Understanding the International Development sector is no easy feat. When looking to embark on a career here, whether you’re a recent graduate or transitioning your career, it is important to understand what the sector is all about, the different fields, the main players, and what roles are available. This post will provide an overview of what the sector involves.

As its name implies, international development is a broad concept pertaining to the level of development occurring on an international scale. The International Development sector can be roughly divided into two areas:

  • Development: The principal focus of development is reducing poverty, which addresses social exclusion and lack of access to basic human rights, such as health, shelter, food security, education and sanitation, infrastructure, and services.
  • Humanitarian assistance: This is designed to alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity in the aftermath of a disaster.

There tends to be a great deal of overlap between the two, but development work is likelier to be focused on long-term objectives while humanitarian work is shorter term and its immediate impact of the work is more tangible.

Tools of the Trade

The most common approach to international development has been providing development aid or official development assistance (ODA) to countries. This development aid can come in various forms, including food, clothing, medicines and vaccines, or monetary contributions. Development aid can be directed toward the state or channeled through non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations. Another widely used tool for international development is development loans. Mostly targeting economic development, these loans are usually granted under the condition that they be used for specific purposes and eventually be repaid. The third tool used is global trade, the underlying principle being that free trade between the developing and developed states will help increase the economic strength of the developing states.

Key Players

Within the International Development sector, there are a number of different groups playing key roles in addressing various issues. First, you have the funders. Typically, these are the organizations and institutions that provide advice, assistance, research, and project direction. They include multilateral agencies, like the World Bank, which provide policy advice, technical assistance, and financing to developing countries; bilateral and national government agencies like USAID and DFID which provide humanitarian relief and development services consistent with their foreign policy agendas; and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Mastercard Foundation which may provide funding nonprofits or specific projects of their own.

Next, you have the implementers. These are the organizations that support the implementation and management of international development solutions on the ground. They include nonprofit organizations that may specialize in subfields like health or agriculture, run immense operations with programs in developing nations, or engage in advocacy in developed countries. You also have development consulting firms, which provide specialized expertise and services to multilateral, bilateral, and national agencies; think tanks and academics, who research the underlying issues and/or policies affecting sectors or regions and offer policy advice and other expertise; and corporations, which choose to engage in countries where they source materials or manufacture products. These corporations may also run projects, enter into public-private partnerships, and facilitate short-term volunteer projects.

Representing a smaller but no less significant part of the field is a group of international development actors working to develop innovative solutions. These include social enterprises that use a business framework or revenue model to support their activities and usually address a specific issue. There are microfinance and banking organizations, which provide small loans and other financial services to low-income clients who usually lack access to traditional banking, thus building up local economies. Lastly, you have BoP (base of the pyramid) and emerging market investors, who invest in a wide range of industries, businesses, and social enterprises in developing countries.

Available Roles

Given the number of key groups in the sector, it should be no surprise that there is a range of roles sector that vary in terms of entry requirements. These roles include: professional support staff in functions such as human resources, finance, and marketing; fundraising staff involved in institutional fundraising and liaising with external organizations to get funding; technical specialists, who bring expertise from various sectors to address development challenges; policy and research staff, who formulate a strategic response for how their organizations work with external organizations or develop particular policy area specialties such as gender; programme staff, who provide program and project management support, including operations, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation; and strategy; and lastly, advocacy and campaigns staff whose role is to influence government on various policies.

Once you have a clear overview of the International Development sector, here are a few questions to ask yourself to decide if a career here is right for you: Do my passions and interests align with any of the challenges the International Development sector seeks to address? Do I have the experience and expertise needed to fulfill the requirements of any of the roles outlined within any number of players working in the sector?

If the answer is yes, then it’s time to figure out exactly what and where the open positions are. Happy hunting.



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