within international development, it is important you find yours. Graduate school allows you to learn the different sectors within international development and helps you figure out the hot topics, the institutions working on the ground and where in the world the issue is most pressing.
For example, I work in population and health, specifically in reproductive rights and access to contraception for young women. Pretty specific. When you’ve found your niche, do your research, write about it, read about it, tweet about it, enter dialogue online, attend events and listen to webinars. This will get you on the radar and start building you a mini portfolio before you even apply for the job.
Apply for work/travel grants
To work in international development you must have overseas, on the ground experience. So, you have graduated school, you have a basic understanding of a second language, you have found your niche! This isn’t enough to land your first position. You need real on the ground experience, whether in Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East. You need to get your butt over there for at least six months. You’ve got to get creative, start a go fund me campaign, work for a year at some desk job to save up and move overseas.
If you are like me and don’t have the money to move overseas for a year. Apply for travel grants ASAP. One of the best is the Christianson Grant, it awards young people under 30 with up to $10,000. All you need to do is find a place to work (and get accepted by the selection committee of course). One of my close friends was awarded the grant and spent a year working at an education NGO in Kigali, Rwanda. The $8,000 she received was enough to pay her housing, her monthly expenses, and her flights there and back. Other grants like Princeton in Africa place you at NGOs across sub-Saharan Africa, along with paying for flights and housing.
Take a (very temporary) pay cut
So you’ve been denied all the travel grants, and don’t have the money for an overseas stint. Don’t worry, there are other options to getting that overseas experience. Get on idealist.org, UNjobs.org, and devex.org, then study the jobs/paid internships available in developing countries. You’ll find many small local NGOs looking for program managers, site coordinators, capacity building managers, and so on. These jobs pay close to nothing but they will pay for your flight, a small monthly stipend, and housing. These are golden opportunities to getting that experience while still being compensated.
For example, I found a job in rural Tanzania in 2013. It was working with women (check), it was based in Africa (check), and it paid $600 per month. Um not check! I was taken aback by the low salary, but knew I had to consider it for on the ground experience. The position also offered me housing, flights, and a “Program Manager” title (check). In the end, my time in rural Tanzania is how I ultimately got my international development career started.
I am a strong believer that you have got to be strategic in planning out your career. It’s not enough to have interest, you must have something to back it up. This list worked for me, and I hope it works for you too.