1 March 2014 § 1 Comment
Anyone who’s interested in doing policy-relevant research knows that making your findings accessible to information-overloaded policymakers is a challenge. Duncan Green has written a good summary of a recent paper by Paul Avey and Michael Desch on this topic. To further summarize Duncan’s points:
- The more politicians know about a subject, the less they believe “experts”
- Public visibility (including social media and blogging) is important for credibility
- However, most policymakers still prefer to get information from major newspapers rather than more specialized (but possibly less credible) online sources
- The best narrative, and not the best evidence, will win
The takeaway? “Tell clearer, shorter stories and you may actually be listened to.”
(I also wrote about some of Avey & Desch’s work a few months ago, focusing on the types of academic work that policymakers felt most accessible.)
23 January 2014 § 2 Comments
As I noted in my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how important it is for African governments and aid agencies to listen to their citizens, and view them as valid producers of knowledge about development. This is clearly not a new insight. And yet a lot of what passes for “listening” within the democratic sphere or by development agencies is limited and stylized, from the high-level data provided by national vote counts or Afrobarometer polls to the context-specific practice of participatory development projects, where the perspective shared matters for that project and nothing else. Furthermore, African scholars and policymakers are generally not well-represented among the think tanks which guide development policy, or within the aid agencies that control funding flows. (There’s a real shortage of funding for tertiary education within Africa as well as study abroad, which is probably the underlying problem, but there are still plenty of African scholars who could have more exposure.)
On the academic side of policy analysis, some of the best sources I’ve found are the African think tanks listed in the links on my home page (under “Think Tanks,” of course). The African Women’s Development Fund maintains a list of experts in a variety of thematic areas. Internationally, the Brookings Institute’s Africa Growth Initiative is run by three African scholars, and the Wilson Center offers an occasional Southern Voices program, which features monthly policy analysis pieces by African scholars. Jonathan Bhalla has pointed my attention to Africa Research Institute’s Policy Voices series. The Social Science Research Council also runs a site called Kujenga Amani (“to build peace” in Swahili) featuring essays by African analysts.
One of the main avenues for citizen engagement with African politics and development is radio, since it’s accessible in places where poor infrastructure or illiteracy hinder the reach of print media. I don’t have any specific recommendations here, but if any readers have stations they’d like to recommend, it would be great to hear about them. I do have a list of national newspapers from a variety of countries on my homepage (as well as the one-stop-shop AllAfrica.com), and have obviously missed loads of local papers. GlobalVoices also aims to capture citizen media stories about sub-Saharan Africa. The Mail & Guardian’s Voices of Africa series also sources stories from around the continent, although they tend to be more focused on social issues and less political.
Finally, there’s some really exciting work going on among diaspora networks. While not aimed at policy analysis per se, Africans in the Diaspora is working to engage Africans abroad with development at home, and providing funding and training to domestic NGOs. The Diaspora African Women’s Network also looks like a great resource, with articles like this one on how diaspora organizations can influence the global development debate.
20 January 2014 § Leave a comment
Six months after leaving IPA for Berkeley, I’ve found myself thinking less about the uses of RCTs and more about the big picture questions of what developing country governments and aid agencies ought to be focusing on. I’m still a huge fan of RCTs for policy evaluation, and believe that there are many evidence gaps that need to be filled in. I’m also impressed by the work that organizations like AidGrade and GiveWell are doing to synthesize existing research and compare cost effectiveness across interventions. However, there’s a more basic question that isn’t answered by these organizations: if you know that both cash transfers and school-based deworming are effective, how do you decide which to prioritize? And how do either of these compare to the benefits of building a road, or restraining a military prone to abusing civilians? Even with better evidence now available for many interventions, choosing among them is still at heart a political act.
Below are some of my admittedly impressionistic thoughts on what I think it would be effective for various development actors to prioritize this year, sorted by the type of actor they pertain to. They don’t include some seemingly basic development priorities, like building stronger education or health systems, because nearly everyone already has a strong commitment to that. Read this in light of Nancy Birdsall’s and Beth Schwanke’s development wish lists for 2014 at CGD, and tell me what you think.
