Indian fishermen; photo: iStock/Bartosz Hadyniak
Checking nets in Kerala, India iStock/Bartosz Hadyniak

Getting a job in international development

Working for a charity or NGO can be fascinating and rewarding, but it has become increasingly competitive to break into, and entry-level opportunities are few and far between.

Below you’ll find some advice for making the first step into international development.

A great place to start is our jobs board, where you’ll find lots of development vacancies in the UK and abroad.

Prospects, what prospects?

Anyone looking for a job in the NGO, particularly in the UK, needs to be aware of the accelerating trend for UK-based NGOs to downsize their operations in this country, and to deliver more work through partners in country. There is a role for staff in the UK, but this is in increasingly specialist areas.

Know what you want to do

Have a clear idea about the kind of development work you want to do. Are you interested in working overseas or in the UK? What type of role would suit you? You should also avoid limiting your thinking to NGOs – you may have to go outside the sector first to gain the appropriate experience. Working for government are also potential routes in. DFID runs its own graduate entry scheme.

Being clear about your objectives will help you target your efforts; there may be specific qualifications you can study for, certain experience you will need to gain, and organisations who you may wish to contact.

Don’t forget that international development organisations also require functions you’ll find in other charities, such as campaigning, advocacy, fundraising, communications, administration and human resources.

Know what you will need to do it

Study: Relevant qualifications are offered by a number of universities. Some common courses include development studies, conflict and peacebuilding, or human rights. You may not need to gain a specific qualification but in a competitive sector, many people have gained postgraduate qualifications or Masters degrees even for entry level positions. If you don’t want to or can’t afford to study full time, The Open University has a range of part-time courses.

Volunteer: Volunteering demonstrates commitment, looks good on your CV and also means that you will be in a great position to hear about vacancies as and when they arise. The International Citizen Service is much in demand and has a lot of kudos. CharityJob carries lots of volunteer vacancies, larger NGOs may advertise their positions online or you could approach an organisation directly. Volunteer positions exist both in the UK and overseas.

Internships: Increasingly discredited as a form of cheap labour only open to those with sufficient resources to live without a salary, unpaid internship have largely disappeared, to be replaced by a tiny number of paid positions. Like volunteering, these can dramatically increase your chances of finding a permanent paid position. It will also give you an insight into the sector and whether it is the right path for you. Internships are usually advertised on NGOs’ websites as well as sector jobs boards.

More information

Bond’s director of membership and communications Mike Wright has written a blog packed with tips for applications and interviews in the sector.

CharityJob has a profile of the types of roles available in the sector and the skills you might need.

Charityworks has developed a graduate entry scheme, similar to the Teach First scheme, which promotes the charity sector as a career, and includes some NGO placements.

Christians Abroad offer careers advice. Their website also covers volunteering opportunities and practice advice on working abroad.

The Career Development and Employment Centre at the University of Sussex has a good introduction to the variety of entry points into development work.

A panel of experts shared career development advice and tips in the Guardian.

ICA:UK organises training and orientation for people from all backgrounds considering volunteering overseas, and have a wide range of contacts with NGOs overseas for placements.

ICS: International Citizen Service provides overseas volunteer placements for 18-35 year olds.

NCVO has a range of resources for anyone wanting to volunteer both in INGOs and the wider charity sector

Prospects has a job profile of a graduate, entry-level international aid/development worker with ideas on what to expect and skills to develop.