What is International Development?

Striving for a greater quality of life for humans is the foundation of international development. Although the concept is not always clearly defined, its goal certainly is: to reduce poverty, boost prosperity, and ensure sustainable development in the developing world.

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International development is dedicated to improving the world’s most economically disadvantaged regions, with the ultimate goal of addressing causes of poverty and empowering citizens with the tools and knowledge they need to improve the well-being of their own communities.

International development projects may focus on a single, transformative project or a series of projects, all of which promote key aspects of a healthy society:

  • Foreign aid
  • Governance
  • Environment
  • Health care
  • Human rights
  • Economics
  • Security
  • Conflict
  • Human rights
  • Education
  • Gender equality
  • Disaster preparedness
  • Infrastructure

International development seeks to implement long-term solutions to issues in developing countries by arming them with the tools needed to achieve and maintain sustainable solutions. In other words, organizations involved in international development focus their efforts on long-term and sustainable solutions designed to promote economic development, education, global health, and infrastructure development.

Jobs in International Development

International development remains a catalyst for change, whether through debt relief, budget support, impact investing, or technical assistance. A great number of organizations within the global community focus their efforts on this cause:

  • Multilateral and bilateral donors
  • Intergovernmental agencies (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, etc.)
  • Foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Elton John AIDS Foundation, etc.)
  • Academic institutions/research organizations (Brookings Institution, Center for Global Development, etc.)
  • Governmental agencies (U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of State, U.S. African Development Foundation, etc.)
  • Nonprofit organizations (Save the Children, Oxfam International, etc.)
  • Private companies
  • Consultants
  • Advocates
  • Entrepreneurs

Jobs in international relations are diverse, given that this field encompasses a broad range of concepts, such as:

  • Competitive strategy
  • Privatization
  • Corporate responsibility
  • Social and economic policy development
  • Human rights
  • Democracy building
  • Legal reform
  • Investment policy
  • Business-government relations
  • Sustainability
  • Negotiations
  • Ethics

Areas of specialization in this field provide the clearest picture of available job opportunities. International development career categories include:

Peace Building – Peace building work is done in war-torn areas of the world that are either working toward peace or have recently achieved peace. As such, work in peace building is viewed as potentially dangerous and often highly restricted.

Development Aid – Development aid is long-term aid (usually measured in terms of years) that may fall under one or more categories (education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.)

Relief Work – Known as aid work or humanitarian assistance, relief work is usually high-paced and short-term, as it is done in response to a sudden emergency. It is often a precursor to long-term international development programs and initiatives.

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Jobs in international development are listed on an international aid job board, revealing the wide scope of professionals within the field:

  • Monitoring, Evaluation, Learning, and Sharing Thematic Director – Ethiopia
  • Crop Productivity Enhancement, Thematic Director – Ethiopia
  • Finance and Administration Coordinator – South Sudan
  • Project Coordinator – South Sudan
  • Field Project Coordinator – Congo
  • Senior Associate, Growth Strategy and Development – Hong Kong
  • Director, Recruitment, Selection and Marketing – Europe
  • Head of Operations – Sierra Leone
  • Global Coordinator – South Africa
  • Human Rights and Gender Coordinator – Afghanistan
  • Organizational Capacity Development Consultant – Malawi
  • Business Development Coordinator – Nigeria

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the lead U.S. government agency that works to end extreme global poverty, is a major source of international development jobs through its many agencies and bureaus:

  • International Cooperation Specialist, Bureau for the Middle East
  • Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Foreign Service
  • Project Management Specialist, Bureau for Asia
  • Acquisition and Assistance Specialist, Bureau for Africa
  • Health Science Specialist, Bureau for Global Health
  • Senior Procurement Analyst, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance
  • Senior HIV/AIDS Advisor, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean


Tracking the Progress of International Development Efforts

All international development efforts begin by identifying and analyzing concrete data associated with the country or region, such as:

  • Gross domestic product
  • Average per-capita income
  • Literacy rates
  • Maternal survival rates
  • Life expectancy
  • Human rights
  • Political freedoms

While in progress, international development efforts are closely monitored to determine how effectively they improve the lives of citizens in under developed parts of the world in terms of the points named above. This is the ultimate metric for gauging the success of international development efforts. Looking at the rate at which improvements occur and the overall efficacy of the efforts put forth are crucial to determining what modifications may be needed to achieve the best results.

According to the Center for Global Development, there has been more progress in reducing poverty and improving health and education in developing countries in the last 50 years than at any other time in history.

For example:

  • Diseases like smallpox and river blindness have been virtually eradicated
  • The number of people living in extreme poverty (identified as being less than $1.25 per day) has fallen from 1.8 billion in 1990 to 1.4 billion in 2005
  • The number of new HIV infections has fallen 21 percent since its peak in 1997


Degrees in International Development

Degree programs in international development exist at both the bachelor and master’s levels. Degrees in international relations provide students with the opportunity to embrace the theory and practice of improving the quality of life of people in developing countries and regions of the world.

Bachelor’s Degrees in International Development

At the bachelor’s level, international development programs are designed as a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) in International Development, although availability of these programs is quite limited.

An undergraduate degree in international development provides students with a cross-disciplinary understanding of economics, sociology, law, political science, anthropology, and language. Major coursework includes study in:

  • International development
  • Sustainable development
  • Information technology

The coursework of a bachelor’s degree in international development is often supplemented with study abroad opportunities, and many culminate in an internship/volunteer experience with an international development organization.

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Master’s Degrees in International Development

Master’s degrees in international development allow students to become the next generation of international development leaders, exposing them to the latest research, best practices in the field, and experiential learning opportunities.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, admission into a master’s degree in international development often requires:

  • GRE scores
  • Resume
  • Statement of purpose/essay
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Minimum undergraduate GPA

These advanced degrees, which may be structured as either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in International Development, allow students to explore the socio-economic, political, and environmental realms of international development, with a focus on the world’s developing nations.

The scope of study in a master’s degree in international development is broad, with courses preparing students in such areas as:

  • Policy analysis
  • Program design
  • Gender analysis
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • International education
  • Technology and development
  • Social assessment
  • Cost-benefit analysis
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Rapid appraisal techniques
  • Conflict resolution

In addition to a core set of classes, these graduate programs allow students to concentrate their degree on a specialized professional area, such as:

  • Small enterprise development
  • Globalization
  • Political economy
  • Development economics
  • Community development
  • Development policy

Finally, internships and practicum experiences are commonplace among master’s degree programs in international development, with students often required to study abroad and apply their theoretical study in real-world experiences. Many programs require the completion of a capstone experience, a research–based project with related fieldwork in their focus area.

International Development Resources

Center for Global Development

The Center for Global Development conducts research and analysis on a wide range of topics related to how policies and actions of the rich and powerful affect poor people in the developing world. Samples of their research include:

  • Globalization
  • Health
  • Migration
  • Aid effectiveness
  • Climate change


U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the lead U.S. government agency that works to enable emerging societies to succeed. This agency works in over 100 countries, protecting human rights, improving global health, strengthening democracy, and furthering education, among many others.

The World Bank, International Development Association

The International Development Association helps the world’s poorest countries by providing loans and grants for programs that bolster economic growth, improve people’s living conditions, and reduce inequalities. IDA is one of the largest sources of assistance for the world’s 77 poorest countries, 39 of which are in Africa.

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