How to start a career in international development

This blog post originally appeared as an answer to the Quora question “How do I start a career in international development?”, and has been slightly edited.

I am a young professional with seven years of experience in international development, and recently got a job at the headquarters of a regional development bank. This list generally leans toward graduates fresh from university, and to a lesser extent those coming from another industry. It is by no means exhaustive, but here’s what I have personally done and observed from my peers to land jobs and build a career in international development:

    1. Volunteer. School breaks are the best time because it allows you to work without interfering your studies. I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, tutored high school students in an island, organized and joined river cleanup and other community outreach programs, and joined a coastal resource management planning project. When I graduated from university, I already had two months of development ‘work experience’. Starting early also establishes your dedication to development work come job-hunting time. This will set you apart from other applicants for that first entry-level job.
    2. Get a government job. Government ministries directly work with many international development organizations. In my case, I worked for the economic ministry. Moving on to the latter seems to be the natural career progression for most of us. Many of my colleagues are now placed in project offices, country offices, and headquarters of development organizations. You will learn the internal workings of bureaucracy, which is valuable when you start working on the other side of the fence. And yes, priceless professional network.
    3. Intern during grad school. Some of my former classmates have gone on to work for the organizations for which they interned. Whether you have worked in development prior or just entering the sector, you have definitely acquired work ethic, knowledge, and skills by this time which are useful in any organization. They would be willing to take you in without the long-term commitment, and it’s free/cheap labor for them. This assumes that you will pursue graduate studies because it is a requirement for many organizations.
    4. Work on a side project. I like writing, and am crazy about digital media despite having an entirely different specialization: environmental planning. I maintain this blog that has been around since 2003, dabbled with Twitter and other social media networks, created (crappy) videos, and have interned for Deutsche Welle, a German media company. I am not the most prolific blogger around the block, or a social media ninja for that matter. In 2011, I was selected as a Junior Professional Associate at the World Bank and stationed at the Global Environment Facility in Washington, DC, out of a pool of hundreds of applicants. The job mainly entailed formulating and implementing online engagement and digital communication strategies. My work experience and environment background definitely helped. But my director said he also hired me for my experience with blogs, Linkedin, and Twitter.
    5. Set-up informational interviews. As a form of starting your own international development network, the goal here is to get yourself out there and make it known that your are interested in international development, not really to ask for a job per se. Ask around or scour the internet for email addresses of potential people to meet. Only very few will reply, but do your homework for those who do. Be genuinely interested and ask questions on what they do, what they look for in applicants, what they think of your skill set, and how you can improve your profile and chances of getting hired. Tell them your areas of interest or expertise, and finally, to keep you in mind if an opening comes up that fits your profile.
    6. Just submit an application. This is almost crap-shoot and probably not the most efficient and strategic approach, but it has worked for people, myself included.

Updates on the new World Bank Group Analyst Program

World BankA few readers of my blog have asked me (here and here) how the World Bank Junior Professional Associate (JPA) interview process worked. Unfortunately I have no one standard answer because there was not one standard process when it was still existed. Most applicants submitted their application to a database, while others like myself sent it directly to the hiring unit as the job advertisement instructed. There was also no official webpage where once can find current JPA openings.

If the job advertisement and hiring process of the JPA program was an opaque blackbox many dared to break but with only a few who have succeeded to do so, the WBG Analyst Program (AP) process is perhaps an attempt to overhaul and improve the professional programs aimed at younger people (because there is also the Young Professionals Program) who want to gain experience at the Washington-based development institution.

So, is the AP selection process any better, you might ask. I perused the AP website, and also got a tip on the recruitment process so far, which is fairly straightforward:

  1. January to March: Submission of applications
  2. End of March: Selection committee contacts candidates to submit additional information (what information). Here’s the added bit: the World Bank also administered a battery of standard tests consisting of a personality test, logical reasoning, and mathematical deduction. Now that is new. Others who were not selected will receive an email stating so. 
  3. April to May (planned)/on-going: Hiring unit stream conducts interviews
  4. June (planned): Job offer
  5. September (planned): Welcome to Washington, DC!
  6. For the next three years: Happy hours!

