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Writing your CV for the International Development Sector

This article looks into the do and don't of CV and resume writing for the international development sector. In this article learn about different CV styles, CV formats, basic rules and top tips for CVs for the development sector.

1. Why Write a CV?

Writing a CV is a creative process that helps you untangle your career story and clearly communicate your key achievements, hard and soft skills, and relevant work experience to a potential employer.

You need a CV to:

  • Apply for an opportunity. This might be a job, volunteer position or a consultancy role.
  • Give to your contacts when networking, this type is typically a one page synopsis of your capabilities and achievements.

A CV is not a list of jobs you have done, it’s your marketing brochure and its simple purpose is to get you an interview, which in turn should get you a formal offer of employment.

Your CV should be individually drafted to target each opportunity; it must be 100% relevant to the reader and the opportunity. People who present generic, irrelevant information fail to receive an interview invitation. Today's international development job market is very competitive, with many recruiters advertising internationally, and you need to employ different strategies to standout from the crowd.

From my experience, people write their CV without little thought of the purpose. Most CVs I see are dull, poorly laid out, convey nothing of great value and don't match the person criteria as requested in the job advert.

2. CV Styles

We live in a changing world, and we need to change and adapt our communication techniques too. In the ‘olden days’ everyone used a chronological CV.


Chronological CVs passively list employer, job titles and the job responsibilities and are ordered by date. These are good to show career progression within a company or industry, however… today most people don't have a job for life or only work for one company or in one industry. This is especially true in international development where overseas contracts are often fixed term for 6 month to 2 years. Most development workers work for different employers in different countries and contexts.

If you decide a chronological CV is best, then open with a profile statement followed by key achievements and outcomes; start each paragraph / bullet point with a verb.


As most development workers often change jobs, chronological CVs are probably not the best vehicle. Today, HR advertisements talk about skills and competencies and the best way to evidence these are through functional / targeted / skill based CVs. A targeted CV lists key skills with examples and is followed by a complete employment history. The emphasis is on the skills and competencies, and not on the employer or job title.


A résumé is comparable to a CV in many countries, although in Canada and the United States it is substantially different. A simple résumé is a summary typically limited to one or two pages highlighting only those experiences and credentials that the author considers most relevant to the desired position. They often start with (in my opinion the dumb statement) ‘Objective’. The objective is evidenced by the fact you have applied for a particular role, so why write it and it wastes valuable line space.

European Format

Europass is an EU initiative to increase transparency of qualification and mobility for European citizens. The Europass CV is a standardised format that is recognised, and used, throughout Europe. Some organisations may ask for this unique impersonal format.


Certain international development organisations such as USAID, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and HLSP have their own CV or biodata format. If you are applying to these organisations then you must use their format. Many NGOs and agencies have an online application process which replaces the need for any CV, however you will still need your CV to prompt and enable to you to enter correct information into the system.


It's common for employers to only accept CVs electronically. The electronic CV has changed much about the way the information is written, read, and handled. Attention has to be given to key words which are electronically searched. The CV must include the job title and related key buzz words from the advert. Simply, the system matches your words against their words and if you match you get picked! Typically most of the key words are nouns rather than verbs.


Perhaps the newest CV development is the Guerrilla CV. These are one page, visual, hard selling and probably best used for networking.


Prove your excellent IT skills by putting your CV on the Internet (with an abbreviated address), for example, you could use LinkedIn or WordPress or another Blog tool or publishing platform. Some recruiters search the Internet for background information on potential candidates; Google yourself and see what comes up – afterwards you might want to change the privacy settings on your social network pages!

3. Basic Rules - For all Styles

Pass the 30 Second Scan

Whatever style you choose to use remember, it’s your marketing document and has to be relevant to that individual post and it must maximize your skills and achievements. It’s said that a recruiter will scan your CV in 30 seconds. Imagine having 800 CVs in front of you; would you read everyone? Of course not, you are looking for key information and it needs to jump off the page

When sifting CVs the recruiter is thinking; why should I employ you? Your CV needs to standout out from the hundreds of other applicants (typically by layout, style and font size) and present your case in compelling text and tell your (career) story.

Create an Excellent Impression!

Your marketing document (AKA your CV) simply should say Hello, I am fascinating and you need me. It should generate an interest in you within the reader’s mind and most importantly it should provide the solution to their staffing problem.

Can you oversell?

From my experience working with nationals from many countries at all levels, 99% of people undersell their abilities and particularly their achievements on their CV and application. Over time most people forget what they have done and their achievements so it’s advisable to do a skills inventory before you start to write your CV, this will give you clarity of what you can offer.

Writers Block?

You have written your name at the top and then you freeze; what shall I write? Before you start writing your CV it is sensible to get some advice. Most of the major job and charity recruitment web sites provide tips and advice on CVs, applications and interviews and another good resource to read is University Careers web sites. World Service Enquiry also has information and free advice on CVs. Read CV articles and make notes, some of the advice might conflict but the basic information is the same.

You could research and learn the basics of marketing and introduce simple marketing tactics into your CV text. Or, if it’s all too difficult and frustrating then hire a professional CV writer, the downside of this option is that you will need to pay every time you need a new targeted CV.

4. CV Format

Name: As you are known, a CV is not a legal document. Chris Walker and not Christopher Peter William Walker
Land Address: This is important for international development CVs as organisations are contacted from all over the world.
Email: Make sure it’s professional and can’t be misinterpreted. chrispwalker@ might be read as crispy walker!
Telephone: Just one telephone number (with spaces) with a professional answer message. 077 9575 2577 not (044)7795752577
Web: LinkedIn, Web site, Blog URL – if you have one.
Profile: Highlight in 3 or 4 sentences your expertise and your key experience. This is your opening sales pitch; make it captivating.
List your key achievements: These should be relevant to the role or organisation. List key specialisms or donor experience.
Skills list or job history: Give details of outcomes and achievements and technology used. Include facts i.e. numbers, percentages, values to quantify the text.
Work History (If writing a skills based CV): Job title, company, place and date.
Qualifications / Education / Training: (If writing a skills based CV). Job title, company, place and date.
Interrests: And you might consider ending with some interests if they: Are interesting Back up your application Show your commitment to the sector or your passion for the organisation’s cause.

Never include irrelevant information or personal details. In various countries age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc. are "protected characteristics" and should not be disclosed. If you include it might a reason to bin your CV on the first sift. Never use "responsible for" followed by a list of duties. This is passive and shows a lack of creativity and poor communication skills.

5. Top Tips

  • Always refer to the specific information and key words in the job advert.
  • Include and be aware of the white space and the size of margins.
  • Use a font that is readable and professional (use their house style).
  • Write facts with evidence and quantify, when possible, with numbers or values.
  • Spell check and copy read – ask a friend to read for errors and content.
  • Be consistent – note capital letters, hyphens / en dashes and the use of &.
  • No longer than the equivalent of 2 sides of A4 paper.
  • Make it interesting – try to get some personality / soft skills into the text.

This content of this article was written by Kevin Cusack for If you would you like to get personal help with your international development CV or applications and develop a career strategy then for further details visit © Kevin Cusack All rights reserved 2011

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