Chris Blattman

Getting a job in development (UN edition)

Probably the number one question I get in office hours and e-mails: “how can I get a job working in development?” Unfortunately I have news for you. It’s quite simple. I call it the Fundamental Theorum of Bad Undergraduate Advice: your Professor has never had a real job.

Fear not, because there’s a Second Fundamental Theorum too: sometimes your Professors have friends with real jobs (or at least watch real jobs on TV).

Since there are no TV programs about international development (Aaron Spelling: if you’re reading this, call me–I have ideas) I’ve begun to annoy colleagues around the globe with requests for their stories and advice. This marks the inaugural post.

Advice from a UNHCR staffer in Africa (head of a sub-national office):

Getting a job with the UN is possible, though it seems a bit tough. Yes, some get in with connections, but I am an example of someone who got a job knowing no one. It required, I believe, a combination of a relevant CV, persistence, and luck/good timing.

Relevant CV

You need some experience in the developing world for at least 6 months, ideally a year-plus. It should be in a region where you want to work, or a “hardship” place. This gives the hiring party reassurance that “you can take it” and won’t quit. Recruiting for jobs abroad, especially for non-private sector jobs, is done without spending much money. It is tough for the hiring party, and requires taking risks often without getting to meet people. (My example of experience pre-hiring, 2 and 1/2 years Peace Corps in a small village in Africa plus summer job in Guatemalan town).

Second languages are essential for most UN jobs unless you are a PhD in something specific for a very specific job (I have English, French, Spanish). Make sure it is one of the UN languages. I took language courses during grad school rather than sit on law review.

Have a graduate degree (they won’t look at anyone from developed countries without one, I have a JD). If you can, try to make sure it has some “international bent.” If you can spend a semester working abroad and getting credits (or a summer) then go for it.


Apply, apply, and apply again. I applied to hundreds of jobs on all the websites. I was always looking at the different sites all the time. Apply to rosters (like IRC, DRC, NRC, and so on). Visit with your career counselor and ask what they can do to help, and do it. If you aggressively pursue and have a good CV, eventually you will have…

Luck/Good Timing

In the end, the competition for these jobs is fierce. So if you have a great CV and perfect background, the likelihood is someone else does as well. So you need good timing and luck. Your CV will land on someone’s desk the right day when they are ready to take action and hire someone like you.

Finally, Although I was lucky and didn’t have to do it, networking really does work. Apply to any and all UN internships and aggressively follow-up on your applications. Call people, ask for “HR persons” or whoever hires interns.

After my 1st year of law school I took this route (I was sending CVs and cold-calling looking for follow-up) and landed three offers of internships with different sections of UNDP. In the end, I took none as I couldn’t afford spending a summer in New York paying to work. But if you can – then go for it, link with a “mentor” (i.e. someone intelligent who takes interest in you and you are interested in), and nurture that relationship.

In the end, if you are good, then it will be in the benefit of the organisation to try to get you on board.

31 Responses

  1. Un un, could you please point something specificly that as you mention equally rewarding option comparing to UN career?

    Your reply would be greatly helpful.

    Thanking you
    moekahn11 @

  2. Nice Post…and informative!
    Hope we could get that right timing and luck with our qualified CV.

  3. Hello my name is Francis Morris doe I am a student at C D I college. I am a law student.I want to know how to get a job with UNHCR?

  4. AC, I probably should clarify here that my posting was not a reply to your question. it was just a general observation. and again that I am not in the U.N. system. I am a geologist who happened to have seen a few things working and living in developing countries, and also having a wife that is pursuing this career track. I would be the wrong person to answer your question, nor am i trying to dissuade anyone from perusing what he deems as a life calling or passion. I am merely speaking from a 3rd person perspective, and seeing someone close to me going through defeats after defeats and heartaches, i just would like to point out that there are other options that could be equally rewarding. I am sorry to hear that you are detached at 29. The only thing i can say is that if this something that you would really regret years down the road for not trying hard enough and seek out all possible channel to get there, then you’ve got to throw in everything you’ve got. Sorry can’t be of more help.

  5. @UN UN. Following from your previous comment I have been exploring options and building diversity through working for government, non-government orgs, non-profit at domestic level and worked with UN implementing partners and worked in ‘field’ locations, although not fixated on explicitly working for the UN I’m more interested in the exposure to larger scale more politicised humanitarian responses / multilateral/ bilateral cluster response and do believe the experience would be fantastic albeit salary sacrifice and resigning a permanent secure well paying position to do so. Yes I am detatched, aged 29, nearly completed post grad and versatile experience – my question still remains are UNV assignments worth it?