The World Bank is a couple of months behind schedule based on the timeline on their website. By now, they should have made job offers already. However, some departments are still setting up interviews, while others are still putting together their shortlists. Whether the first cohort will march down 1818 H St., NW in Washington DC come September is yet to be seen. For now, congratulations in advance to those who have gone as far as the second round of selection, and I wish you all the best.

Do you have other information or questions on the WBG Analyst Program? Let us know in the comments, or drop me a message.

Taking on a new job at the Asian Development Bank

I’ve taken on a new job at the Asian Development Bank, in fact for four months already, in case you’re wondering. I know I’ve been remiss in blogging but I’ve been quite active on Twitter and Instagram!

I am a consultant for the Social Development Thematic Group, which is an internal community of practice or network of ADB staff who work on social development, both as a sector and ensuring it is considered in the design of other development projects and programs. I mainly do communications, knowledge management, and research work, which is a great opportunity to learn a new sector. I basically get paid to organize and attend events and trainings on broad topics such as social pensions, elderly care services, and inclusive development. I also get to do quite a bit of writing through the newsletter.

If you’re interested in ADB opportunities, I encourage you to check out their jobs site. If you want to learn more about the organization, feel free to ask and hit the comments section.

Long live the JPA Program

Every now and then I still receive inquiries about the JPA program through this blog post. In case you missed it, the JPA Program has gone the way of the dodo, and has been replaced by the World Bank Group Analyst Program. How are the two different? The initial contract is now three years long and you don’t get locked-out of the World Bank system anymore after finishing your contract. Learn more about the WBGA Program here.

Life Reorg

My cousin and I are doing something startup-py. She actually described it as a “pre-startup”. What ever the right term is, I will be mostly blogging over at Life Reorg for now (not that I’ve been frequently blogging here lately). It’s a website for optimizing one’s life.

I’d love to get your feedback. See you there!

From writing to working on Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda

I’m more than three months into my job working as National Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at FAO Philippines. It feels weird that my last post was about typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, and now I’m working on the emergency response and recovery of farmers’ livelihoods affected by the disaster.

Project proposals, logframes and surveys have kept me busy most of the time. It’s the same difference in my previous jobs working in the agriculture, environment and climate change/disaster reduction at the national policy and international level. Now I’m at the frontline as I get involved in project formulation and implementation. I spent majority of the days in February traveling to Roxas and Tacloban, where many of our projects are located.

It was and continues to be intense. It helps a lot that I am part of an amazing team from those who work in our main office to those in our field offices. Dedicated and committed are an understatement of the work they’re doing. Whenever the topic of work comes up in candid conversations, I keep telling people that team dynamics is one of those things you don’t have control over when looking for a job. Job advertisements or even interviews won’t give you much information if you’re a good fit to the team. It’s hit or miss.

We’re rolling out more projects, hiring more people and there’s more work to be done. I’m not sure when my next post will be but I’m glad to sneak in some time to post on this blog. If you’re interested to learn more about different aspects of my job, just post on the comments section below.

Our neighbor lives to tell her supertyphoon Haiyan story

As a mother weathered supertyphoon Haiyan in Tacloban, her daughter chronicled her despair, and hope, on Facebook (texts in box below).


Malou, a mother of four, arrived in Tacloban on November 5. Her fourth and youngest child, Addy, is a 7th grader at the Philippine Science High School Eastern Visayas Provincial Campus, in Pawing, Palo, Leyte. He asked her mother to come to Palo to pick up his report card scheduled on November 8, the same day the typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) made landfall in central Philippines.

Before she left for Tacloban, Malou’s eldest child, Yssa, told her to take precaution as a supertyphoon was coming. But Malou is no stranger to typhoons. For her, it was a way of life in her hometown of Borongan City, the provincial capital of Eastern Samar. The city is first to take hit from storms entering via the mid-east part of the Philippines which faces the Pacific Ocean. “It was just a supertyphoon. I did not know there would also be those storm surges, water surges. I didn’t know those would occur. I wasn’t really worried as I am used to typhoons,” Malou said.

