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What’s Next? A Guide for International Development Students (Part 1)

  • By Colton Brydges
  • Published on November 2

It’s hard to imagine how many pages of writing and hours of debate have gone into trying to define what exactly “international development” is. It’s a concept that is perpetually contested, redefined, co-opted and venerated.

While we may never find a good definition of what “international development” is, this is a field that many young people feel compelled to pursue, seeking a way to make a positive impact in the lives of marginalized communities around the world. Like most fields of study today, students of international development face an uncertain career path as they try to pursue employment in their field. While that uncertainty is, unfortunately, inevitable, here is some information on possibilities and prospects in international development that may provide students with a better sense of where their studies can take them.

Where can I work?

As with most social sciences, and especially given its multidisciplinary nature, development studies lends itself to a wide range of career paths. However, these are the three “traditional” streams that one might pursue:

International Organizations

Many students of international development became aware of the field through their support for organizations like UNICEF, UNDP or the World Food Programme. For many students, working in the United Nations system, or in one of the regional development banks or the World Bank, represents the holy grail of international development work.

The UN system is quite diverse, and outside the most well-known organs there are many other fascinating opportunities. There are international organizations working on energy (eg. the International Atomic Energy Agency), regional development (eg. the Islamic Development Bank), the environment (eg. the Global Environment Facility) and much more.

While there is a multitude of different international organizations out there, finding a job with one is challenging. The UN in particular is increasingly emphasizing local hiring, both as a means of cutting costs and to tap into local capacity and knowledge. Given these trends, it makes little sense for an international organization to hire a new graduate from Canada with limited experience, when similar candidates exist in their country of operation.

That said, some possibilities do exist. The best option for Canadian youth would be the IDDIP Internship with the UN Association of Canada, which provides the opportunity to pursue a six month (unpaid) internship with a UN organ abroad. Another possibility is the Junior Professionals initiative, which exists in most UN organs and regional development banks (see, for example, with the World Bank). These initiatives are highly competitive and usually require a graduate degree. Also, many of the eligibility criteria for UN streams disqualify Canadians. A final possibility is UN Volunteers, where university-educated individual with some experience can be deployed around the world. Breaking into the UN system can be very challenging, and the means of doing so can be unclear. However, this remains an attractive field for many aspiring young professionals.

NGO’s

Most of us look at NGO’s as the good guys of international development, working at the grassroots level for the betterment of marginalized communities. Of course, the term “non-government organization” can describe all kinds of different organizations. There are well-known, large international organizations like World Vision and Oxfam with offices all around the world, handling millions of dollars in funds. There are also genuinely grassroots organizations, with few staff and even less funding. There are NGO’s that deliver services themselves in their countries of focus, and others that work exclusively with local partners to implement their programming.

Like any organization, most international NGO’s based in Canada have a variety of different staffing needs, from human resources to communications to finance. For new graduates, finding a position as a program manager or officer is quite difficult, especially in larger and more well-known organizations. Many young professionals leverage their skills in communications (eg. social media or graphic design) to access entry level positions. Fundraising is another possible entry point for young people looking to enter the NGO world.

Nearly every NGO faces some type of funding constraint, and are expected by their donors to do more (in terms of programming) with less (in terms of salaries). This means that they are quite happy to accept volunteers, and are reluctant to offer time employment. According to the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, the average full-time employee at a small Canadian charity earned approximately $41,000 a year in 2010. While it goes without saying you shouldn’t be looking to get rich working for an NGO, it is important to be aware of the tradeoff between job satisfaction and remuneration.

Government

The federal government is a major employer of international development graduates in Canada’s National Capital Region. The most obvious ministry for development graduates to work in is Global Affairs Canada, which is responsible for Canada’s international trade, relations and development portfolios. Social science graduates with strong research skills often find themselves in policy analysis roles, though other positions (eg. communications) are also possible avenues to pursue.

While Global Affairs Canada may be the most obvious destination for international development students, most government ministries have a branch that deals with international affairs. For example, Natural Resources Canada has an international relations branch that “works internationally to advance Canada’s minerals and metals interests.” Young professionals especially interested in social development may also look to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, where they can apply their skills and knowledge domestically.

The most reliable pathway to employment in the federal government is through a university co-op program, or through the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP). These employment streams allow students to gain experience in the federal government and, if they perform well, could potentially lead to full time employment after graduation. Applying to a federal government position as an external applicant can be more challenging due to the large number of applicants. The Post-Secondary Recruitment campaigns involve a series of tests, and successful candidates will be placed in an inventory from which they can be hired. This process can take quite some time, and there are no guarantees of positions becoming available.

Of course, there are also similar positions available with the provincial and municipal governments that are more focused on domestic service delivery, with equivalent recruitment streams for new graduates (see for example the Ontario Internship Program).