Development Jobs in Latin America: A Focus on Locals, Specialists
By Andrew Wainer
June 23, 2009

Job seekers hoping to launch a career in Latin America can face a daunting scenario. With developed nations' aid priorities focused on the Middle East and Africa, and an increasing reliance on hiring locals, the competition for entry-level field jobs in the region is intense.

But avenues to employment exist, old and new. Spanish language skills, overseas volunteer experience, and graduate degrees in international relations or political science can still open doors for the connected, persistent and talented. But those with more specialized skills, particularly in business and economics, may be in the best position to join a Latin American development environment that is becoming increasingly businesslike.

'Follow the money'

Professional backgrounds in banking, microfinance or economics are highly desired by both U.S. and European Latin American development organizations, according to hiring and program managers.

"We are definitely looking for a bit of a background in business," said Carolien van Bremen, regional human resources manager in Latin America for SNV, the Dutch social enterprise headquartered in The Hague. The tilt toward business and economics means that applicants' corporate experience in finance, information technology, or statistics are now more useful than ever in the development world. Health and education projects in the region still abound, but so do projects - and jobs - for tax policy reform, export competitiveness, and workforce planning. For these positions, a degree in business or law can make a job candidate more competitive than volunteer experience or a degree in political science or international relations.

Douglas McLean, practice manager for business and financial services with the Washington-based development firm DAI, emphasized technical skills for entry-level candidates, and said these can trump overseas experience for his firm.

"We've tended to stay focused on finding people that might have technical backgrounds in finance or at the financial policy level," he said. "If people have really strong technical skills, we can give them the cultural sensitivity and the approach and give them the support to make sure they are successful."

For microfinance nonprofit Acción, specializations in finance and economic skills are all but required.

"Most positions require experience in microfinance," Acción Vice President Ivette Manrique said. "Statistics, looking at management information systems, people with those kinds of backgrounds are important."

Similarly, relevant academic backgrounds include economics, business, banking, and even insurance, Manrique said.

"Very specialized skills," she emphasized.

In terms of starting your career, specialized skills can mean the difference between a job offer and a non-response. Marcela Youle, an operations manager with the Washington-based firm Chemonics International, has experienced both. Youle, who joined the firm in 2005 and helps manage Chemonics programs in Peru, said it was her specialized background and more technical master's degree that helped clinch her current job after several rejections.

Although she grew up in Peru, was fluent in Spanish, and had done short-term volunteer work in Africa, Youle found it difficult to break into the development field after getting her undergraduate degree in 2000. After several years, she went back to school at Georgetown University, receiving a master's degree in communications and international business. The more specialized communication graduate degree was enough for development groups to give her a second look and eventually a job offer.

"That was my way to get my foot in the door," Youle said.

For generalists, continuing opportunity

Although Latin American development managers noted a distinct trend toward a more business consulting-like approach to development in the region and a growing focus on economic, business and finance projects, classic Latin American development opportunities persist. Most development experts described a dual career track for development work. Although there is an increasing need for business and technical skills, there is still a need for generalists to work on everything from health or education to violence prevention projects, they noted.

John Nittler, Chemonics vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that there is a well-trodden generalist path to employment.

"People with a variety of skill do extremely well here," Nittler said, adding that new hires are expected to play a variety of roles in their training toward being project managers.

Because Chemonics has a more formalized program for entry-level employees, they can hire generalist candidates and train them in the needed specialties along the way.

"They usually join us in the home office for three to five years, then go out on long-term assignments as operations managers or deputy chief of parties, or sometimes in technical roles," Nittler said.

Although Acción's overseas assignments typically require microfinance experience and technical skills, generalist entry-level applicants with only a bachelor's degree can begin in support positions in the United States. Generalist entry-level positions could include event and training coordinators, junior-level project managers, and administrative positions, Manrique said.

"These could include people straight out of college," she noted.

At DAI, the scenario for entry-level generalists is similar.

"We will hire people with [bachelor's degrees] for project administration levels," McLean said. This could include jobs in human resources, accounting, contracting and administrative coordination of projects. "These people could then stay and develop," he added.

World Vision's work focuses on more traditional development project staples such as health and education, and is more amenable to entry-level candidates with classic international development credentials, said John Hasse, senior director of program integration and coordination for World Vision's Latin America operations. Hasse argued that some of the most important tools a candidate needs are language skills, experience in the region, and a passion for Latin America. He added that entry-level candidates typically have a bachelor's or master's degree and often have backgrounds in political science, Latin America studies or international relations.