When her son Addy started high school last June, she decided to move to Tacloban and stay close to him and provide for his needs. Lately, however, she had been shuttling back and forth to their house in Las Pinas (a city in southern Metro Manila), and regularly visiting her husband, Uly, in Brunei as he recovers from cancer. She rented a room near the school of his son who was staying in the dormitory. On November 6, the day after she arrived, the president of the parent teacher association, sent a text message to parents and guardians of students, telling them that afternoon classes had been suspended so they can prepare for the impending storm. The day was still normal with no sign of rain or wind. On their way home, they bought just enough groceries to tide them away when they plan to stay indoors the next day. “Not a lot”, Malou said. “I did not expect the storm would last, and something like that would happen, what do you call that… a catastrophe.” They went back to the room, where her two nieces were also visiting that time. The room is on the upper level of a two-story boarding house about two kilometers from the school. It was also a hundred meters away from the coastline.

Members of her family- her husband Uly in Brunei, and three children left in Las Pinas- held a video call on November 7. It was the day before the storm, and Uly told her that they should have a lot of food ready in case power goes out. She cooked a potful of rice, and adobo from a whole chicken. She also boiled some eggs in case they finish the chicken adobo. The first drops of intermittent rain arrived that same night. “True enough, the electricity was already out in the morning, when the wind started to pick up”, she said.

Good morning text kanina ng nanay ko na nasa Tacloban. (Good morning text of my mother who is in Tacloban. Stay safe guys. Anh (sic) lakas na ng ulan at hangin dito sa Las Piñas. (The rain and wind are too strong here in Las Piñas)


In the eye of the storm

The boarding house is barely a year old. Unlike many of the houses made from light materials, and later on trampled by the storm surge, theirs had perimeter walls and foundations made of concrete. Metal trusses supported the roof, while double-walled plywood panels partitioned the upper floor into four separate rooms. Malou, a civil engineering graduate, thought they would be safe in the house. “I trusted that even if a storm came, it won’t get destroyed,” she said.  The wind pounded the house as it did the rest of Tacloban and central Visayas. It was the ultimate test to the design of the house, and to Malou’s will to live. The latter succeeded, but the former failed. The roof lost to the beating of the wind as it came off. The ceiling, now their only shield from the storm, soon gave way to the wind’s relentless force. “That was what I was really afraid of… when our roof is gone, for sure (debris) will hit our heads”, she added. With no roof over their heads and now exposed to the elements, the rain drenched them and their belongings. Meanwhile, water started to accumulate on the floor. Addy, however, insisted to step out of the house. Malou hurriedly followed and called out on him to come back. When he did, he was already wounded, whereas she and her nieces came out unscathed. “Had they been on their own, they would be dead,” she said. “There was no one older to instruct them”.

Oh my God. These kids. I don’t give a flying fuck if you’re praying or proud to be a Filipino. Just don’t use #RescuePH as your hashtag. There are real people who actually use that hashtag to look for someone.

The whipping of the wind went on for hours, and it posed another danger. Its brute force was pushing one of the plywood partitions to lean toward them. “I was estimating its height and the length (of the room), if the whole plywood would crush us,” Malou said. She saw it was high enough to for the concrete wall to break its fall. The heavy partition leaned slowly, until it hit the concrete wall. For now they were safe.

The gusts of wind, however, continued to gallop the fallen plywood, which weakened its attachment to the beams as it starts to flail. “We will lose our shed!” Malou said. From hunkering down, she stepped on the lower bunk bed to hoist it and keep it from wavering. “I thought we would die if the wall fell on us. It was really heavy. I thought that would be our end,” she recalled. The ominous wall which has now become their proverbial shelter from the storm, was also about to go.