Developing country governments + aid agencies
- Quick hits: Chlorine dispensers for rural water supplies, which are cheap to install and only require occasional maintenance. Changing regulatory environments to support the expansion and interoperability of mobile money services, which offer low-cost access to financial services through existing phone networks. Substituting conditional or unconditional cash transfers for most other types of asset transfer, unless the asset in question can’t be accessed on the local market.
- Medium term: Transport infrastructure, since markets and public services all follow the roads. Early childhood interventions aimed ensuring healthy pregnancies and reducing stunting, since programs aimed at building cognitive and social skills early in life appear much more cost effective than later interventions.
- Big picture: Reducing flows of light weapons, since civil wars are disastrous for development, and it’s not otherwise feasible to try to prevent every discontented or opportunistic militia leader from rebelling. Building administrative capacity.
Developed country governments (note that all of the below are very politically challenging)
- Substantially expanding migration quotas for low-income countries. Remittances have substantially outstripped official development assistance or private philanthropic giving to developing countries for the last fifteen years (see figure 1). There’s also considerable evidence that migration is good for the receiving countries’ economies as well.
- Ending agricultural subsidies, which promote poor nutrition at home and hinder developing countries from using one of their largest economic sectors, agriculture, to compete in global markets.
- Preferential trade agreements for low-income countries. Industrialization is an inescapable step on the path to economic growth, despite how little attention it receives in the development community, and giving developing countries incentives to invest in export industries is important.
Residents of developing countries (obviously not speaking from experience here, so please tell me if I’ve made a foolish point or missed something important)
- Organize! It could be around any issue that seems important, on the local, provincial or national level. This is probably so obvious that it goes without saying, since loads of people are already doing it around the world, but it’s clearly a priority.
- Vote, even if it doesn’t seem likely to change the result of the election.
- Keep writing, speaking, and sharing your opinions. The other three categories of actors here all need to be much better about listening to people who live in low-income countries outside the narrow formats of participatory development programs, and the more people who are writing op-eds and engaging in debates on Twitter, the better. (There are also clear power dynamics in simply being able to engage in any debate online, in English, and the broader questions of internet access, literacy, and translation that this touches on should be acknowledged here.)
Residents of developed countries
- Push your elected representatives to support the three policies discussed above, or support advocacy organizations in these sectors. Historically speaking, it’s a pretty incredible privilege to get any voice in government decisions, and the chance to push for better development policies shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. Within the US, you can find your state and national representatives here. Michael Clemens has recommended two US-based organizations supporting immigration reform to me: FWD.us and Partnership for a New American Economy.
- Make donations to evidence-backed non-profits. Both Giving What we Can and GiveWell have useful recommendations, especially for US-based NGOs. I’m going to support GiveDirectly this year.
13 November 2013 § Leave a comment
From The Germany Ideology (1846), critiquing other social thinkers of the time who saw “liberation” as a purely philosophical question:
Nor will we explain to them that is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is a historical and not a mental act (p. 169).
Presages the Lewis-Ranis-Fei model of agricultural productivity by a good century.
27 October 2013 § 1 Comment
Paul Avey and Michael Desch had an interesting post on this question at the Monkey Cage a few weeks ago. While the authors focused on American policymakers, I suspect that these findings are generalizable to policymakers outside of the US, and, on a slightly different set of topics, to managers at development NGOs as well. The graph of their findings is striking (click to enlarge):
The categories with a clear preponderance of “very” or “somewhat” useful results are area studies, case studies and policy analysis. Respondents appeared more divided over quantitative and theoretical analysis and operations research, but still generally favorable. The only category to receive majority unfavorable responses was formal modeling.
Note that the favorability of these approaches increases linearly with the amount of context and detail they tend to provide. Formal modeling is based on the idea that a set of simplified yet powerful assumptions about human nature can yield predictions about behavior which would apply to any actor in the same situation, regardless of context. This is about as far as it gets from the types of qualitative, richly detailed works which often show up in area studies or policy analysis.
