Basic Skills & Where to get them

You know you want to pursue a career in international development, but you are currently in school or working a job in another field.
How can you develop skills to prepare yourself for international development work?
An internship in international development can help you gain many basic skills; so can a non-development job.
Here’s a starter list of skills just about everyone in development needs:

  1. Writing technical documents, reports, success stories, grants and proposals
  2. Reading a budget, and designing a simple one
  3. Research a new topic and get up to speed quickly


1. Writing Skills

More than anything else, what gets people jobs are writing skills.
It’s important at entry level, because most entry jobs involve report writing, taking notes, or developing success stories for donors.
Everyone wants a junior staff member who can write the reports nobody else wants to deal with.
Being useful keeps you employed, and often, it gets you promoted. As you move up, the writing doesn’t stop. You don’t take meeting notes for your boss any more, but you still write and edit internal memos, trip reports, letters to donors, grant applications, and tricky emails.
In large organizations, sometimes your words are all people know about you.
If you’re a good writer, you come across as much more professional.
Building your writing skills isn’t easy, but it is simple: write a lot. It doesn’t matter if you’re blogging about anime, writing your memoir, or analyzing technical topics. Just keep spitting out the words. If there are opportunities to write at your current job, take them. Be ready with writing samples if a potential employer asks for them.
You need two or three 2-5 page documents that are completely error-free and show your ability to write formally but clearly. If you don’t have any samples, write them now so you have them on hand when you need them.

2. Budget Skills

For a generalist, you don’t have to be an accountant, you just need to be able to understand a budget.
Read one, design one, understand things like burn rate and pipeline. If you have access to your organization’s budget, take a look and try to understand what all the different lines mean. If you don’t have access, there are many sample budgets online you can learn from.

3. Research Skills

Nobody can be an expert on everything, but to succeed in any job, you need to be able to get up to speed quickly. You can develop research skills in any job or internship. Try to learn as much background about the organization you work for and its field. You can also read what interests you in international development. Becoming knowledgeable in your field will help you sound competent in job interviews, and narrow in on what you want. Interacting with others by commenting on blogs and participating on twitter is even better.
The list of blogs and books at the end of this post will help give you a head start.


  1. Chris Blattman
  2. Owen Barder
  3. Duncan Green
  4. Karen Grepin
  5. Tom Murphy
  6. Dave Algoso
  7. Global Dashboard
  8. Humanosphere



  1. Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen
  2. The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Prahalad
  3. Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo (note from Alanna: I find this poorly reasoned, but it’s a book everyone is talking about)
  4. All books by Muhammad Yunus
  5. The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (note from Alanna: some people have trouble with the emotional tone of the writing in this)
  6. Development Economics by Debraj Ray
  7. Aid, Policies, and Growth by Burnside and Dollar
  8. All books by Paul Farmer, particularly for health stuff, but I think his work is relative to many fields.
  9. For global health, Alanna wrote a TEDbook primer that will get you up to speed. You can get it on Amazon, itunes, or for the Nook: What’s Killing Us: A Practical Guide to Understanding Our Biggest Global Health Problems

Continue reading Part Two.