“My hands were already hurting”, she said. Malou became more animated as she told her story. “I was really fighting the wind”, she said as she raised her hand as if to stop and prevent something from falling. She held the wall in place for almost four hours. “I told my niece: Yvonne, it’s your turn. I’m already shaking, give me some water”, she added. Her niece took her turn but soon cried out, “Auntie, it’s too strong!”, referring to the wind.

Hi friends, I need a favor. I can’t watch every news channel in the country so please please please, if you hear or read the names Marilou (Malou) Alemania, Alessandro (Addy) Alemania, Jelyn Cervantes, and Yvonne Buna, please please call me or message me via facebook. Thank you!

Malou already worried about the strong winds and rain, yet saw another cause for concern as she got a view through the window. Water was starting to rise, reaching the ceiling of the first level of the houses and huts. She saw people next-door, all men, held on to the trusses of a nearby house, and for their dear lives. She wondered where the people who lived downstairs have gone. She did not notice anyone go up, and assumed they were dead from the strong current. Out on the street, the rushing water brought garbage and two cars. She did not know anyone nearby who owns those cars. As the flood rushed, she asked herself, “Why is there flood, when the sea doesn’t bring floods?” After about half an hour, the water started to subside. The men who clung onto the trusses swam the flood water and climbed up their window to seek refuge. There were other residents in the boarding house. A couple lived next door downstairs. The roofs and ceilings of the restrooms are gone, except theirs. Inside, she found another couple with an infant only a few months old who took refuge with them upstairs inside one of the restrooms with an umbrella in hand.  “It seems the Lord gave the baby a roof to take cover”. She said. They stayed there until night fall.

Her other niece, Janine, cooped up in the cabinet under the laundry sink made of concrete. She heard a screeching sound, not realizing another wooden partition fell on the other direction, its base now wedged against the base of their protective wall. They were practically trapped, save for the sliding glass window in their room, which fortunately didn’t break. “That became our house, that’s where we stayed for five days, six days. We couldn’t really do anything, there’s no text (messaging), no communication. What can we do, but wait?”

She thought about the worst-case scenarios. Water could reach the second level, or worse, way above their heads. “Do we have to go up the trusses? We were still far from the sea, that would have been impossible”, she thought to herself. As they sought refuge under the collapsed partition, and in the midst of the roaring wind and pouring rain she knew they were at least safe inside. They subsisted on the adobo, rice and eggs she cooked, which soon ran out. Their neighbors who lived next room work at the nearby Oriental Hotel gave them four cans each of sardines, corned beef, juice and water bottles.

Ted Failon’s report just broke my heart. I sincerely hope that my family members and relatives are okay.

The day after

The next day, Saturday, the sun was up. Malou asked Janine to join her as she stepped out of the house to survey the damage in the area. She worried about her best friend, Janeth who lived in a bungalow just a few blocks away, much closer to the beach. She knew Janeth and her youngest child have evacuated to another friend’s house in Barangay San Jose near the airport, but what about the husband and the nephew left behind in their house.

The main door of the house was gone. She went at the back and found the van’s windshield broken, its body, crushed. The motorcycle was still upright but covered in trash. She asked Janine to look for her friend’s husband inside the house. “Tito Zaldy, Tito Zaldy!”, Janine called out. There was no response. Malou started to entertain bad thoughts, “What could have happened to them?” She later learned from two women who lived across their street evacuated to a covered court whose roof was also ripped off by the storm. That the husband and nephew left behind clung on to the trusses. On their way out from the house, her best friend’s husband’s hand got trapped, cutting the pinky finger off, as they swam to safety on an elevated concrete water tank.

It all seemed like a war zone. The damage went far and wide. I thought to myself, “Hala! What happened to this, I can’t believe this.” Malou said. The eye of the storm was blind to social status. “There was no rich or poor”, she added, referring to the people debilitated by the storm. The beautiful houses were not spared. “There were even some made of concrete, but even the concrete crumbled. Was the quality of the construction sub-standard? But the combined force of the water and wind were to blame as well.