The point I took away was not that formal modeling is useless, but that research which provides detailed, contextualized descriptions of the problem at hand is more likely to be accessible to policymakers. Barbara Walter’s book on the use of third parties to enforce civil war settlements is a great example of a work which uses formal modeling to derive its conclusions, but then highlights their policy relevance with a series of case studies. It’s clearly not the case that policy-oriented research should sacrifice rigor, but rather that even the most rigorous research isn’t worth much if practitioners can’t understand it.
That said, even research which does not immediately appear to have policy implications can turn out to be useful in the long run. Walter’s work was based on research like Bob Powell’s article on war as a commitment problem, which is a heavily mathematical study of “the inefficiency puzzle in the context of complete-information games” (p. 195). Sounds about as far removed as possible from the messy real world, no? And yet, while the policy implications of Powell’s article may not have been clear to practitioners, later researchers were able to build on it to make well-informed policy recommendations. It’s the political science version of developing an incredible adhesive from biomechanical studies of gecko feet.
21 October 2013 § 6 Comments
I feel that I can’t conclude this development career series without touching on why one might consider working in development in the first place. The desire to assist people in the developing world who have less than oneself is commendable – but this doesn’t make it unproblematically good in all situations. It’s important to think carefully about how you conceptualize and want to engage with the people you’d like to help. Doing so doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do good in the world, because human society is large and messy and often resists even the best of intentions, but it does lessen the risk that you’ll end up unintentionally doing harm.
Now, notice who the active and passive people were in the last paragraph. You, the Anglophone, Internet-enabled, probably wealthy-by-global-standards reader, might “assist,” “engage with,” “do good” or “do harm” to others – all transitive verbs. Residents of the developing world, on the other hand, are implicitly assumed to be poor, and to be the passive receipients of the “good” or “assistance” (or, sometimes and unfortunately, the “harm”). This way of thinking about development is not just a neutral description of a world where the citizens of some countries are rich and others poor. It is deeply political. It suggests that development workers, by virtue of “trying to help,” should naturally and unquestionedly get the right to make decisions about the lives of other people. This is the type of power that’s often reserved for elected officials in Northern countries.
It’s also problematic to suggest that citizens of developing countries (only some of whom are poor) are simply waiting around for aid to show up. It’s insulting, but even more critically, it’s untrue. People everywhere take active steps to get their children better educations, access quality healthcare, organize their communities, find meaningful work, voice displeasure with corrupt officials, practice their religion as they see fit, and of course relax and enjoy themselves. The results may look different in places constrained by poverty, discrimination or violence, but this doesn’t mean that people aren’t actively managing their environments to improve their quality of life.
This has important implications for why and how people ought to work in development. If you want to work for an aid agency because you feel that the developed world ought to do something, anything, for people in developing countries, pause for a moment and think about why you feel this way. How do you know that the issue you perceive to be a problem is also seen as such by the people it affects? If your agency has a solution in mind, how do you know that it will fit well into the lives of the intended beneficiaries? If the beneficiaries don’t like your plan, how will you respond? No matter the moral clarity you feel about some issue, you must first keep in mind the people you’d like to assist are people – not disaster victims, not refugees, not persecuted minorities, nor any other collective noun or essentialized “other.” They are individuals with their own complex lives which existed before you came onto the scene and will continue after your organization leaves.
I still believe that people around the world can work in partnership to change their societies for the better. But any such partnership has to be, in a fundamental way, about being respectful. It must be about being vividly aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and of the power dynamics inherent in being a foreigner distributing goods and services in places where they’re not otherwise easily available. It must be about realizing that every place is complex, and that even successful development interventions will only change a small part of people’s larger lives in society. It must be, for all of these reasons, about humility. If you let these principles waver over into some type of white savior complex, or serve primarily to impress your friends with photos of cute kids in remote towns, you will give up the desire to see the world clearly, and that doesn’t help anyone.
1 October 2013 § Leave a comment
Even after you’ve educated yourself about development, built some useful skills, and possibly done an unpaid internship, you still need to document these abilities and experiences so that potential employers can easily understand them. When I was hiring for entry-level positions at IPA last year, I read every CV and cover letter I received – but the volume was so high that in practice I was skimming quickly for A) relevant skills, B) time spent in developing countries, and C) an understanding of what IPA did. If an applicant had these, I would typically interview them, even if they addressed me as Mr. Strohm in the cover letter. (N.B. always Google the recruiter’s name if you’re not 100% certain about their gender.) The goal of your CV is to document items A and B in detail. Your cover letter should discuss item C, and tell a coherent story about how you’re building skills (items A & B) to pursue a career in development.
As many items as possible on your CV should be development related. If you’ve taken courses in the social sciences, public health, engineering, area studies, or any other field that’s even vaguely germane to development, list them in your Education section. If you can’t think of any related courses, consider taking a development-focused class online (like these at MRU University and EdX), through your community college (like this course on the geography of the developing world at my local college), or through a university’s non-degree program (like this course on humanitarian aid to Africa at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies). You’ll get a lot out of it, and it will be a useful signal to potential employers that you’re serious about switching career directions.
The other things that should be listed in your Education section are foreign study experience; any independent research experience, like a thesis or capstone project; your GPA; and any academic honors. Foreign study and academic honors are self-explanatory. Independent research experience shows that you can think critically about a subject and work well on your own, which is a different skill set than that required to do well in classes, and probably closer to the set of skills needed to work in an office. If you don’t list your GPA, a reader might assume that you’ve left it off because it’s very low.
Your Professional Experience section should also focus on positions which allowed you to build relevant skills or spend time in the developing world. If you spent three months or more in a position which didn’t even build up relevant skills, it’s good to leave it on your CV to account for that time, but keep your description of it brief. Write more detailed descriptions of any jobs related to the position you’re currently seeking. The more concrete you can be, the better. Saying that you “analyzed data in Stata” provides less information than saying that you “cleaned the data by adjusting for seasonality and dropping outliers, and ran regressions to determine the impact of X on Y.” Similarly, avoid very general descriptions like “provided excellent customer service.” Anyone can say this, so it doesn’t actually tell an employer anything about whether you’ll be a capable employee.
If you don’t already have this on your CV, include a Skills & Affiliations section as well. The Skills component should focus on languages and software. List all the languages you know, and all the software except Microsoft Office, which is so common that it’s not useful to include. (The only exception is if you’re truly skilled at Excel.) Include your level of proficiency in each language and software package, in the format “basic/intermediate/advanced” (or “fluent” for languages). The Affiliations section should list any development-related clubs or associations of which you’re a member. It’s not especially useful for an employer to see that you were on the water polo team, but membership in something like the Society for International Development or your university’s chapter of Net Impact shows that you’re working to educate yourself about development. Finally, be very careful about including hobbies or travel in this section. A list of hobbies generally makes a candidate look unprofessional, unless you can show that you’re an exceptionally hard worker by winning a major award for something. Similarly, listing all the places you’ve been on holiday doesn’t say much about whether you’ll be a knowledgeable employee. The exception is if you’ve traveled to a place for a month or more with the express purpose of learning the language or studying local history/politics/etc. If this was a foreign study program it should go in your Education section, but if it was independent, it’s all right to include it under Skills & Affiliations.
If your CV tells an employer what you can do, the cover letter should tell them why they should care. One of the most important components of this is showing that you understand the type of work that they do. Think about where the firm you’re applying to falls in the typology of development organizations from the first post in this series. You should be able to say something as detailed as, “I’d like to get hands-on managerial experience on HIV-prevention projects,” or “I’d like to work for a major donor and learn to manage grants,” or “I’m interested in doing impact evaluations in microfinance.” Making a very general statement like “I’d like to work in development” suggests that you haven’t taken the time to learn about what the organization does.
You should ideally be able to integrate your statement about the employer’s work with a clear expression of your career trajectory. Phrase this as, “I have been [building skills], but after [learning about development] I’m interested in [achieving some goal] by working for [organization which works towards that goal].” For example, “I have been working in consumer finance in the US, but after reading More than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Due Diligence by David Roodman, I’ve grown very interested in bringing banking services to people in developing countries through the microfinance industry. I would like to bring my managerial experience and familiarity with consumer banking to the Client Outreach position at ABC Microfinance.” If you don’t have much formal development experience but have read up on it extensively, it’s quite all right to list the books you’ve read, and perhaps what you found compelling about them.
