International Development – A Profession for the Middle Class?


By John Kirkland

I need your advice on three questions. First, is international development becoming a middle class dominated profession? If so, does it matter? And if it does matter, what can be done to change the situation?

My evidence of social bias is largely anecdotal. It is based on my experience of dealing with government departments, NGOs and other development actors over the past two decades. Social class is difficult to pin down in official statistics, as many bodies find it difficult to measure, compared with other areas of disadvantage such as gender and ethnicity.

A review of web sites offering advice on development careers suggests reasons why such a bias might exist. Entry is competitive, and employers ‘will require anything between six months and two years’ experience’. Internships and volunteering are widely recommended, but as one site candidly states ‘most routes into international development require some form of self-funding’. Another advises that ‘while an internship can be financially challenging (many internship positions are unpaid) it could dramatically increase your chances of getting a paid position.’ Not only are placements unpaid, but some also require outlay; agents can charge substantial fees to arrange internships with NGOs.

Bias may not be conscious on the part of employers. Candidates from some backgrounds may have more international experience throughout their lives; they may genuinely be more interested. Charities and NGOs are under pressure to ensure that their funds are spent on beneficiaries; unpaid interns are an attractive option to reduce costs. Many development posts require specialisations – a reason why, as the Daily Mail reported gleefully last year, DFID has one of the highest staff bills per head in Whitehall.

It would be ironic for a profession focussed on equity and social justice to be itself subject to huge biases, but the problem runs deeper than that. Public opinion will be a key factor in determining the future of government support for international development. If Britain is to maintain, or even extend, its commitment to contribute 0.7% of GDP, then support will be needed across society. It is all too easy for some sectors and regions to feel excluded from internationalisation. The regional and class balance of the BREXIT referendum provides ample evidence that this can happen.

Some positive measures are already under way. Last year I was impressed to see an advert for volunteers for the overseas programmes of Raleigh International in the toilets of my home town football club – stressing that the requirement to raise funds could be reduced in certain cases. DFID is playing a leading role in cross cutting government efforts to promote equity. There is growing recognition in society of the negative effects that unpaid, friends and family internships can have on social mobility.

In recent weeks, I have been putting together a group to consider whether such measures be the start of a more coherent approach, which actively targets candidates from a wider range of backgrounds to take an interest in development issues. I’d welcome views on what such an approach might contain and where it should be targeted.

Equally – I’d welcome suggestions that my anecdotal evidence is wrong – that middle class bias in development is part of my imagination, isn’t really important or is already addressed elsewhere. Debate is welcome!

John Kirkland is currently working as Senior Research Advisor to the Wellcome Trust, and will shortly take up the position of Chief Operating Officer at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. He is writing this article in a personal capacity. Please email with comments.