Email this page to a friend!

Career advice (from people smarter than me)


As a follow up to our satirical video, So you want to be an aid worker, this fantastic guide about how to get started in a career in the aid sector comes from Dave Algoso (Find What Works), and was originally published on Whydev.

Ah, the New Year. A nice time to pause and reflect on life’s path. If you’re thinking about your career, here’s a compilation of advice for young professionals and students in international aid/development. You’ll notice some mixed messages: Networking! No, experience is more important that connections! Actually, you need a graduate degree! I think we can safely conclude that they’re all important. What’s most important for you? Well, that depends on where you are and where you want to go. Hopefully the posts below will help you think through some of the issues involved. Each link is followed by a summary of the highlights from each post.

General advice

How to become an aidworker? — The Road to the Horizon

If you’re just starting to think about making a career in aid/development, this post is a good place to start. It’s a good read if you just have a vague sense that you want to work in this field, but aren’t quite sure what that looks like.

Development Jobs: What You Need to Know — Devex

Another good introductory post. This one includes good descriptions of the types of positions available (technical experts, project managers, researchers, other), as well as what’s involved with each and who hires for them.

Humanitarian Jobs Blog — Nick Macdonald

This blog seems to have gone dormant, but it still has a lot of great posts. Nick has written a few profiles about individual humanitarian workers and their careers. I’m a big fan of these because there are a thousand career paths to any industry, a fact that’s ignored by most lists of career tips.

Getting a job

The bare bones of prepping for an international career — Alanna Shaikh (Blood and Milk)

These tips are especially for undergraduates, but they’re useful for anyone to think about. The short version: 1. get an office job while you’re in school, because most development work is office work; 2. study something useful at university; 3. learn to write; 4. study a second language to demonstrate a commitment to international and intercultural work; and 5. “have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific.”

Getting a job in international development — Chris Blattman

Chris follows up on Alanna’s post with a few more: 6. be prepared to volunteer your first couple jobs; 7. pound the less-trodden pavement (e.g. try contacting program managers, country offices, etc. directly rather than applying through the front door); 8. consider a private firm; 9. it’s a numbers game (so understand that 50 emails will yield 45 non-responses, 3 immediate rejections, 2 interviews – and one job); and 10. be willing to go to uncomfortable places.

What Recruiters Really Look For — Piero Calvi (AidWorkers Network)

One word: experience. Connections and education are both secondary. Of course, experience is hard to get if you don’t already have it. This post highlights the recruiter’s perspective, and makes the case that you’re better off investing in a year of overseas volunteering than in a master’s degree program.

Finding a Job Overseas — Michael Baer (

Getting your first overseas position is first and foremost about networking. Second, volunteering or an internship can help; an organization is more likely to accept an inexperienced person if they don’t have to pay him/her. Third, going overseas on your own can allow you to find positions that you wouldn’t find from afar. Finally, be persistent.

Finding a job — AidWorkers Network

Tips for the job hunt, and some insights into how to communicate your worth. Key line: “Focus on fewer, more relevant jobs when applying. And work hard on selling your skills and abilities, not your desire to help.”

Getting a job in development (MSF edition) — Chris Blattman

Chris offered the floor to a couple American friends at Médecins Sans Frontières. Their comments are chock full of insights. Here are the highlights.

From a health staffer who specialized in tropical medicine and took courses in refugee/IDP specific health situations: “I applied to MSF with this educational background and basically agreed to go wherever they sent me. Going wherever you are assigned is the key in the beginning. After you stick it out for your first assignment, you can begin to pick and choose situations that appeal to you.”

From an administrator: “The week before my interview, I reread my notes from a class on critiques of development and humanitarian aid. My interviewer, a no-nonsense Liberian woman and former refugee named Hawah, ignored my academic and policy credentials. I never had the chance to wax on about how I would avoid the pitfalls of the disaster relief industry and the dangers of neocolonialism. Instead, she honed in on my sparse management skills. … If you’re interested in humanitarian aid, it’s best to start by cultivating a few relevant skills. That sounds basic, but I know from experience that backpacking in Nepal and a completing a Masters in Public Administration don’t pass muster. For non-medical volunteers, there are two main areas of entry-level work: logistics and finance/HR management. To build experience, you could help coordinate an international supply chain or organize safaris for travelers. You could work with a diverse HR pool or manage a big office. Idealism, adventure travel and volunteer stints are important because they indicate that your heart is the in the right place and that you’re not going to quit because the toilets don’t flush. But to start out you also need a set of transferable skills. … Even if your goal is to work in policy or research, I recommend starting in the field. You’ll see the challenges of implementation from a perspective that will continue to be valuable.”

Getting a job in development (UN edition) — Chris Blattman

Chris also featured commentary from a friend who heads a sub-national office for UNHCR in Africa. In summary form: Getting a job at the UN is tough but possible. Connections help but they aren’t necessary. To get in without connections, you need three things: a relevant CV (including at least 6 months, ideally a year plus, working in the developing world; second languages are essential for most UN jobs; so is a graduate degree), persistence (apply to hundreds of jobs), and luck/good timing. Networking helps too. Land an internship if you can.

Life in the field

Advice for First-Time Aid Workers — AidWorkers Network

This includes tips for predeparture research, including questions to ask and how to pack. Some are good general travel tips, while some are specific to aid work. The advice for what to do upon arrival (get a security briefing, even if none is being offered; visit the field; back up your files) is especially good.

Unsolicited Advice for New Aid Workers — Matthew Bolton (AidWorkers Network)

Tips from a veteran aid worker on how to learn about the context on the ground: meet ‘Key Informants’; try to learn the local language; read voraciously; and review your scope with locals.

Advice for working in a developing country — Chris Blattman

Some of the highlights from Chris’s list: eat the street food (but be cautious); visit some small farms; get your shots; try to go for longer rather than shorter trips; ask about the best local restaurants; if someone invites you home for dinner, then go; be wary of getting sucked into the expat community; dress to blend in even if you hopelessly stick out; ask everyone about their job.

Graduate school

How to get a PhD *and* save the world — Chris Blattman

Chris gives tips for aspiring political scientists and economists who want to pursue PhD research to make the world a better place. His advice: use grad school to tech up (i.e. learn the skills, theories, etc. even if they don’t seem immediately relevant); hang in there; take chances but be prepared; try working for outside organizations (World Bank, think tanks, etc.) if you’re unsure whether you want to be an academic researcher; there are lots of things you can do beside become a professor; but be careful about telling your department that you’re looking at non-academic career paths.

Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD? — Chris Blattman

Chris discusses the MPA/ID program he did at Kennedy as it relates to PhDs and other MPA programs.

Should You Go to Law School? Not Unless You Want To Be a Lawyer — Amanda Taub (wronging rights)

A human rights lawyer goes head-on with the tendency of smart young people to default to law school because, “Well, it’s such a great, all-purpose professional degree.” One section is worth quoting at length: “There may be J.D.s in every walk of life in this country, but lawyers’ dirty secret is that their proliferation is due less to that degree’s versatility than it is to the fact that thousands of lawyers flee the profession every year. Seriously. I am not even kidding. Do you really think Cake Love’s Warren Brown runs a successful bakery because of what he learned at GW law? There’s a difference between torts and tortes, my friends. If he’d liked the former, he’d still be practicing law. But he didn’t, and so he’s not. And, given that he really wanted to pursue the latter, he’d have been better off going to cooking or business school.” In case this wasn’t enough to convince you, Amanda follows it up with: So You Really Do Want to Go to Law School: What Now?


The International Development Careers List — Alanna Shaikh

Got a career question? Alanna can answer it. And if she can’t, she’ll find someone else who can. For a nominal fee ($2/month) you get access to her insights on job hunting, grad schools, career paths and more. When someone sends an inquiry, the original question and response go out to the full list. You’ll get answers to questions you never even thought to ask. I highly recommend subscribing.

How to Blog for Professional Success in International Development — Wayan Vota

Wayan offers some good tips and stories on how to make blogging part of your career. Personally, I found this post to be incredibly useful.

A grad student’s guide to the international development blogosphere — Dave Algoso (Find What Works)

Yes, this is a shameless plug for my own post. It offers the why, how and what of reading development blogs. You’ve gotta get smart on the industry, and your degree isn’t enough. Also, notice the names that keep repeating throughout this post, like Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh? You might want to follow their blogs.

Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO — Alanna Shaikh (Blood and Milk)

“Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better.”

