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Why am I in Development? + How to get into Development (Richard)

March 9, 2010

I always wanted to be here.  Seriously, I used to get on the Piccadilly Line, see other people traveling to Heathrow and feel physically jealous it wasn’t me.  And naturally I wanted to travel for a reason.  We’re not talking tourism here.  I was 16 and idealistic, I was talking about helping the people.  And travel plus helping people = development.  Right?  I was young, I had an earring and bad hair, I really did think like that.

So, at the first chance I got when I was 18, I saved the money for a plane ticket, contacted some family friends who could put me in touch with an NGO in India, and went to Rajasthan to shadow a project for six months.  Two years later I was back at it.  I applied to VSO and went to Ethiopia for a year, then when I graduated I aimed for, and eventually got, a job in DFID.

It was a persistent urge.  But I agree with Malte about the randomness.  If I’m honest, I can’t say there was a good answer to the question of why I wanted to do it.  An instinct to right wrongs I felt strongly and partially understood, a desire to travel, perhaps a secret wish to test myself in tough places.  But what did I actually want to do? I really didn’t know.

I mention this because I gave a talk the other week on “how to get into development” for some students at another university, and Do No Harm asked if I could condense it here.  It asked five questions which with hindsight, I think might help people make their first move after graduation, and would have forced me to think beyond “being in development” to what that might mean. I hope they’re helpful here too.

1)     Do you want to be in the field?

The road into Development is often full of hazards, especially if Richard is driving.

Development encompasses everything from NGO humanitarian work in the world’s toughest places to the international bureaucracy, driving around in the gleaming Land Cruisers in capital cities.  For many people the end of the spectrum where the Land Cruiser drives is pretty repellent.  A self-serving bureaucracy that never gets to the field, lives in meetings, writes endless reports and pays itself handsomely.  This isn’t why a lot of people join the cause.  They want to be working directly with people, seeing the impacts of their work in front of them, confronting poverty and injustice head on.  But how do you achieve large-scale impact from a local level, how do you fully engage with national politics, and how do you bring the large resources to bear?  Personally I’m in development to work on the big issues, which means in 3 years in Sudan I got out of the capital three times.  I could live with that.  Other people felt sorry for me, often quite angry.  You know that aid official who lives behind barbed wire in western comfort when there are poor people just the other side of the fence?  That was me.  But where do you sit on the spectrum?

2)     Do you want to be political?

If DESTIN teaches us anything it’s that politics is central, yet a lot of the development industry is explicitly apolitical.  Would you be OK with this?  For example could you work for a donor that can’t work in conflict countries?  Do you think trade is a technical issue to work on in Geneva or something to take to the streets about?  Do you get angry when you think about development?

3)     Do you mind bureaucracy?

I wonder where last month's financials are?

They serve noble ends but UN agencies, the IFIs, donors and even the large NGOs are characterised by a massive amount of bureaucracy, which undermines their effectiveness – some would say fatally.  Could you deal with this?  Are you in development to do things that only a UN agency can do, and willing to put up with the official labyrinth to do that, or do you think it renders the work meaningless?  Or put it another way, if you’re applying for JPO jobs right now, have you thought about how long it’ll take to get your first pay check, let alone your first budget approval?

4)       Where do you want to work?

Is it all about a particular area for you?  Obviously if you’re interested in a country or a region it’s important to plot a career plan that will take you there.  Think about where your organisation works, what languages you’ll need, which parts of the DESTIN theory toolbox are most applicable.  But less obviously, think about how the development industry works in that region.  Some countries don’t have a lot of opportunities for internationals any more, and quite right too.  In Ethiopia 10 years ago, most of the NGOs I knew employed only local staff, and I concluded there were very few opportunities.  To go back now there’d be many more, but perhaps not in the NGOs.  As the countries opened up Addis is a boom town but the internationals you see are working in the private sector: banking experts, technical consultants, engineers.  There are still a lot of development agencies around but the discourse is about a sort of development that goes beyond NGOs and aid agencies.  If you want to work in Ethiopia I’d recommend going into business.

5)     Do you want to work in aid?

Which links to the last point.  We know from the course that development and aid aren’t the same thing, we know some of the most significant changes in poor people’s lives come from the private sector, and we know the inadequacies of the aid business, yet most DESTIN graduates will probably end up working for aid agencies and NGOs, or contractors who supply them.  Is this chance or does it reveal our preferences?  I know for me, I always assumed I’d work in aid.  Looking back though, it’s a shame I didn’t think more about the alternatives.  I think I’d be quite happy selling mobile phones in Africa right now.  And I’d be part of the development process.  But it’s unlikely I’d ever have come to DESTIN, which is worth thinking about.

So those were my questions.  What do you think?

—–

Richard Taylor (MSc Development Management)

(Photo credits: 1&2 Richard Taylor, 3 Jan Branning)

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