They walked a little farther, only to see trash blocking the roads. “At that time I cannot smell anything foul yet, but I already saw eight dead bodies,” she said. Amid the apocalyptic destruction, she still found time to do some household chores. “We just dried our clothes on a clothesline because they didn’t have mud, unlike downstairs where they did nothing but to leave their belongings”, Malou said.

At one point as she was drying their wet clothes, she looked through the window and saw a procession of people carrying dead bodies, each wrapped in a white sheet tied to poles, carried by two people each. In her barangay, there were at least 20 fatalities.

On Monday night, three days after the storm, she was able to connect to the outside world albeit indirectly. Kathy, a sister-in-law of Malou’s nephew, Dudu, was lucky enough to get on a C-130 plane to Manila. Dudu asked Kathy to look up Malou’s eldest child on Facebook, and send her a message. It was the first smoke signal to her daughters. Their mother, brother and cousins are alive.

My mother, brother, and cousins are safe!! Thank you, Lord! And thank you all for your prayers and concern.By this time, Malou’s husband, Uly, has flown back to the Philippines. He told his daughters who already bought tickets to Tacloban that he will join them. “I’ll join you to look for her, even just to find her dead body,” Malou said as she recounted her husband’s words.

Baras to Apitong: The long road to safety

Six days after the typhoon, and after drying their clothes and other belongings, Malou packed their bags and suitcase to transfer to the house of her best friend’s relatives, (Tan-Carvajal family) who were not severely affected by the flood. Getting there, though, was a bit more complicated. Buses and jeepneys were already plying the roads, but people who wanted to escape their ravaged town filled them to hilt. Everyone was only after one’s safety. Private cars won’t stop to give a ride. “People here are so selfish”, Malou said to herself. So with their luggage in tow and under the heat of the sun, Malou, with her son, nieces and her best friends sons, plodded by foot from coastal Baras to upland Apitong, a four-hour, eight-kilometer journey.

“There was nowhere to take cover and rest, everything was down”, she said as she showed her sunburned forearms. Skin damage was the least of her worries, however, as a more serious type of damage was seen on the way to Apitong. Addy’s school was destroyed, its roof already missing. Only the skeletal structure remained of the new gymnasium. At one gasoline station, people young and old were freely taking gasoline. They would dip pieces of foam into the hole of the gasoline storage underground, and squeezed out the gasoline into soda bottles, for personal consumption or commerce at PhP300 per liter. Soldiers secured the area and asked people to line up to give a general sense of order. As they made their way to Apitong, they no longer saw visual signs of death, no bodies laying on the ground, yet the stench of death and decay lingered in the air.

Watching Jeff Canoy’s report breaks my heart all over again. McArthur Park is just one kilometer away from where my mother is staying. Yes, Palo is just beside Tacloban but they haven’t received any goods yet. Something has to be done now. Na-survive mo nga ang bagyo, pero gutom ka naman.

They spent two days at her best friend’s relatives’ house in Apitong. Survival instincts took over sense of propriety “I knew them but we were not close”, Malou said. They were also from Eastern Samar where Malou hails from. “We just had to be shameless”, she added. They consumed their food supply, slept in their extra room, and used their cellphone. Her best friend’s daughter sent a text message to Yssa to tell her that there is a cellphone signal where they were. Their host has been recharging the cellphone using the car battery. On Thursdays night, almost after the storm struck, Malou heard her daughters’ voice.

Finally heard my mother’s voice!!! Thank God!!!!

Coming home

Malou met Jury (in law of Tan’s family), an acquaintance back from Divine Word University in Tacloban (Malou’s alma mater) who now works as supervisor at Philippine Airlines, Tacloban base. They hitched a ride in his car to the airport. On November 16, a week and a day after Haiyan hit Tacloban, with tickets bought by Yssa online, Malou and Addy flew back home to safety. Upon arrival at the airport, despite having heard each other voices on the phone, her daughters shed tears of joy as they saw with their own eyes their mother and brother in the flesh, safe, and alive.