But Alanna goes on to give some advice for those who ignore her brilliant opening: go work for an existing NGO first to learn from it; identify a new funding source so you bring something new to the world; hire experienced people to work with you; your finances will probably be the most important part of your NGO.

On being ten feet tall and other thoughts about starting out as a journalist in Africa — Glenna Gordon (Scarlett Lion)

Advice from a journalist on how to do what she does. It’s not so different from advice for international development.


What am I missing?

It seems like there should be more out there, especially on the pros/cons of various graduate school options. If you’ve got links to other posts, or thoughts of your own, please make liberal use of the comments section.

(This guest post is from Dave Algoso, who normally blogs at Find What Works.)


A simple but important message


The article below was originally posted here by Oliver Wiseman at The London School of Economics Students' Union online newspaper - The Beaver - on October 24th 2010. 

It provides a brilliant and succinct summary of our work. Thank you to Oliver for the piece, originally titled "Save the Bottom Billion." 


Often the simplest messages are the most important. That we should all do more to eradicate the fact that 1.4 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty is one such message. Reminding us of this is the Global Poverty Project (GPP), an organisation on the eve of a breakthrough. Founded in 2008 by Australian humanitarian, Hugh Evans, GPP exists to raise awareness of poverty’s causes and cures, catalysing a movement to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. This is a sentiment with considerable weight behind it. Indeed, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, has agreed that poverty could come to an end within one generation. This week the charity premieres its DVD, 1.4 Billion Reasons, essentially the Inconvenient Truth of development, taking a small-scale lecture programme along an exponential trajectory.

Poverty campaigns tend to be one of two things. Some come across as the playthings of the rich and famous – a convenient excuse to pile your glamorous friends into a recording studio for a sing-a-long. Others reduce their efforts to shameless guilt-tripping. Either way it seems that the message has become desensitised. Despite the honourable intentions, mass media has taken a once poignant truth and diluted it down.

The GPP approach is something wholly different. The organisation’s primary output is a 90-minute presentation that takes the audience through the web of problems that surround extreme poverty and seeks to provide practical solutions that begin at the individual level. For GPP the fight to end poverty hinges upon filling a gap in our knowledge. The manner in which GPP goes about achieving its goals is a testament to the strength of their arguments; neither cynical tugs of heartstrings, nor the promise of a party are necessary in persuading people to commit to the eradication of extreme poverty.

As well as a predictable array of celebrity endorsements – including Hugh Jackman – the movement has the backing of eminent intellectual Jeffrey Sachs, international health expert Hans Rosling, and director of the UN’s millennium development programme, Stephanie Dujarric. In addition to the gravitas and sincerity evident in these endorsements, teams of student organisers at some of the world’s top universities give GPP genuine grassroots credentials.

Much of GPP’s focus falls on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), objectives that Sachs calls “practical and obtainable goals. The goals of our generation.” The MDGs, agreed on with much furore in 2000, tackle hunger, disease, child mortality, environmental damage and other critical development issues. These targets remain a mirage. Halfway through the time frame, 86 per cent of the work is still to be done. It is this kind of complacency that GPP combats.

At the core of GPP is an admission that there exist more than enough ways to give. In this sense, GPP is not a charity – rather, it is an umbrella organisation that improves the ways we currently try to effect change. If we think about extreme poverty when we “volunteer, talk, buy, learn, shout and donate” then the brave aim to eradicate extreme poverty might become a reality.

Posted by Hugh Evans- GPP CEO in Aid, Poverty for column Global Poverty Project - International on Oct 25th 2010, 14:09

Hindsight no more? The challenge of our time.


William Wilberforce was a man ahead of his time, born into a world where the moral injustice of slavery was commonly dismissed as a necessary evil, if an evil at all. Wilberforce had the foresight to envision a future where all men and women were free. As an outspoken abolitionist for over thirty years in the British Parliament, his political peers shunned him, but he pushed on and, eventually, lived to see what would become the end of British slavery in 1833.

Today, Wilberforce's struggle is viewed unquestionably as a morally justified one. However, at the end of the 18th century, it seemed impossible. Nothing illustrates the contrast of modern attitudes and the common thinking during Wilberforce's time toward slavery and institutionalized racism than the worldwide reaction to Apartheid in South Africa.