The rest of your cover letter should briefly recap your relevant educational and work experience, leaving the detailed descriptions to your CV. If a work permit for any country is required, note whether you have that authorization and when it expires. (Alternatively, you could put this on your CV.) Finally, don’t include personal stories in the letter. Pretty much everyone in the development field is there because they care about the welfare of others. Including a story about how you were moved by the poverty you saw in the favelas of Sao Paulo won’t distinguish you from other applicants, and doesn’t tell an employer anything about whether you’re qualified for the job. A concrete focus on skills and familiarity with the development sector will be a better way to make your application stand out.
28 September 2013 § Leave a comment
The prevalence of unpaid internships as the gateway to development careers means that there is substantial inequality of access to this type of work. It’s not quite the case that only the 1% can afford to work in development, but in my experience, wealthy Ivy League graduates (myself included) are significantly overrepresented in development compared to the general population. This means that well-qualified people from both developed and developing countries who are supporting families or paying off student loans are often excluded from development work. It’s deeply problematic to imply that only the rich should be able to care about poverty reduction. Increasing the number of (well) paid internships and entry-level positions would improve the situation, but as this seems unlikely to happen any time soon, I’ve laid out some thoughts on how to continue keep earning a salary while switching careers to development.
In writing this, I’m thinking here of people who are employed in their home countries in non-development fields. The primary advantage of pretty much any type of employment over an unpaid internship is that it offers a better chance to build transferable skills. An ideal situation would involve working in a field which has an analogue within development. Public health and education may come to mind first, but fields as diverse as consumer finance, counseling, software development, engineering and journalism all have substantial transferrable components. If you have time, consider doing a part-time, unpaid internship with a development organization in your area (discussed in my last post) as well.
After working for several years, and hopefully building up some savings or paying off a portion of your loans, the next step would be to get an MA in a development-related field. This is the pivot point of the career transition. If you can clearly outline how your previous experience and skills are relevant to a development career, and make the case for how the MA will let you complete your career transition, you should be in a good position to be admitted to this type of program. Once you’re in the program, focus on taking courses in your chosen sector of development (in part because it’s a good way to meet other people in the field, including the professors); building up technical skills, like monitoring & evaluation design or statistical analysis; and networking within your sector. Most development MA programs are explicitly professional in nature, and will hold career fairs and other networking events with some frequency. If you’re not already on LinkedIn, sign up and look for alums from your program who are doing interesting work; they’ll likely be happy to do informational interviews or connect you with possible opportunities in their fields. Try to find a part-time internship with a development organization during the academic year, and a full-time internship abroad during the summer. Your program may offer grants to cover travel and living expenses during unpaid internships.
For all the advantages of getting a development degree, however, doing an MA in the US shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, as the cost of doing so can be quite high. (Much of this section focuses on finances in the US because I’m most familiar with them; I’m not sure how this works in other countries.) The full cost of tuition plus living expenses for one year at a program like Johns Hopkins – SAIS (MA in International Relations) is $65,000. Many American MA programs do offer some fellowship aid, and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale offer full tuition payments and stipends to many students. Another option is to look at one-year MA programs in the UK, like the MSc Research for International Development at SOAS or the MA in International Development and Education at Sussex, which are significantly less expensive than the US degrees (and not just because they’re half as long).
You should also look into outside sources of funding for US degrees, such as the NSF Graduate Research Program and Foreign Language and Area Studies grants from the US government, or other grants listed in UCLA’s GRAPES database. If you still have outstanding loans from undergrad, you may be able to defer your payments while you’re in graduate school. If you’re supporting a family and your partner (if you have one) isn’t in a highly paid job, and you’re a US citizen, you may be eligible for TANF or other forms of government assistance while you’re in school.
Finally, keep in mind that having an MA in development and several years’ work experience will bring your salary prospects up – but not dramatically. For every World Bank consultant earning $100,000 per year, there are many more middle managers at medium-sized NGOs earning $40,000 in the US or even less abroad. (For comparison’s sake, an entry-level position in the US might be $25,000 – $30,000, and as little as $15,000 in a developing country.) I think it’s appropriate that organizations concerned with poverty relief shouldn’t be paying extravagant salaries, but unless you reach upper management, it will likely still be challenging to balance development work with loan payments or a family’s financial needs.
