Interview strategies

4 Proven International Development Job Interview Techniques

I got a call one day while at a part-time job from my mother. A woman from the United Nations had left a message.

“The United Nations?” I asked, stunned. I was looking for work but hadn’t considered applying to the UN.

“She said she wanted to interview you.”

My mouth dropped wide open.

I eventually pulled myself together and spoke with this UN lady.

She had gotten a hold of my CV from someone and thought to check if I were interested in coming in for an interview for a job at UNDP.

After more mouth-gaping, and JUMPING at the chance to secure the UN interview — I started preparing.

I read everything relevant to the potential team. I gathered interview advice from anyone who had gotten a job – ever. I primped my suit and tie.

On my last interview, I had been 40 minutes late. No surprise I didn’t get the offer. But no sir, not for the United Nations interview. I was early enough to overhear them interviewing other candidates.

After a technical exam, a written test and in-person interview – and some days biting my nails waiting to hear the results – I got a beautiful email: I was offered the job.

What did I do to make an impact? Four main strategies have proven useful to me in every job interview in the last 15 years since that first one.

Be clear on your “story”

You should have a very tight perspective on why you’re sitting in that chair (or on the Skype call) being interviewed.

There are two major components of this.

First: Know who you are.

For example, you might be: An experienced budget manager who helped cut logistics costs by 5% in your last assignment.

Use an example of proven success you have had. Make it concrete, measurable (with a hard number if possible), and make it memorable.

Share a story that proves you understand what the team does, how the organization delivers its mandate, and how you fit into it all.

An example like the one above shows:

  • You understand the landscape of logistics and how budgets work = you’re a seasoned expert, ready to hit the road running.
  • You will not only deliver on the ToR, but also go beyond the job expectations to reach new results for the team and organization.
  • Problem-solving is in your DNA. You pay close attention to addressing challenges and finding solutions that drive results.

These are compelling reasons to hire someone who knows what they can bring to a team. And can communicate it during the interview to make a persuasive case.

The other key component of your story to have clear is: Why do you want to work at this new organization and team anyway?

This is almost always the first question in an international development job interview.

For example: You want to bring your history of excellence (in cutting 5% of costs!) to this new organization. Would your new team like to save budget and make the donor happy? Of course they would.

With both of these parts of your story in mind, you now have powerful reference points to come back to on each question to elaborate on what you bring to the new team.

Be honest

After countless interviews over 15 years in global development, one question from my first interview sticks with me still.

The third person on the panel prepared his question in detail.

He concluded: “So, the Millennium Development Goals Conference is taking place in Johannesburg this week. What do you think will be the outcomes of the event? Have you been following what’s going on?”

At the time this question dropped, I took the form of a deer caught in headlights. My eyes went wide (and yes, mouth agape) as I searched my brain for any clue on the “Millennium Conference”. Hell, I barely knew where Johannesburg was. The MDGs was not something I knew even existed just then.

My mind racing, I took a moment to consider the question (Had I been following the Jo-burg events?) and answered: “No, I haven’t been following this issue.”

A smile lit across the interviewer’s face. He immediately replied: “Good answer.”

Be honest. Always.

Here’s why my answer worked.

Apparently, a previous candidate had gone on about the Millennium-something, how she had visited Johannesburg, and some other stuff.

It was clear she didn’t know about the Conference in Johannesburg either. But she tried to talk her way through the question, to result only in looking untruthful to a panel of international development experts who spent their days tracking such events and discussions.

My answer was honest and genuine. Apparently a feature the third panelist thought would add value to the team.

Have a range of “deep” questions for them

It’s exciting to be called in for the interview after sending out applications. Finally, a chance to speak with a real person – and take a BIG step closer to your next development assignment.

But don’t forget: interviewing for a global development job is a two-way street.

You should be interviewing your interviewers just as much as they interview you.

Why? Because:

A) You ARE interviewing them, too.

A big part of the reason we work in global development is to join hands with like-minded professionals to solve social, economic and environmental problems. You want to be sure you want to work in this organization, with this group of people, and agree with how they approach their work.

What better chance to gather information from the people who are already there?

B) It helps you stand-out.

Being remembered by the panel of interviewers as a thoughtful candidate who challenges the team to think in new ways is something you definitely want. And since nobody else does this, it will help you be remembered as the person with the good answers AND the interesting questions.

Now, I don’t mean asking basic question like when will the panel make a decision. (And never ask the salary requirements during an interview, ever.) Focus on the bigger picture instead.

Ask the panel members “deep” questions:

  • How do they like working there?
  • What are challenges they encounter everyday?
  • What future do they see for their work or the organization’s mandate?

It will show your confidence, emphasize your understanding of how you can contribute to the organization, and how you will fit in.

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I can’t say why, but this is utterly underused as an interview technique.

Nothing ends after you walk out of the interview room or hang up the Skype call. In fact, treat it as the beginning.

You have now been introduced to potential colleagues. Had direct contact with how people think, perform and behave in this new team. And started building new relationships with experts in your field.

Use them!

Make sure you take note of everyone’s name during the call. Write down what they asked, your answer and how they reacted to you.

Use the magic of Google and LinkedIn to find them  – and send them a follow-up message.

Tell them what you learned during the interview. Express your gratitude for the opportunity. Find a way to connect back to the interview question and elaborate further.

Whatever you do, take the initiative and follow-up. It can make the difference between being a “strong” candidate like the others, and the candidate who gets the offer because they showed how much they want to join and connect with the team.


It took me a lot of research and many errors to develop these interview techniques. But they have helped to keep my career going – and growing – for many years now.

What strategies have you tried? What has worked for you in the past – and what has not worked? Let us know!


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6 replies on “4 Proven International Development Job Interview Techniques”

Interesting job interview notes!

Helpful tips I must say!!!

congratulations for your research and to develop these interview techniques.

Very interesting research. Specially the point about honesty. I like it!! Thank you Mr Chris.

charles mutuasays:

Cant wait to put in practice this strategies. Thumbs Up!!

Godfrey Mchunguzi Oyemasays:

Great notes

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