Getting a foot in the door

In today's labor market, even specialists will face fierce competition for Latin America development jobs.

"For an entry level position, I might get over 100 applicants," Hasse said. "They need to think about what sets them apart from that other person who just came back from the Peace Corps in Guatemala."

Hasse had a few suggestions.

"Be very results-oriented - tangible results. Be specific," he recommended, adding that job seekers should be bold. "Build relationships with people; a lot of the development world is very relational. Don't be afraid to call somebody up and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.'"

This approach worked for Hasse himself, who, after working as a volunteer at orphanages in Haiti and Mexico, befriended the leader of a small non-governmental organization which eventually offered him a job. Later, Hasse worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development before joining World Vision, about three years ago.

Nittler, of Chemonics, stressed that interested candidates should research the company and not be shy about contacting contact staff.

"Find somebody here that is willing to give an informational interview," Nittler said. "I personally do one or two a week. We are pretty open to talking with people."

Nittler said he hires about 10 associates per year for the Latin America region.

Recent graduates interested in working with Acción should consider interning for the microfinance organization or similar groups, Manrique suggested.

Internships "are very valuable for the organization and the graduate student," Manrique said, adding that Acción is offering an increasing number of them. The organization currently offers five to eight internships per semester in Boston. In addition, Acción tends to host two or three interns in Washington per semester, and it occasionally offers field internships in Latin America.

As Acción is expanding into Brazil, Portuguese proficiency could become more valuable for internship and job seekers.

Short-term consultancies can be a pathway for candidates seeking to join the firm, although they are more of a vehicle for mid-level career transitioners, DAI's McLean said.

"We would put them on a project and see how they do," McLean said. "If they do alright, we would put them on a long-term assignment in Latin America. If they do well on the long-term assignment, then this is someone we would consider keeping as a corporate employee."

An increasing reliance on locals

Compounding what some see as static funding for Latin American development is a growing use of local country nationals for projects.

"We see more and more movement toward hiring local staff," Nittler said. "We see USAID missions wanting all Peruvians for Peruvian projects."

Youle echoed her colleague's assessment, noting that she was the only U.S. citizen working on a project that employed 25 long-term staff.

Youle cited another Chemonics project in Peru whose team of 220 staff members includes only three expatriates.

SNV relies heavily on local workers, and its expatriate staff have a particularly international character. Local nationals make up 80 percent of SNV's staff across its seven offices in the Latin America region; expatriates hail from Europe, the United States and Latin American countries. SNV recruits at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere, and has established alliances with the following institutions: Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Cornell University, both in the U.S.; Universidad del Pacífico, in Peru; INCAE Business School, in Costa Rica; Universidad de Loja, in Ecuador; and Aalborg University, in Denmark. SNV conducts its Latin America business in English and Spanish.

A focus on Central America and the Andean nations

Development agencies work throughout Latin America - from Mexico to Argentina. But anecdotal evidence and data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveal two sub-regions where development work is focused: Central America and the Andes. OECD statistics indicate that almost all of the top aid recipients in Latin America are part of these regions. In 2007, the following Latin American countries were the top recipients of aid from OECD nations: Nicaragua ($834 million), Colombia ($731 million), Haiti ($701 million), Bolivia ($476 million), Honduras ($464 million), and Guatemala ($450 million). In addition to being the largest recipients of development projects, Central America and the Andes host regional headquarters of several U.S. and European development organizations. SNV is based in Quito, Ecuador; World Vision in San Jose, Costa Rica; and Acción in Bogotá, Colombia, for instance.

But OECD statistics also support Latin American program managers' assertions that the region is not the current focus of international development. In 2006-07, OECD members spent an average of 8.6 percent of their global development budgets on Latin America and the Caribbean. Spain, with its ancient cultural and commercial ties to Latin America, spent by far the largest percentage of its total development assistance budget on Latin America - 42 percent. Canada was a distant second, with just under 16 percent, and the U.S. spent almost 11 percent of its global development budget in Latin America.

In terms of dollar amounts disbursed, Latin America's former colonial ruler and its powerful northern neighbor by far disbursed the largest amount of development funds in the region. According to the OECD, for 2007, the U.S. disbursed almost $1.4 billion in development funds for the region. For its part, Spain disbursed almost $1.2 billion, mainly in its former colonies. Germany was a distant third in Latin American development funds disbursed, spending $474 million in 2007.