  6. I get the impression that a large portion of people going for U.N. jobs exclusively are in it for the brand name, and what they believe the U.N. stands for. I am not an employee but have worked in many 3rd and developing countries as a geologist to see the less flattering and inefficiency of the UN. I have seen programs in Haiti that after 6 months of building intricate irrigation systems and the locals had no idea what to do with them, U.N. bought earthwork machines like excavators sitting on side of the mud road rotted, officers lounging at hotel pools sipping umbrella drinks during the day, U.N landcruisers zipping around town without regards for people and parked wherever they wanted, the spread of cholera causing 9000 deaths by Nepalese U.N. was never held responsible, etc. If you talk with Haitian, they will invariably tell you they do not want the U.N. presence, yet it’s also a complicated love and hate relationship since the U.N. does bring in aid and job opportunities. My wife, with 2 graduate degrees and international law, and intern experience working for the ICC in Hague still could not land a permanent position, but only as a contractor for nearly 3 years now. My point is, the rate of return in terms of growth, success and financial reward for pursuing a U.N. career is so low comparing to other sectors ; and in terms of ideological rewards and personal satisfaction that you might derive from “helping” communities, saving the world or whatever, U.N. is not as perfect as you might think. After all, it is still an organization that needs funding, when money involved in anything, decisions are never unbiased, just like any private company. I assume most people here trying to land a job with U.N. are highly educated, speaking at least 2 or 3 languages, and international experiences; so there are literally a world of opportunities out there for you that you might not have any idea. I would say if you are in your 20’s, with no family ties, willing to work for free or meager salary for a few years, and in for the experience, go for it. But if you are already in your mid 30’s, I’d say look for other things, you are too late. You could spend another 5 years, at 40, you may still be a contractor. Is that worth your while? I cannot get my wife to see her other potentials, as she is completely fixated on a U.N. career, and already in her late 30’s, I think it’s terrible waste of time. However I hope someone who reads this will think about many other possibilities out there and not get fixated on a single organization.

  7. Do you think it valuable to undertake a UNV posting towards trying to move towards paid employment within the UN itself? I’ve heard mixed reviews about how UNV’s are treated and the actual benefit of say doing a 9 month posting without payment and sacrificing an income to gain necessary in field experience, and there still being no guarantee that it will get you any closer. I’ve just been offered a UNV posting to the Middle East (hardship duty station) in my area of interest in humanitarian affairs, but will have to give up a permanent paid government position to take it, without a definitive path to follow after the posting, it’s a little scary, even though I’ve been to that area several times now and done volunteer work there in similar areas. I suppose all I’m asking is does doing a UNV posting look favorable on the CV when trying to reach the endlessly increasing benchmarks?

  8. Well, I should say (after several years of working for the UN) that the rule is actually…nepotism. It is very rare to get a job without connections, and be prepared that. I got in after years of working for an NGO and a foreign ministry but the majority are simply someone’s friend/cousin/niece, etc. Does not matter if you have a PhD from a great university or if you speak English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Kiswahili or Arabic… Unfortunately. It is a system that is completely rotten and one needs to realise that.

  9. Hi. I have a degree in International Relations and some experience in Civil Service. I really love to work for the UN here in Nairobi, Kenya. I have sent more than 50 applications most to UNEP but no response. Please help.


  11. My age is 58,I have retired form the Gujarat Government Job. Howver, I have the potential of working. CAn I apply for a undp job now? Pl guide.

  12. am a cameroonian sir, i have a diplome in banking and finance.sir,i want to work with the UN but dont know how to apply.

  13. Four years later and this post is still helpful. It really is discouraging applying for positions knowing the UN does not send out rejection notifications and the hiring process can be unusually long. I guess the key really is luck/timing and perseverance.

  14. hlw sir. I am 4m nepal studying in class 12. Want to work under un.what type of carrer should i choose

  15. Sir,I’m from Bangladesh.Undergrad in Health Economics.I want to work in UN organization economic and development field,mostly towards policy making side.Of course,after completing my graduate as well as Ph.D.Can you please help me rater guide me to my dream job?What can I do?

  16. Thanks for those tips. I have been trying to find a Job in the UN and I agree that persistence is the key. I use different ways to identify UN vacancies that could be of a match. The best one that i found was using the, I can easily search and create alerts on the job that I am interested in.

  17. Dear sir, Am kindly writing to request for a job working with the UN because it has been my dream since I worked as a volunteer with (WERK) Women Education Researchers of Kenya under Dream Archivers Youth Organization. Please consider my regards.

  18. Dear Sir
    My qualification is Graduation in Science (B.Sc). I am belonging to Pakistan. I want UN job in Africa, Europe any region of the world. My age is 42. Is it possible?
    Please guide me.
    Waseem Akhtar

  19. While there are many sites to start your I would recommend using UN Job Monster service (
    It has a lot of nice features that does not exist in other websites! Moreover, you can subscribe to their RSS feeds, twitter account and facebook page.

  20. i need very badly a job in UN i've applied many times but didn't get any response from there..i'am from malaysia..i really love to work with UN,i'am a very tough person..fizikaly & mentally prepared

    if u can help me pls ctc me at 016-6357977

    Karthiban Ganeisan

  21. I think there’s a catch-22 when it comes to those seeking development jobs.

    For example – I would say those setting a goal to work in the UN are more likely to be full of enthusiasm and passion about making a difference to the world. The irony – the UN is more bureaucratic and slow moving than most people think – the very things that frustrate people with the drive to change things. The very people who start out passionate end up weary and jaded – any initial fire in the belly is wasted!

    I guess the warning is – don’t enter the development sector wearing rose coloured glasses. You will only be disappointed!

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog