Why you should major in international development


When we’re talking about issues like corruption and economic development, is it fair for Indonesia, a 70-year old independent state, to take lessons from countries hundreds of years old with vastly different history and geography? Why do we look up to ‘developed’ countries as much as we do anyways?

If these questions keep you up at night, then studying international development might just be for you.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that I wanted to make an impact in the world when I started college. Most Indonesians go about this by aiming to create and innovate, making majors like business, engineering, computer science, and fashion design popular among Indonesian students when they study abroad. But these are not the only ways to make an impact.

We also need people to challenge and rethink about how the world sees and addresses the toughest problems of our time, like poverty and climate change, to help us draw powerful insights to change policies, public opinion, and take action for the better. International development aims to do just that.

About international development

I stumbled upon international development at UC Berkeley (over there the undergraduate major is called development studies). I originally thought it was something like international relations or political science, but it is neither and both. It is an interdisciplinary study– meaning you can shape what you want to learn according to what  is interesting and relevant to you from a variety of social disciplines. During my studies, I took classes ranging from medical anthropology under colonialism, to Indian politics, to global poverty (one of the best classes to take at UC Berkeley by the way) on top of the mandatory classes on development theory and history.

When people think about development, most people think about nation building – things related to infrastructure, governance, economic growth, alleviating poverty, etc. But development is much more than a prescription on how to build a nation state, it is a practice, a worldview, and it’s politics.

International development is a study of how world leaders, institutions, civil society, and governments see the world and its problems. More over, it is a study that challenges the policies, projects, and interests that these people and institutions prescribe to solve those problems. In short, it is the study of all these global and interconnected forces that are constantly competing for power, and a useful critical thinking tool for anyone that wants to make an impact in the world.

Applying international development in the real world

If you’ve read this far, maybe you’re thinking “this sounds interesting and important, but will I land a job after I graduate?”

Some of my classmates end up working at the UN, World Bank, Peace Corps or the US State Department. Others are documenting the conflict in Sudan and one started her own nonprofit that redistributes food to those who need it. And I’m currently working for a nonprofit that supports and aims to amplify the voices of local NGOs and communities that are facing human and environmental rights violations in the Indonesian palm oil industry.

Palm Oil Fair Labor Principle Workshop

Studying development really helps sharpen your analytical skills because you constantly challenge what you know to be true. Doing so doesn’t just take critical thinking skills but an open mind. These skills alone can set you apart by bringing to the table thoughtful insights to any project you’ll undertake.

This doesn’t mean the theories you learn will be out the window. In fact, you will continue to ponder about these concepts and real world problems well beyond your classroom. You’ll learn about how the world works including the good, the bad, and all its interconnected complexities.

Studying development is even more crucial if you want to make an impact in Indonesia. We all know the problems of corruption too well; the gap between the rich and poor is seem to be ever widening; and we are the one of the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

This all to say that we’ll need thinkers, decision makers, and practitioners to change how we live and how business-as-usual operate.

International development may not be for everyone and it surely isn’t a silver bullet. At the very least, it will give you the thinking space to be more meaningful about the impact you’re making in the world, no matter how small or large.


Photo credit: http://www.positivechangecareers.com/international-development and personal collection

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Fitri is the Indonesia Coordinator at San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network and works closely with their Indonesian partners at the intersection of human, labor rights, and environmental justice. She's spent about equal parts of her life in Indonesia and the US, and considers herself bicultural. She's often off the grid traveling for work and/or pleasure and enjoys deep, abstract conversations. She received her BA at UC Berkeley.


  1. Thank you for your priceless information. I am planning to take International Development major for my PostGrad. I really interested in Gender equality and women empowerment.


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