Interested in a Career in Global Development? Here Are 8 Things Americans Should Do First From Home

United States Activism
by Eric Hartman Apr 5, 2016

If you’re interested in a career in global development, the demand for work is there. One of my colleagues at the International Rescue Committee — a senior director — recently told me her organization was challenged to fill entry-level positions.

But how does one get the necessary experience, even for “entry-level” opportunities? Though we often picture international development work in some idyllic rural location, people quickly learn that development work doesn’t always involve going abroad. For example, IRC employs hundreds of people in the US.

Here are eight tips for continuously preparing for global development careers from home:

1. Look at development job ads and advice, then backwards plan what skills/experience you need to obtain.

Check out jobs and internships that are listed on DevEx,, Idealist, WhyDev, and on the websites of major development organizations or USAID. Look at the requirements for entry-level positions. Consider how you’ll get there.

Devex recently surveyed more than 1,000 global development professionals, most of whom had more than 10 years of experience in the sector. Results indicated that the development professional of the future will be a highly educated, bilingual, people person who is especially skilled at integrating ideas and creating coalitions across sectors. My colleague at IRC emphasized that they look for candidates with these skills: flexibility, proficiency in implementation and execution, ability to work in teams, resourcefulness, and empathy.

Also, read articles like “3 Tips for Launching a Career in International Development” from Idealist, as well as “12 Tips for Getting a Job in International Development” from the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network to help make a plan for yourself.

2. Intern at a domestic nonprofit, government agency or social enterprise.

To gain the program development and management skills mentioned above, secure an internship nearby. A good internship with nearly any (local, domestic) nonprofit, government agency, or social enterprise should help you develop your soft skills and management capacities. Sometimes older organizations have well-established fellowship or professional development programs. Smaller and younger organizations tend to give interns more responsibility, but it’s important to be on the lookout for a lack of mentorship.

Respectfully ask questions about the specific skills mentioned here as you interview and spend time with an organization. When you approach this early and often, you may have several years to grow into responsibility.

3. Dive into international development conversations and development data.

Make sure your newsfeed includes the Guardian’s global development reporting and be sure to check out their recent, “Top 10 Sources of Data for International Development Research.” Also check out the multi-dimensional poverty and happy planet indices.

Don’t always take this data at face value. Investigate the assumptions and formulas that drive these various development measures.

4. Then, deepen your understanding of the vast inequities and ongoing human rights violations present here in the United States.

For example, take a look at the interactive data map from Measure of America and wrestle with the 13-year gap in life expectancy between counties in the US. Consider why and how life expectancy can be 83 in Marin County, California (like Japan), 70 in McDowell County, West Virginia (like Ukraine), and 78 overall (just like Costa Rica, which manages to match US life expectancy despite much lower income per capita).

Structural violence and structural inequity plays a greater role in educational outcomes and class mobility in America than many other countries abroad. Looking at broad data through the lens of structural violence or human rights presents the question of why there are such significant outcomes discrepancies across region, class, ethnicity, and gender when — supposedly — everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. Get to know local and regional history and policy structures, and work to understand how they influence the vast diversity of outcomes within the United States.

By becoming more immersed in social issues in your own community, you can then become more aware of how they relate to the political and economic structures of development. Reading the relationship between local interventions and policy structures is an important skill for development workers in any context. Learn as much as you can about how local issues interact with national and global ones.

5. Learn more about yourself, your identity, and your privilege.

To work in the development sector, you must grow as a listener, learner, and cross-cultural collaborator. For those of us carrying several privileged positions into life, work, and conversation, critical reflection on personal identity must be a lifelong effort.

Be conscious of learning from people in your community who have different class, race, gender, or educational backgrounds than you. Read up on intersectionality and how to be a good ally. Learn to be with and learn from people who are not in positions of power, authority, or formal educational roles. Most of all, practice the art of eloquent listening.

6. Gain a critical understanding of what it means to be “poor.”

Global development expert Robert Chambers advises that development professionals immerse themselves in the lives of the poor. To accomplish work in the development sector that benefits the poor, you must first understand how poverty works in your home country as well as abroad. Consider Chambers along with Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of liberation theology, who

“The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

Critically question the ways in which national mythologies create an undeserving and uncomplicated poor close to home, contrasted with a deserving, simply unlucky poor far away.

7. Choose one key issue and advocate.

Consider the domestic and international advocacy resources offered by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Results, and others. Learn who is advocating to change national and global policy structures, and how. Get involved.

8. Learn a language.

Take classes, converse online, download apps, sign-up for conversation partner exchanges. Whatever it takes, learning additional languages will make you more prepared for work once you begin exploring around the world.

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