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The Ultimate Guide for International Development

The Ultimate Guide for International Development

What is International Development?

International development looks at improving the lives of individuals worldwide through areas of need and interest. With areas such as health, education, democracy, sustainability, and economics, people are better equipped to live more equitable lives with greater opportunities. The United Nation, through the UNDP, works on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), in order to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030”. Countries are working to ensure that poverty, AIDS, and discrimination against women and girls are addressed in over 170 countries and terriroies. 

Why is International Development Important?

Careers in International Development

International development professionals work to reduce or eliminate poverty in developing countries. Practitioners in this vast field target issues ranging from global health to emerging market investment opportunities, at scales ranging from village-based enterprises to country-wide financial and government infrastructures. 

There are a variety of different careers that offer experience with international development. Some opportunities to consider are positions with internationally-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Peace Corps. Multilateral donor organizations, and partners in non-profit and private sectors.

With such a wide range of issues that international development focuses on, a wide array of jobs are available. Some of the job titles that a person interested in international development can pursue include advocacy, communications, consulting, fundraising, policy, and research. 

What can you expect if you decide to go into international development?

Embrace the unfamiliar

Because international development often means spending time in developing countries, you might just find yourself immersed in unfamiliar environments and cultures. If you're not adaptable in these situations, this might not be the career for you.

Grow a thick skin

No matter how hard you work and how great your ideas are, you’re going to encounter situations that are emotionally challenging and roadblocks that seem senseless...sometimes even infuriating. Resilience, dedication, and the ability to roll with the punches are essential to making a lasting impact.

Humility moves mountains

Because international development often requires immersion in other cultures, professionals need to be careful they don't swoop in thinking they know all the answers. The most successful solutions stem from genuine collaboration with local communities, so if you're often sure you know what's best for others, you might want to consider a different line of work.

Meet the players

Who's addressing international development issues, and how?


These guys may write the checks, but they also provide advice, assistance, research, and project direction.

  • Multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) provide policy advice, technical assistance, and financing to developing countries.
  • Bilateral and national government agencies like USAID provide humanitarian relief and development services consistent with their foreign policy agendas.
  • Foundations like GlobalGiving can also be major players, funding nonprofits or specific projects of their own. Read more in our Philanthropy overview.

Support services

These organizations support the implementation and management of solutions on the ground.

  • Nonprofit organizations like Partners in Health and CARE may specialize in subfields like HIV/AIDS or agriculture; run immense operations with programs in developing nations; or engage in advocacy in developed countries. Check out Nonprofit Management for more.
  • Development consulting firms like DAI and Louis Berger Group (and freelance consultants) provide specialized expertise and services to multilateral, bilateral and national agencies.
  • Think tanks and academics like the Center for Global Development research the underlying issues and/or policies affecting sectors or regions, offering policy advice and other expertise.
  • Corporations such as Bayer, Shell, and Unilever are actively working towards international and sustainable development goals to make a meaningful contribution to the communities they serve.


Representing a smaller but no less significant part of the field, these players are finding incredibly innovative solutions:

  • Social enterprises like Sanergy use a business framework or revenue model to support their activities, and usually address a specific issue, such as sanitation in slums or girls’ primary education. Check out our Social Entrepreneurship overview.
  • Microfinance and banking organizations like BRAC provide small loans and other financial services to low-income clients who usually lack access to traditional banking, thus building up local economies.
  • BoP (base of the pyramid) and emerging market investors invest in a wide range of industries, businesses, and social enterprises in development countries. They can have a development mission (e.g. Acumen Fund) or simply see opportunity for higher returns in exchange for higher risk in developing economies.

Take Action!

Options within the field

  1. Food security and agriculture are big for many organizations, with much debate around the relative merits of sustainable agriculture, traditional practices, and GMOs. Through food security endeavors, this sector ensures that individuals and families are able to obtain quality food and resources.
  2. Economic development attracts many donors and organizations, and includes job creation, microfinance, trade and investment. This sector looks at how industries and organizations can positively impact the economies of communities worldwide.
  3. Democracy and governance focuses on developing infrastructure, good governance, and civic participation from the local to national level. This works to promote democracy so that communities and ideas are represented.
  4. Health – including population, water, and sanitation issues – involves both medical and social solutions for healthier societies. This allows people to be better served so that individuals’ well being and quality of life are improved.
  5. Education, women’s empowerment, and other human rights are often seen as fundamental steps toward sustainable development. Individuals are able to receive resources that increase knowledge and opportunities.
  6. Sustainability is a growing and increasingly popular field that cuts across issue areas to include natural resource management, water, agriculture, and climate change mitigation.