Working in development is a political act

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 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.  The people you’re helping, 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.

It’s also problematic to suggest that citizens of low income 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 low income 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 or a wealthy citizen 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.

Development CVs and cover letters

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 low income 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.  (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 business finance in Nairobi, 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 ordinary people through the microfinance industry.  I would like to bring my managerial experience and familiarity with the banking sector 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.  A concrete focus on skills and familiarity with the development sector will be a better way to make your application stand out.

Getting paid to work in development

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 high and low income 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 is generally 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 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 is US$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.  Open University also has an online MSc in Development Practice which should be available to people who can’t travel to the US or UK.

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. I’ve also a list of fellowships for Anglophone and Francophone students who would like to study in the US or Europe, although they’re not all for development-related fields.  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 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 US$100,000 per year, there are many more middle managers at medium-sized NGOs earning US$40,000 in the US or even less abroad.  (For comparison’s sake, an entry-level position in the US might be US$25,000 – US$30,000, and as little as US$15,000 in a low income 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.

Unpaid internships in development

Nearly everyone I know who works in development started off as an unpaid intern, myself included.  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 looking for an internship outside your home country, 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.  Within the US, all major cities have smaller NGOs headquartered there, and I suspect it’s similar in other Northern countries.  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 another country.

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 an entry-level worker in an unpaid 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 low income 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) if you’re working outside your own country and haven’t got a work visa on arrival, 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.

Building transferable skills in development

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 low income countries (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.

What interests you about development?

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.