Apartheid, a potent and ugly form of institutionalized racism was first adopted by the South African government in 1950. Almost immediately following its inception, the United Nations and the world turned their attention to this troubling development. For almost 50 years, the world struggled to bring Apartheid to an end. Today, this is rightfully celebrated as a moral injustice that has been triumphantly eradicated through education, action, and mobilization.

In our modern age characterized by the cutting edge of technological advancement, wealth, and higher education, we have the benefit of hindsight to see slavery as the evil that it always was. Now, more than 175 years after Wilberforce's time, I believe that bringing an end to extreme poverty is the moral and ethical issue of our generation. Like slavery was once excused, we are expected to believe the fiction that extreme poverty is the natural way of things - yet, this is not the case.

With the acceptance of the Millennium Development Goals by the UN, we now have a framework to bring about the end of extreme poverty. If we each do our part to implement these goals, we can bring about the kind of change that future generations can look back upon with the same kind of moral clarity that we now view slavery with.

William Wilberforce never gave up, spending decades of his life to work tirelessly against slavery. There is a great deal we could learn from his tenacity. Wilberforce, himself, put it best in his speech before the British House of Commons in 1791 when he said, "Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal..., released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country."

Together we can make extreme poverty a thing of the past.


Hugh Evans is CEO of the Global Poverty Project

With Wesley Nease.  

Posted by Hugh Evans- GPP CEO in Poverty for column Global Poverty Project - International on Sep 24th 2010, 09:25

TedxLondon Event 20 September 2010


Alongside the MDG Review Summit, every nerd’s favourite website, held events around the world yesterday under the banner ‘The Future We Make’. It was an inspiring night to see so many people there, and indeed around the world via the wider TedxChange event with a desire to make change happen and the wide variety of ways they are doing it.

You can see the presentations streamed from America above, or see the full stream and conversation on the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website here.

Global Poverty Project staff and interns in New York and London attended, and here are their thoughts on some of the highlights:

  • Progress is happening: Melinda Gates,‘we’ve made more progress in the last 10 years than in any other period in history combined’
  • Fighting poverty is local: Several speakers spoke about the need to stop having a blanket approach when looking at development, and create individual approaches based on a country’s particular needs. Hans Rosling demonstrated in his speech how meaningless data can become when we generalise it too much, as he focused on child mortality rates, stating ‘The time has come to stop looking at Sub-Saharan Africa as one place. The countries are so different and they should be recognised in the same way as we don’t talk about Europe as one place’ you can see his full talk here.
  • The Coke Effect: Melinda Gates asked ‘how is it they can get Coke to these far flung places and if they can do that why can’t governments and NGOs do the same thing?’ The answer lay in their marketing – it was tailored to every specific country they sold to – and social mobilisation – they made sure they got the local communities committed to the brand.
  • Local solutions: Mechai Viravaidya talked about the success in family planning in Thailand. Again the success was due to social mobilisation and tailoring their actions to the community with everything from getting the police involved in a ‘cops and rubbers’ campaign to blowing-up condom contests. The theme was also talked about by Graça Michel as she said ‘everybody seems to have a plan for our continent. We need a plan for Africa, by Africans.’
  • The pitfalls of transportation donation: Andrea Coleman talked about the need to look at every angle of aid and how much of health work in Africa was suffering from poor transportation due to the fact that people didn’t know how to maintain the vehicles and how her charity – Riders for Health is addressing that.
  • New technology: Wendy Hanamura talked about the power of stories for spreading information and how LinkTV’s website is using semantic technology to generate links between the video you're watching and other relevant content across the web, to give people wider exposure to the non-profit sector as they watch the videos hosted on their site

The event was a truly inspirational one that provided much food for thought and clearly demonstrated how change can and is being made in fighting poverty.

The End of Extreme Poverty... within a Generation


1.4 billion people in our world currently live in extreme poverty.

These 1,400,000,000 individuals live on less than what you can buy in the US for $1.25 per day. You might think this buys more in a poor country than it does here, but actually, it’s a figure that’s been adjusted for purchasing power, which means that anywhere in the world, the $1.25 a day measure buys little more than enough basic food, clean water and cooking fuel to make two simple meals.

In the last 30 years, the proportion of the world’s population that live below this line has halved – from 52% in 1980, to 25% today. That’s a decline from 1.9 billion people down to 1.4 billion people.