25 September 2013 § 4 Comments
Nearly everyone I know who works in development (myself included) started off as an unpaid intern. Sometimes there was a stipend or housing provided, but I definitely dipped into my savings, and couldn’t have done it at all if I’d had to pay off student loans. (The next post in this series will discuss gaining experience when you have loans or other substantial financial responsibilities to consider.) In this post, I’ll speak about different ways of gaining experience through internships; how to find internships; and coping with the financial challenge of unpaid positions.
Before interning abroad, it may be useful to search for smaller development organizations in your current area and reach out to them about internships. As mentioned in the last post, there’s often significant competition for international internships, and domestic positions can be easier to find, especially with smaller NGOs. (Domestic internships with major NGOs like CARE or leading impact evaluators like IPA are usually just as competitive as overseas positions.) All major US cities have smaller NGOs headquartered there, and I suspect it’s similar in Europe and Australia. If you’re currently employed, a part-time internship with a local organization will allow you to explore a new field without giving up your salary. And if your interests change as a result of the internship, the barriers to exit are much lower than if you’d accepted a year-long position in rural Togo.
Assuming you’ve developed some transferable skills, learned about the history of the region where you’d like to work, and potentially explored the sector that interests you through a domestic internship, working abroad is a logical step. Your goals for the internship should be, in descending order, to learn more about the sector you’re working in (say public health); improve your language skills (if you’re not working in your first language); learn more about the country you’re working in (which is usually dependent on your language skills); and try to keep building other useful skills. Note that three of these four goals involve learning (about the sector, the language and the country), only one involves improving your technical abilities, and none of them involve directly helping anyone. As a foreigner in an unpaid, entry-level position, you are not actually improving anyone’s quality of life, unless you count the impact of buying goods and services in the local market. You are learning about what you’d like to do with your career, and learning about the skills you need to eventually work for an organization which may assist people. Hopefully, you’re also learning that the people you meet are living their own complex lives in ways which aren’t uniquely aimed at the goal of “achieving development.”
With the goal of learning in mind, it’s important to target your applications carefully. (An upcoming post will discuss how to write an effective CV and cover letter for these positions.) It may seem tempting to apply to every position you come across, but volunteering at an orphanage in Delhi won’t be a very useful career move if you’re truly interested in improving public health in rural Peru. Check out sites like Idealist, or search for terms like “public health internship [peru/latin america/etc].” Local non-profits often don’t post internship opportunities online, but may consider having unpaid interns on if you email them. Search for “ngo directory [country]” and reach out to those in your chosen sector. If you know anyone who’s worked in the sector or region which interests you, ask them if they have any advice for your internship search.
If you’ve received an offer for a position, you should ask for a written description of the work that you’ll be doing, and get an estimate of the overall costs of the internship before accepting. The written description is important because, paradoxically, unpaid internships are still costly for the employer. A current employee needs to supervise the intern, answer their questions, give them access to resources, and evaluate their work. A good employer should be able to give you a written description of who you’ll be working with, which projects you’ll be be on, what resources will be provided for you (housing/a seat in the office/access to a medical lab/etc.), and what outputs are expected of you. If they can’t answer these questions, or say that “you’ll design your own project,” you should think carefully about accepting the position unless you have a very clear idea of a project you’d like to implement. You may end up twiddling your thumbs for three months.
It’s also important to ask the employer about stipends, housing, and other costs which may be covered. In major cities in most developing countries, employer-provided housing can be cheaper than the open market. The employer may also help you rent a room in someone’s home, which is typically less expensive than having a private apartment. You should also ask for an estimate of living expenses in the area more generally. It’s typically not possible to find other paid employment (e.g. in retail) as a foreigner in a developing country, so it’s important to have an accurate estimate of your total expenses before committing to the position.
Finally, there are also a few paid internships out there. The most reputable programs I’m aware of are the Princeton in Africa, Asia and Latin America fellowships (to which non-Princetonians are welcome to apply). Searching for “paid international internships” suggests that more exist, but they’re rare beasts, and they shouldn’t be the cornerstone of your strategy for gaining professional experience in a developing country.
