thoughts on international developmentInternational development is a multi faceted field. A great many talented young (and not so young) people, at least flirt with the possibility of engaging in it professionally. With the exception of a few students that have studied with economists, educators, health care professionals and the like, who have also worked for development agencies, most people probably have little understanding of what it is all about. How then might someone go about exploring development opportunities, and if they like what they see, how might they get into it? Allow me to outline some considerations that might be helpful.

General Background on the Field

The field contains an array of international agencies, government departments, contractor entities, volunteer groups, non-governmental organizations, education institutions, and others, that are engaged for a variety of purposes and which approach international development at various levels using many different methods.

Two Extremes of Approach

  1. Depending on why a funding organization is engaged and what it wishes to accomplish, it might approach development by working with overseas governments and institutions through sophisticated multi faceted projects, awarded to contracted managers.
  2. At the extreme opposite, another organization might believe in a type of development that is accomplished by working with and through individuals. Both agendas might be broadly political, social or economic.


Examples of Reasons for Engagement

(a) Some organizations in the field are enamored of and committed to sector wide development through technique and systems.
(b) Others may be committed to educating for human rights, justice or something else.
(c) Some of the most well known efforts in development are in basic relief and rescue.
(d) There are organizations whose sole function in development is advocacy e.g. for better working conditions, the preservation of heritage or democratic institutions. Other organizations are engaged in attempts to influence governments, perhaps through methods other than straight advocacy, on for example, healthcare practice, trade, the empowerment of regional and local authorities or the care of refugees.
(e) Some development is basically infrastructure building – roads, water systems, airports, schools, hospitals etc, with capacity building for subsequent operations and ongoing costs. The above are illustrative. They are not necessarily stand alone efforts, i.e. an organization or a consortium of organizations may at times engage in combinations of them.

Mechanisms of Delivery

Organizations engaged in development use a variety of delivery mechanisms. Some work through trained volunteers on carefully designed and targeted initiatives, some work through specialized long term technical assistance, others use short term consultants in key roles while still others recruit and work through local personnel. Because a particular initiative may need to address a variety of diverse objectives, it may use a combination of these. The design of an effort, including the type of assistance it utilizes, often has a relationship to an organization’s beliefs and motives. Funding may also be a determinant.

Project Assistance

Perhaps most traditional development has been through carefully designed and vetted development projects. These have time bound goals and objectives with well defined measurable results, accomplished over a contracted period, using predetermined inputs in terms of activities, personnel, operating funds and the like. A development project might be short term or multi-year. Although usually confined to a sector or part of a sector, a development project might address a wide array of objectives and have a budget of many millions of dollars. Those managing such efforts, across cultures, are well trained and experienced individuals. Complicated projects are contracted out by competitive bid to sophisticated organizations.

Buy in Assistance

Donor nations and agencies sometimes promote other vehicles which are less than full project assistance e.g. the establishment through competitive bid, of specialized technical services, which may be purchased cafeteria style.

Program Assistance

While project assistance remains popular, a major innovation is the advent of program assistance. Here a group of donor nations and agencies, together with a host country, combine efforts to address system wide challenges in a sector, in a harmonized way. There is cooperative needs identification, design and implementation. The idea is to reduce fragmented and poorly coordinated project efforts, to get more impact from pooled resources, to integrate management and abandon parallel initiatives, to use common standards, and through host country management to increase potential for continuity and sustainability. These may embrace an entire sector of development in a country. One that I know well is a 1.2 billion dollar effort in South Asia. There are of course disadvantages as well as advantages to each model.

Integrated Development

A quite different model of development is that of integrated community development. Unlike major nationwide projects and programs, these are much smaller community wide problem solving initiatives. Usually NGO financed and operated, these see development as a continuous and evolving process. They are needs based in the sense that a community executes, with assistance, something needed in and of itself but also of importance to accomplishment longer term, of a more livable community with improved opportunities. By addressing barriers to community development, they can become quite diverse in focus and method. Because they are accomplished by host participants, the results should be quite sustainable.

A First Step in Deciding on a Career Focus

Clarifying One’s Interests – With this broad but rather porous overview of the field as a backdrop, how might someone who finds it intriguing, go about deciding what they would like to pursue? First, one might simply identify their passion in terms of specialty. For instance, the environment, energy, agriculture, natural resources, education planning, program development, teacher training, the law, economics, healthcare, urban development, microfinance, family planning, rural development, human rights, better government, housing, migration, refugee settlement and so on. Second one might consider target groups of interest e.g. women and children, rural people, the grossly disadvantaged or disenfranchised, refugees, teachers, health workers, government officers, etc. Third if possible, determine, at least provisionally, whether they are interested in field implementation or whether they prefer policy, design or contract work at a headquarters in a developed city. Incidentally, my bias is that experience in the field is necessary to effectiveness later on if one decides on a career at headquarters. Fourth, even if at this point one is not very clear about it, begin research on the organizations that seem to match your interests in terms of what they do. This is not very difficult. For example, the website www., displays definitive information on a coalition of 180 non- governmental organizations.

A Second Step in Deciding on a Career Focus

Matching Self With Characteristics of Place – If one is still unclear about working in the field, they might research cultures and places and then reflect on how they would likely react to major differences in human attitudes and practices pertaining to matters like time, space, formality, work, sharing, having, being, beginnings and endings, belonging, courtesy, modesty, tact, cordiality and to obvious human vulnerability, hunger, sickness, poverty, and lack of convenience. Hopefully if one is sincerely interested in development work, they will be willing to give it a try regardless of what they discover about matters like this. While coming face to face with and working through another culture can be confusing and frustrating, it is rewardingly broadening and character developing.

A Third Step in Deciding on a Career Focus

Matching One’s Values with Organizational Types – Assuming after these considerations, that one wishes a field career, a next step would be to determine how you wish to operate. Here your values will come into play. What would fit your personality? What would be congruent with your beliefs about other people? What would match your view of what development should be? What are your true motives and what are the real motives of various organizations with whom you could work? At this point your answers will be hazy. But it is an important exercise. There are hundreds of organizations working in international development. They vary greatly in terms of what they hold important, their beliefs about people, the themes, interests and agendas they promote, and therefore approaches in their work.


Many types of entity work in international development e.g. departments and agencies of national governments, offices of the UN and other international organizations, entities from many countries which work through volunteers like the Peace Corps, religious denominations, relief agencies, charities, regional development banks, labor unions, NGO’s, university offices, foundations, contract specialist organizations, for profit companies, professional societies and others. Each has its mission, its expertise, its level of operation and its approaches. There are then many possibilities for a person to explore who is considering a career in international development.
Norman Cousins was editor of the Saturday Review for more than thirty years and served as adjunct professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science at UCLA. He wrote several books and was a great advocate for humankind. Mr. Cousins was the recipient of many awards including the UN Peace Metal, the American Peace Award and the Albert Schweitzer Award for Humanitarianism. In an effort to take this discussion on international development beyond the usual considerations in career planning, I have decided to quote from his book, The Celebration of Life:

“Each individual is capable of:
– both great altruism and great venality. He has it within his means to extend the former and exorcise the latter.
– both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.
– maintaining great societies and staging great holocausts. He has it within his means to fortify the former and avert the latter.
– ennobling life and disfiguring it. He has it within his means to assert the former and anathematize the latter.
If he recognizes that his basic purpose is to justify his humanity, he will have no difficulty in addressing himself to these choices. Basic purpose and human destiny do not lie outside him, but within him.”

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Donovan Russell is author of the book Choosing a Career in International Development.