At the Global Poverty Project we’re passionate about communicating these amazing achievements, and highlighting the opportunity we have to bring this number down to zero - within a generation.

This post summarizes how we can each play a part in realizing this opportunity – moving a world without extreme poverty from its current status of ‘improbable possibility’, to ‘likely reality’. This list is designed to introduce you to the key themes and issues related to ending extreme poverty.

How we think about extreme poverty

We know ending extreme poverty is a big and complex challenge. It has many causes, and there’s certainly no silver bullet or single solution, but we don't think that this complexity means the challenge cannot be overcome. There are a huge number of smart and talented people all over the world in charities, business, academiaevaluation organisations, government and think-tanks who are building an evidence base of things that work, things that don’t and why. 

The big three issues

To see an end to extreme poverty, there are three big issues that we need to see action on – governance, aid and trade. We know that we have the resources (economic, social, political and environmental) to see an end to extreme poverty. But, right now, the world works in a way that keeps some people poor, which is what we all need to focus on to see an end to extreme poverty.

Improving governance structures can ensure that decision-making works in favour of the world’s poorest people. At present, most discussions about governance are framed in terms of corruption. Rather than treating the problem of corruption as an excuse to stop investing in development efforts, we need to get behind those working in communities to counter corruption: by holding local leaders to account, increasing transparency, and ensuring that laws are applied. Corruption is not only a problem that needs to be tackled in poor countries. In rich countries we need to hold governments and businesses to account for any complicity in the process of corruption, or for unethically undermining poverty reduction through actions like avoiding tax or utilising vulture funds to recover illegitimate debts. We’ve psoted more about corruption here, including an interview with leading experts here, or you can see the work being done by corruption-fighting organisations like Global Witness and Transparency International.

Next, we need to make sure that aid that’s given – whether through donations to charities or taxes to government – is spent on programs that really work. Foreign aid won’t end poverty - but it’s a vital ingredient that can be used to make investments in things like health, education and infrastructure – resources needed for countries and communities to lift themselves out of poverty and prevent dependence on aid in the future. We’ve written more about good aid here, here and here.

Ultimately, extreme poverty ends when local communities can trade their way to a better future. The amazing poverty alleviation that we’ve seen in the past generation has been led by countries who have joined global markets: in China 400 million citizens have been lifted out of poverty since 1980, South Korea has moved from aid recipient to aid donor by building industry and creating world-renowned brands, and Botswana has grown faster than any other country in Africa by wisely investing proceeds from its diamond mines. Currently, the potential of trade is limited by the rules which work against poor countries, and will need to be reformed before we will see an end to extreme poverty.

The Elephants in the Room

Beyond these three issues, climate change and resource limitations are the elephants in the room, threatening the potential end to extreme poverty. The impact of these issues can be seen in the Pakistan floods, and in the record food prices which will mean that 1 billion people go to bed hungry tonight. On both of these issues our challenge is distribution, not scarcity. We aren’t running out of food - there’s more than enough food on our planet to feed everyone. The problem is that the world’s poorest people can’t afford to buy enough of it. In order to realize the potential of developing populations, rich countries have to increase their efficiency in resource use, and support clean development.

Our role

All of the opportunities and challenges of fighting extreme poverty outlined above are technically possible and eminently affordable. Our role is to make them politically viable and increasingly probable.

We can make a start with simple changes to the way that we act on a daily basis and by learning more about the issues so we can make informed decisions, especially about the ethics of the products we buy and the effectiveness of the money we donate.

Beyond that, we can help others realise that it is possible to end extreme poverty, that we are already making significant progress, and that practical steps can be taken to overcome the challenges that remain.

From there, it’s about using your voice as a citizen to join the campaigns and initiatives of organisations fighting hard in your local community to change the rules and systems that keep people poor: ensuring that corruption is reduced, that aid is given in appropriate quantities in the right way to the right things, and changing trade rules to give the world’s poorest a fair chance to lift themselves out of poverty.

Most importantly, it’s about recognizing that the movement to end extreme poverty is led by people in poverty themselves. As we reflect on the changes of the last generation, we can look forward a generation and see a real prospect of extreme poverty not existing. Our role is to get behind the world’s poor, give voice to their aspirations, and work as citizens and consumers to make the end of extreme poverty the legacy that our generation leaves on this world.

Want to help realise a generation's potential?