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Trying to break into international development? My 5 tips learned the hard way

Thomas Park

Every week, I get a lot of unsolicited emails from people who are looking to make a career in global health, international development, or international law. The questions are usually the same: how do I get my first in-country experience? What should I study that will get me a job at the UN?

I understand why the reach out. In the last 10 years, I’ve been tremendously lucky to have a career mostly dedicated in international development. I’ve had the chance to work at top institutions including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations Assistance Mission to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,

McKinsey’s global health practice, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I’ve worked in a dozen countries including Kosovo, Cambodia, and Senegal, met the most varied and talented people in the field, and most importantly, felt I had a meaningful impact on the lives of people abroad.

Here’s some advice I would give to anyone who’s interested in pursuing a career in international development. It’s a distillation of all the great advice I’ve received over the years as well as my own lessons learned the hard way.

Let’s start with the most important question – what is going in the international development field?:
· The traditional model of donor support is drying up and much faster than people thought: It’s no secret that traditional donors have pulled back significantly on their commitments. There are many reasons including fiscal restraint, domestic crises (e.g. Europe’s migrant challenges), and growing skepticism on the effectiveness of aid programs (warranted or not). Regardless, there is less money availability, which means international organizations and NGOs are cutting jobs and programs;
· The talent pool is getting better: It used to be that people from the West had a massive advantage in terms of recruitment. They went to better schools; had the money to finance unpaid internships; or developed better connections. Now that isn’t the case. Countries with large program can draw upon local talent that not only have a deeper understanding of the country’s systems but also have the same educational, income, and social network advantages as others. I met a lot of Ivy leagued educated locals in senior positions – expect this trend to accelerate.
· The challenges in-country have changed dramatically: Countries today have vastly different challenges. Take Asia – countries that were once on the receiving end of traditional development programs have a tremendous amount of wealth supported by a large middle class. So traditional NGO programming has been replaced with more technical assistance such as strengthening linkages with the global supply chain to financial engineering. Coupled with local schools that produce high quality graduates who are willing to work for less than an expat, you have a tough hill to climb to break through.

What this means is that there are less internships and permanent positions in the organizations you’re hoping to make a career in. So, if you only have an MPH/international law degree/masters in development, expect a tough slog if you still pursing the traditional path.

Need an illustration? I was sent a pack of CVs for my recommended top 5 candidates for a relatively entry-level job (a P3 posting in UN parlance). I was sent several hundred CVs out of a pool of several thousands. That’s a crazy number of a job posting that was only up for 6 months. I was struck by the talent pool of individuals including one person who was from the country and was currently a senior leader within the health system holding multiple graduate degrees from leading US schools. There was also another person with almost 25years of experience in senior leadership positions in the US government.

What should you do? Here are my own tips:
· Get the traditional grad degree but also learn something else: At the end of the day, you still need the content knowledge about international development provide, such as the MPH. However, it’s not enough to have an MPH – learn to code, learn how to create a valuation model, or, better yet, both. The demand is with people with specific technical skills especially in data science or finance;
· Create your own start-up or join them: if there’s growing skepticism about traditional development models, there is certainly a huge appetite for innovation. We are living in a golden age of new start-ups in this field that are changing the way that development works. Get involved with one or start your own;
· Build your own home base: I’m told that the most senior positions in international organizations or NGOs tend to go to individuals with strong backing from their home government. Joining the civil service and spending several years is a great investment for later down the rode. Often governments are given first dibs on jobs;
· Network, network, and network: It’s important to network constantly and ambitiously. Finance yourself to go to conferences; spend your downtime helping out organizations; and build clubs of interest with others who share your interest. See my previous article on how to successful network; and
· Figure out your why: My parents are survivors of two wars and, serendipitously, I ended up growing up in the greatest country on the planet, Canada. That realization of how lucky I am drives my passion for public service. Given the strong headwinds a career of service involves, you need a strong “why” to keep you going

You can make a career in international development. But forget the traditional path. Accept the world as it is and adapt your approach.


Thomas Park is the Director of Strategy, BDC Capital at BDC


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