22 September 2013 § 3 Comments
This is approximately the point in the job-search cycle where many people get discouraged. It’s the old experience-and-hiring paradox: you know what you’d like to work on, but you don’t have any experience, so no one will hire you, so you can’t gain experience. In the development field, unpaid internships are often used to get some initial experience, but there’s still significant competition for them, and going without pay often isn’t feasible for people with student loans or other financial responsibilities. The next few posts in this series will cover three approaches to gaining relevant skills and experience for a development career: building transferable skills; gaining experience abroad through unpaid internships; and what to do if you can’t forego a salary while switching careers.
Everyone who’s interested in working in development should build up a set of transferable skills, which can be accomplished even while unemployed or working outside the development field. I would divide these skills broadly into five categories: sector-specific knowledge, languages, writing, statistics, and technology. Learning about the various sectors of development was covered in the last post, so I won’t revisit it here. You likely have a sense of which of the other categories are most interesting to you. Keep building on whatever skills you already have there, but consider learning about another category as well. The more you can do for an employer, the better an application is likely to be considered.
As discussed briefly in the last post, professional proficiency in a widely spoken language is very helpful. If you studied a language a while ago, or can speak easily but find reading difficult, start re-engaging with it by reading newspapers and listening to the radio. (Search for “streaming radio” or “podcasts” in the language.) Try to find materials on the sector that interests you in that language to pick up some of the specialized vocabulary. If possible, try your hand at writing in the language and find someone who’s fluent to comment on it. And if you only speak English, but are committed to learning another language, go for it! Just remember that it’s unlikely to count in your favor on your CV until you can hold a professional conversation in it.
I’ve found strong writing skills to be valuable in my career, but often not in the ways I would have expected. Surprisingly, I’ve spent much more time editing other people’s reports than writing my own, and much of the writing I have done has been in the form of emails or manuals for internal use only. Very little of it has been persuasive writing for a policy audience or the general public. All of that said, every organization can use strong writers. If you feel that you’re a good writer, keep practicing by blogging or writing op-eds (which is also a good exercise in concision). Offer to edit others’ work, and ask others to edit yours. Practice giving criticism constructively, and accepting it cheerfully. And keep a few different writing samples on hand – perhaps one short article or memo, and one longer academic paper.
Statistical analysis is increasingly a feature of development work, even for traditional aid donors and major NGOs. The thing to keep in mind here is that there are very different levels of proficiency required for different tasks. Some organizations may simply need to take a list of all the districts in a country and calculate the percentage of them which already have secondary schools, which can be done in Excel. Other organizations, especially those doing impact evaluations, need people to do more sophisticated analysis in Stata. Qualifying as a data analyst at a place like IPA or the World Bank is fairly difficult because it takes several years of specialized training (before you even apply for the job) in three subjects: economics, to understand why research questions are being asked; statistics, to understand how the data is being analyzed; and a statistical software package like Stata or R, to carry out the analysis. You could conceivably cover most of these subjects in evening courses or online, and practice running regressions in R (which is free and open source) using World Bank data, but it would take a real commitment. Instead, if you want to build up some analytical skills but don’t have a background in these topics, I would focus on Excel. Take an introductory statistics course using the software, as well as a general introduction-to-Excel course which includes pivot tables, graphing and creating budget templates. Being able to write a well-documented, easily-readable budget in Excel is a skill too few people have.
Finally, positions in graphic design or web design are increasingly common in development organizations (to no one’s surprise). In smaller organizations, this type of position is often integrated into the communications team, so building up some experience in writing and social media could be useful. If you already have some programming experience, I would look into designing apps for mobile phones as well. Mobile coverage is widespread in the developing world (in 2011, half the people in Africa already had a mobile) and there’s a huge push to create apps and use SMS to provide development services.
I’ll close in noting that this isn’t an exhaustive list of transferable skills. Experiences as disparate as managing a database, designing a survey, urban planning, grants management, or industrial design can all be of interest to development organizations. Managing a team of 10 or more people is quite useful as well. If you have this type of more specialized skill, you’re probably a bit farther along in your career, and it should be easier to show potential employers that this is relevant to them.