If you’re feeling confused about how to navigate the thicket of development organizations I mentioned in my last post, don’t worry overmuch. The first step is to begin identifying the topics and regions that really interest you. While life in general is richer if you’re broadly interested in the world, saying that you’re “willing to work anywhere” or “interested in everything” doesn’t provide an employer with much information about what you’ll be good at doing.
Most importantly, you should start reading, extensively, long before you ever apply for a job or even do an informational interview. If you’re very broadly interested in development, I would recommend the four books which caused huge debate in the US-based development community in the mid-2000s. The End of Poverty, by Jeff Sachs, essentially argues that aid can eliminate poverty. The White Man’s Burden is Bill Easterly’s response to Sachs, critiquing donations and advocating for market-based solutions. Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid covers similar territory to Easterly, with a stronger focus on developing domestic solutions within African countries. And Poor Economics, by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, sidesteps this debate by promoting more rigorous evaluation of both traditional development aid and market-based programs. Pay attention to your reactions to these arguments. Which points did you find compelling, or questionable? Did you really disagree with any of them? Which new ideas excited you? I think all of approaches can be useful in different contexts, and there are still organizations doing the types of work that all four sets of authors advocate.
Once you have a sense of several topics which interest you – say public health, or market-based approaches like microfinance – educate yourself about the state of the field. This is important even if you’ve got experience in a related sector in a high income country, because infrastructure, regulatory environments, and the population affected by a given issue are often very different in the low income ones. The World Bank’s list of publications by topic could be a useful starting point. More informally, check out the links to development blogs on my home page, and then check out their links as well. Finally, when you can name one or two topics which clearly seem more interesting than others, do an Amazon search and buy some of the top-rated or popular books in those fields. Look for those which cover the history of the field and current debates within it. It’s useful for employers to know that you’re not just uncritically excited about a topic, but have also given some thought to the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.
The same advice applies to the regions that interest you. If you already have a strong interest in a particular area, and you’re not originally from it, then pick up a history of the region. If this seems dry, you might try starting with travelogues, which are generally more entertaining but won’t give you a clear overview of the political, economic and social dynamics of an area in the same way that a more academic text will. The history of West Africa might initially seem unrelated to your interest in public health, but “development” occurs in places with specific historical contexts, not in a vacuum. In this example, it’s useful to know that some countries are politically stable and enjoying steady economic growth (Ghana) while others are still working to recover from civil wars (Sierra Leone, Liberia). Their policy needs are likely to vary accordingly.
If you’re interested in several separate regions, it will be helpful to focus on just one as you’re trying to start your development career. It’s time-intensive to familiarize yourself with a single area, let alone several, and having a clear regional focus is a useful signal to employers that you’re not just dabbling. Language skills are a key consideration. If you’re conversational in Spanish, French or Hindi, build on that and focus on regions where they’re spoken, even if you feel passionately about some other place as well. Building a professional proficiency in a language takes quite a while, so the midst of switching careers is not the time to drop your years of Spanish classes in favor of Swahili. Finally, if you only speak English, pick a region where English was the colonial language, as it’s likely to still be used in professional settings. (Bad for local linguistic autonomy, useful for business in a globalized world.)
The next posts in the series will cover building relevant skills and experience once you’ve selected a topic and region of interest to you.