Go local: go abroad and STAY abroad to start your international career
It’s not for everyone: moving abroad for a short-term mission, internship or volunteer opportunity and staying there afterwards to build an international career. But what from what I’ve seen, it’s a strategy that can work well.
It’s a big commitment and a risk, going abroad with no return ticket, and it’s leap of faith. The people I know who did this didn’t start out with the idea that they wouldn’t go back, and they certainly didn’t know what they were going to end up doing (or maybe they had an idea, but it worked out differently). They just caught a bug (in some cases, a love bug) that propelled them to stay and find work.
Indonesia, Pakistan, Georgia, Armenia and Nigeria are some of the countries my (Dutch and American) friends moved to. Most of them simply decided to stay after their internship or volunteer program ended, then applied for jobs with international organizations, NGOs, embassies and consulting companies—many of them happy to hire someone with local expertise but with “western” education and skills (that may sound bad, but it’s just much cheaper to hire a local foreigner than sending an expat).
I'm sure that, when I move to the next country, I'll meet more of these "local expats." Every country, no matter how far removed, has a group of them. I guess it makes sense to go someplace you already have a connection, but it's definitely not a requirement.
Challenges & opportunities
I don’t want to make it sound easy, though. There’s always the issue of residency status. For example, my friend in Indonesia has to fly to Singapore regularly so “reset” the clock on his visa. Also, I know a lot of them had some explaining to do, not only to themselves (“is this really a good idea?) and their families (“but what are your plans?”) but also to the local population (“why don’t you go back to your country, isn’t it much wealthier?”)
Actually, I kind of did this thing too—moving abroad for an internship and never coming back. When I was in Nigeria, I fell in love with my now-husband after one month. I felt a strong urge to stay and looked around for opportunities, for example negotiating with the Finnish embassy about a job. The job fell through (I think I demanded too much salary) but it convinced me I could stay in Nigeria and find something to do. I ended up taking a paid internship with the Dutch embassy and stayed in Nigeria for another year.
What kind of jobs are there?
During the time I lived in Nigeria, I met a surprising amount of Dutch people who had settled there permanently. I say surprising because there isn’t a big connection between the Netherlands and Nigeria—no colonial ties, anyway—and it’s not exactly famous for being a great place to live. Most worked as consultants, for example for KPMG, the oil industry and HIV/AIDS projects, while others were entrepreneurs setting up publishing houses, construction companies, and their own consultancy companies.
Living by your own rules
I guess the difference between working abroad because your organization sent you there and moving there yourself is that you can live your life on your own terms. As a diplomat or expat, you’re completely dependent on where the government or your company wants you to live, what to do, and for how long. But if you move abroad yourself, not under the wings of some organization, you have much more freedom to pursue interesting opportunities and to go back home—or move on to the next country—when you’re ready.