Career Advice: The Skills You Need to Get Into International Development

By 8 December 2015 No Comments
Man stands overlooking field

Overview of International Development

The international development sector can be roughly divided into two areas: development and humanitarian assistance, although of course they are closely intertwined. While development is multi-faceted and difficult to define, its principal focus is poverty reduction. Poverty is a multidimensional issue: social exclusion and lack of access to basic human rights, such as health, shelter, education and sanitation, infrastructure and access to services are all factors. Because development projects happen in such complex situations, they are longer term and non-linear.

Humanitarian response is intended to be short term and is governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality and independence. It is designed to alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity in the aftermath of a disaster. Disasters are commonly defined as “A situation or event which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to a national or international level for assistance; an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering” (RedR UK, p 7).

While there is a great deal of overlap between the two, development work is likelier to have longer term or permanent contracts, relatively stable working environments that may be based in headquarters or in the field and is focused on long term objectives. Humanitarian work is shorter term, more likely to be stationed in the field, particularly in insecure areas, and the immediate impact of the work is more tangible.

Skills and Qualities Needed for the Sector

The basic, entry level requirements for the international development sector are:

  • Academic training – a good undergraduate degree or, more often, a master’s degree; although it is advisable to get a few years’ experience under your belt before undertaking a master’s
  • Strong administrative office-based skills
  • Excellent writing skills
  • Relevant work experience – gained through volunteering, internships or paid work
  • Passion and commitment to the cause

There are a wide variety of technical skills that are always needed in international development jobs and can be transferred from other sectors:

  • Medicine and health: HIV/AIDS specialists, anesthetists, surgeons, GPs, midwives and nurses, psychologists and nutritionists
  • Public Health
  • Finance, HR, fundraising, marketing, communications and IT
  • Capacity building expertise
  • Engineering, particularly water and sanitation engineering
  • Education
  • Climate change expertise
  • Security
  • Food Security
  • Agribusiness and farming
  • Governance
  • Logistics
  • Law
  • Economics and social policy
  • Language skills

Personal qualities and soft skills that will help you determine if you are suited to the international development sector:

  • Adaptable
  • Flexible
  • Copes with stress well
  • Cross-cultural sensitivity
  • Ability to understand and respect different points of view
  • Patience and ability to see the big picture and long term impact
  • Able to build and maintain effective relationships, form strategic partnerships and network
  • Level-headed and self-aware
  • Awareness of personal limits to maintain health and avoid burnout
  • Ability to relate to and communicate with a wide range of people
  • Problem-solving in tough environments and the ability to operate effectively under pressure
  • Management of both people and projects and the ability to motivate others
  • Drive and determination to achieve results and initiate action
  • Ability to manage the workload, prioritise tasks and delegate when necessary
  • Ability to learn and to acquire new skills rapidly and the flexibility to transfer learning from one situation to another
  • Operational decision-making skills
  • Willingness to live and travel in basic conditions and difficult countries


Read Part One of this series: How to Transition from the For-Profit to the Non-Profit Sector.

We are an international development recruitment agency, find out more here.


Sources and Further Reading:

Maia Gedde, International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide

RedR Handbook, So You Think You Want to be a Relief Worker?