Many people are attracted to the idea of working in international development because they want to make a positive contribution to the wider world, but it is essential to think carefully about the nature of the contribution you wish to make and the field in which you would prefer to work. Most organisations send people to work internationally in response to requests for specific skills/experience from their local international partners – recruitment is led by the demands of these local partners, and not by those who want to go!
Specialist skills and qualifications are important, and include areas such as agricultural economics, logistics, governance, nutrition, demography, water engineering, public health and environmental technology. You could also consider a multi/interdisciplinary postgraduate course, setting that discipline in a development context – titles range from Forced Migration to Rural Development or Gender Analysis in Development. Assess the skills and knowledge that you require and check out the content – many are heavily theory-based and some are far more ‘hands-on’. Before choosing a course, ensure that it provides you with the relevant skills for the type of development work you are interested in, via its module options, teaching practices and dissertation topic choices.
It can be beneficial to gain relevant international experience before undertaking postgraduate study. This will not only help you to identify/clarify which direction you wish to pursue, but will also help you to choose the most appropriate course and to get the most out of your studies. Think carefully about your planned career route before embarking on a PhD – this is a sector that values practical experience highly, though advanced research skills and knowledge are very valuable for more research-driven development policy roles.
In addition to the professional qualifications and experience required, you will need to consider what qualities you can offer. Development agencies employing people to work internationally typically look for those who:
- are adaptable and flexible
- demonstrate cultural sensitivity
- have good communication skills
- are willing and able to listen
- wish to learn as well as to give
- can adapt their skills to very different and often very challenging work environments
- show sensitivity to the views of others
- are self-sufficient and can cope with often limited resources
- can work as part of a team often made up of diverse nationalities
- have a second language or can learn a new language, if necessary
There are not many openings in international development for people who have no professional qualifications or/and work experience. The sector is highly competitive and although there are few defined career paths, you will need to acquire both relevant experience and qualifications to progress in this very international field. It is often a good idea to try to build up some local or short-term international volunteering experience either prior to or during your first degree. It is also important to note that a number of work experience opportunities in this sector can be unpaid including short and longer-term opportunities in larger international organisations.
Once you have completed your first degree you can either decide to take some time out to gain some significant international experience prior to undertaking a specialised Masters course or you may decide to go straight into a Masters programme before gaining your international experience. Another option is to apply for internship positions, or take a further, short, specialised course, enabling you to apply for entry-level development jobs or specialist development jobs respectively.
Volunteering is quite likely to be an integral part of your career in its early stages. You could try to get involved whilst at Oxford at a local level – many organisations have networks of volunteers who are active in campaigning and raising funds and public awareness about the work of the organisation; in Oxfam, paid staff represent only 2.5% of the workforce. Join one of the local student-run community groups: Focus, Jacari, K.E.E.N., Learning Together, Oxford Homeless Action, Oxford Conservation Volunteers, Oxtalk. Take a look at Oxford Hub for more information about opportunities whilst you are in Oxford. The Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action (OCVA) is the Volunteer Bureau for Oxford; it holds many volunteer opportunities on its website.
Oxfam GB offers internships that are fixed, voluntary placements, ranging in duration from a few months to a year, normally based around a single project. You can do an internship with most of the divisions within Oxfam, from fundraising to campaigning, or policy to human resources; see Oxfam’s website. Community Service Volunteers (Volunteering Matters) offers a range of voluntary opportunities nationwide. Volunteering England and the National Volunteering Database provide details of your local volunteer opportunities as well as information about volunteering internationally.
The following are examples of international opportunities to build experience offered by development-focused organisations:
- The OECD offers an unpaid traineeship to full-time students who can obtain a Memorandum of Agreement between their releasing institution and the OECD. Areas of study must be directly related to the Organisation’s programme of work. Interested students should contact directly the Directorates of their choice or those whose Programme of Work corresponds to their studies via their “Contact us” email address, available on each Directorate’s website.
- The United Nations Volunteers Programme offers a variety of ways to volunteer, either at home or internationally including on-line volunteering opportunities, but does not offer short-term overseas practical assignments for students.
- Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)
- Peace Corps
- Development in Action has volunteer placements in the UK and India.
- People and Planet organises a student campaign network taking action on world poverty, human rights and the environment.
- AIESEC, the international student organisation, offers international internships in the development sector.
The databases on Charity Choice are very useful resources for identifying agencies operating in your field(s) of interest to which you can apply directly.
For information about the various internships offered by international and regional organisations, please refer to the ‘International Organisations’ Briefing, and have a look at the Idealist website.
You are likely to have to raise some or all of your own expenses before you go on a short-term unpaid placement, and may have to contribute financially to the project concerned. Many organisations provide advice to help you raise funds for their programmes – for example, Raleigh International. Alternative sources of funding include applying to your college – or any local charitable organisations or clubs – for a contribution.
When you are organising an international placement be careful to check out your financial and insurance responsibilities to ensure that your welfare will be taken care of and that there are arrangements for repatriation, should this be necessary. Check the website of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for advice before you go.
Every year there are a number of international and UK-based internships offered through the Internship Programme at The Careers Service. In addition, search the Careers Service vacancy database (the password-protected area of the website), to find advertisements for opportunities throughout the year and use the archive facility too, for speculative applications.
There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.