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8 Key Focus Areas for Your International Development Studies

Within the field of international development, there are several focus areas that development professionals can choose to work in. Many of the areas overlap each other, and all of them come together to create comprehensive, sustainable development. However, specific knowledge and skills can be helpful within each area. Knowing about each field can help you choose a career path within development that fits best with your interests and skills.


Economics is the most commonly thought of area of international development, but it is no longer the only goal of international development organizations. Economic development works towards poverty reduction, economic growth, increased standard of living, etc. Modern economic development focuses on inclusive and sustainable growth. Professionals in this area work on domestic and global markets/trade, small business development, microfinance, microeconomics, macroeconomics, quantitative research/statistics, and more. Economic development programs have a wide focus, ranging from business cooperatives for small farms to working with governments and big business to increase global market access. Jobs in this field range from banking and investment to microfinance and labor force, and those working in this area must be knowledgeable about various economic principles and skilled in finance and business.


Environmental areas of international development deal largely science-related issues such as climate change, water sanitation, green spaces, biodiversity, and more. Professionals in this specialization work towards sustainable solutions for energy, clean air and water, green urban development, sustainable agriculture, and preservation of nature and wildlife, among other issues. Many environmental development projects work to build infrastructure that will lead to better sanitation and environmental protection, to change energy resources into renewable energy, to create parks and green spaces within cities, and to develop agricultural practices that will preserve the environment and biodiversity. Scientists and engineers are some of the most common careers within environmental development work, so specialists are usually knowledgeable about physical science and/or engineering and have the technical and research skills to work in the field.


Global/public health plays a major role within sustainable international development. Issues like preventable diseases, HIV/AIDS, maternal/child health, infectious diseases, health access, and nutrition/food security are examples of what professionals in the field are working on to increase livelihoods and promote health. Programs in health development focus on promoting better health practices, building capacity of health systems in developing countries, strengthening access to health services, and preventing common and curable diseases. Health professionals such as nurses, doctors, and researchers are common in these professions, but not all ID health jobs require a medical degree; however, professionals are typically knowledgeable about public and global health issues and familiar with health programs.


Gender development focuses specifically on creating opportunities and equality for women and girls within sustainable development goals and programs. In some ways, this area encompasses many of the other specializations but adds an extra layer with gender issues and inequality. Many gender development programs work to increase access to education, human rights, job markets, and health resources. Often, these projects also focus on developing business sustainability for women through microfinance, expanded market access, and cooperative groups. Because gender development spans across multiple other development issues, professionals in this field generally have a wide range of expertise but understand issues specifically related to gender very well.


Education development is a key factor to sustainable development practices. Issues with education include access to education, literacy, inclusivity, and quality. Programs focusing on access and inclusivity in education generally target girls, children in rural areas, children with disabilities, and children from other various vulnerable groups. Increased literacy is another main goal of education development projects, as is increasing the quality of education offered to children, especially in developing countries. Unique issues such as child marriage, refugees/IDPs, and statelessness also find their way into this category, as one of the main challenges for children within those groups is access to and inclusion in education. While many professionals in this area are trained in teaching skills, many of the jobs do not require a teaching degree, especially because education systems and issues vary from country to country.

Culture & Society

Culture and society specialists can help international development professionals understand the populations they work with, including their needs, customs, and strengths. Much of this work is anthropological field work, studying people in-depth, interviewing the people, learning about their customs, their culture, and their ways of life. They often study topics such as religion, nationalism, ethics, and other areas of society. Professionals who focus on culture and society can influence development projects to be inclusive of the target groups and sustainable within the existing cultures. By understanding how the societies work, these professionals can help international development organizations understand the best types of projects and the best implementation methods. Those in this area of development are typically experts in social work, sociology, anthropology, and other related field.

Governance & Human Rights

Development professionals working with governance and human rights focus on building up the infrastructure to support sustainable development and progress. They focus on issues like inclusive participation in government, decentralization of government, human rights for vulnerable and minority groups, accountability and transparency, freedom of the press, policy reform and legislative strengthening, and more. Without this specialization, development programs will not create lasting change. Professionals in public policy and administration, human rights, political science, and other related fields are typically part of these focus areas. Expertise in government systems and human rights theory is necessary for this specialization.

Conflict & Disaster

Part of sustainable development is managing conflict and disaster crises. Development professionals in this area focus on early warning systems, prevention methods, hazard assessment, trained first responders, rapid and durable recovery methods, and humanitarians systems of many forms. Much of this work is in the field, giving humanitarian aid for food, clean water, shelter, and other necessary and important resources, as well as training community leaders, medical professionals, and other key first responders to deal with crises and disaster events with quick and effective response methods. Others work to implement policies and programs that will prevent crises and strengthen durability against conflicts and disasters. These events vary by region and even country, so professionals in this field must know basics of humanitarian response and disaster/conflict management and be able to learn about specific issues facing the counties in which they work.