Don’t know someone? That’s not why you were rejected.

There is a HUGE problem when it comes to development sector work nobody talks about.

It’s well-meaning.

It comes disguised as good intentions.

And the people involved are smart and experienced.

But this problem blocks entire careers from reaching their full potential.

So what is it?

Bad advice. 

You see, when just 1.3% of job applications at organizations like the World Bank go through…

It means there are A LOT of people not getting into the top jobs in global development.

When you have put in the hard work to get a good degree…

When you published reports or papers…

When you have built years of relevant experience…

Yet STILL find yourself stuck in your career, bored or no longer learning…

You must have something to blame.

And the most likely, obvious culprit?


That’s always the easy answer. But so often, it’s just simply wrong.

I saw this come up in a way that just makes me mad.

Someone had a great question in a leading Facebook group:

Should they invest in an online job platforms?

Nearly every response said “NO!”

One person said: No, they shouldn’t because “most jobs” in the sector are gotten through your network. They would do better to invest in networking at conferences. Then many others agreed that assignments are gotten based on people who already know your work.

You see, networking IS important and a key tool to a fast-growing career. But those who say it’s the MAIN thing that matters I think have just gotten really burnt by not having a strong job application system.

Bad advice that networking is the answer is at best misleading and at worst, can send you off to work in another sector.

Here’s why.

The Global Development Jobs Sector is HUGE

For one, the sector is not monolithic – there is diversity.

While I believe they are well-meaning, people offering advice mainly do so from their own experience, which tends to be narrow and based on how 1 organization they’ve worked with does things – or maybe from experiences they had in a job or two.

So perhaps at the World Bank or in some NGOs, the only way in is to network (though I seriously doubt this is factually true).

But at the UN you mostly must compete due to updated procurement rules.

In my experience landing work in six UN agencies, funds and programs, serving as staff in two of them, and on hiring teams in several of these UN agencies and for a major NGO…

There is just no substitute for an outstanding job application to break down career barriers.

Recruitment trends towards more egalitarianism, not less

While imperfect, recruitment systems are tending towards egalitarianism. Human Resources and procurement try hard to ensure basic standards are put in place. They don’t always succeed, and there is certainly room for improvement. But this is the basic trend.

Still, hiring across most organizations remains really difficult. Finding the best talent for a skilled job is certainly not a problem global development has solved well.

So many managers end up hiring people they know.

Mostly, this isn’t for some sinister and nepotistic reason that others imagine.

A hiring manager has a job to do – and that’s to fill a hiring need.

And what’s often the easiest way to do that? To turn to your network to get recommendations or give a job to someone with a proven track record.

Nearly always, that person stands out for obvious reasons that are clear in their CV.

Knowing the hiring manager or being in their network surely helped. They probably got onto the shortlist because of this.

But it doesn’t seal the deal. They still must compete for the work.

In the UN system, for example, even for short-term consultancies, most times you need to go through what’s called a three-person desk-review: hiring managers must identify at least 3 relevant CVs to evaluate for any type of consultancy.

This means even if knowing the hiring manager got you onto the shortlist of candidates, you must still outcompete two others because those are the general procurement rules.

Always get the cold, hard statistics

Reason number three you should run away fast from anyone telling you networking is the ONLY thing you should focus on?

They don’t have the data to back the claim that networking is how “most people” get work.

This makes such advice anecdotal at best.

In fact, the limited data actually point to just 5% of men and 8% of women getting UN jobs because they “know someone”.

The sample size is small, but almost surely greater than what others can claim.

And while the organization running the survey believe the results to be statistically representative to an error coefficient of 7%, I have my doubts.

Yet: this is actual cold, hard data. Rather than just people’s random opinions or observations.

Networking is IMPORTANT, but not the be-all or end-all

I won’t tire of saying: Networking IS a key accelerator of your development impact career.

But it’s just NOT true that the reason you’re NOT getting to the next level in your career is because you don’t KNOW the right people.

That’s just a lazy excuse, and the cold, hard statistics don’t back it up.

If you have the education… Speak the languages…

And put in your time building relevant experiences…

Yet you’ve gotten stuck in your career while your colleagues breeze passed you to new jobs and higher pay. Or you’re just going through the motions in your job everyday, bored to tears…

And you’re not getting those mid- and senior-level jobs that give you the chance to break free from your stagnating career….

It’s because you haven’t mastered the techniques of applying to jobs in the RIGHT way.

In global development, you not only have to be among the BEST in your technical or managerial area. You have to be in the top 1% of those who can SHOW the world just how good they are.

How to draft an earth-shattering CV that immediately excites hiring managers (in 15 seconds or less). How to blow their socks off with an incredible interview where you KNOW you gave great answers not matter WHAT they asked. And yes, even how to build genuine and authentic relationships that can serve as accelerators to your career…

These are all skills you can learn.

And at the very the least, knowing how to apply is AS ESSENTIAL as networking. (Although, my own hunch is that it’s simply much more important.)

What can you do to be in the top 1% that regularly win the greatest impact jobs?

Leave a comment and let me know!

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