This post makes a lot of valid points and is well worth the read. I must admit that I clicked on it with an expectation of banality – ever since the Huffington Post took the format of ‘X things to know about Y’ and flooded the internet with vapid articles such titles immediately provoke a sense of wariness – but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I found one point, the second, stuck with me for several days:
2. It’s important to be a generalist
While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.
I think this is sound advice. Trends and fashions change the prevailing winds in development at least as much as in any other sector. As nurses or teachers will tell you, any industry that politicians have direct and immediate access to is liable to get shaken up, oh, every four years or so. It would, therefore, be cruel to advise any wannabe development types (like myself) to specialise too soon. Besides, there are a lot of ‘basic’ skills and experiences you have to get under your belt before you can think about hunkering down into a speciality and living up to that possibly dubious ‘expert’ tag you’re itching to add to your Twitter bio.
This got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog And The Fox which opens by examining the divide between specialists and generalists:
There is a line amongst the fragments of the Greek Poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”… Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writer and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.
It would seem to me that development workers are foxes, or, at least, better off being foxes. These are not categorisations intended to be taken as gospel truth, of course. Berlin goes on to point out that these lines could be, very specifically, about actual hedgehogs and foxes – i.e. hedgehogs know one way to stop a fox from eating them and it is a successful one despite the different techniques of the fox. But, as a thought experiment, it is a nice way to start thinking about colleagues or thinkers or professors or writers or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, even yourself. It is especially interesting to examine the industry in light of this artificial definition.
Is it useful for development workers to be foxes?
I agree with the WhyDev post in that it makes those workers more employable and probably easier to work with. But is that missing the bigger picture? Perhaps the generalist outlook of development is misguided. Perhaps it perpetuates a system that seems to be addicted to reinvention, to new bold narratives of change and progress. Such things fill the blogosphere with laments and generally the big guys get pointed out as culprits – donors, governments, the military. While the notion of the development worker as a fox opens up excellent opportunities in punning blog post headlines, this could well be scant reward for collusion in ineptitude.
Alternatively, you could argue that the hedgehog is a disastrous profile for a development worker. It suggests inflexibility which makes team based projects a strained experience at best. Is there anyway a development project, let alone entire organisation, would work without an emphasis on teamwork? Sure, the fox might go low on details but at least it will try to innovate and attempt different options - the notion of listening to stakeholders at beneficiary and benefactor level seems too sound to throw away to me. That might be worth defending the vulpine status quo on its own.
Once again, the model is something of a nonsense but, play along. Think about it in a context close to you and see if it doesn’t stick in your mind. It did for me. If you have thoughts, please post them below so readers can access more coherent thoughts than my own. If it doesn’t stick with you then… well, that’s just typical fox behaviour isn’t it?
Ask me to provide a general job description about working in the aid and development sector, and you would leave me scratching my head. You only need to read Graduate Prospects‘ job description of an ‘aid/development worker’ to have an epiphany – there really is no adequate job description for an aid and development worker:
…Many work on development projects in fields such as education, sanitation, health, agriculture and urban/rural/small business development.
Work in this sector is diverse and encompasses governance, healthcare, education, gender equality, disaster preparedness, infrastructure, economics, livelihoods, human rights, forced migration, security, conflict and the environment.
Career areas include administration, research, fundraising, training, consultancy, advocacy, relief work and economist roles, as well as professional roles within health work, medicine, engineering and planning.
I may as well reply, “It’s life, the universe and everything”. You can almost hear Marvin replying, “Life? Don’t talk to me about life”.
The job description of an aid and development worker also makes it hard to translate knowledge, skills and learning for the job into a university degree. Karen Attiah, a recent graduate, thinks about the role that higher education plays in what she calls a ‘flawed system’. Tobias Denskus responds in three parts, arguing that “The problem is that graduate school is not simply a problem solver, door opener, job facilitator, but ideally an exercise in critical learning which is less tangible”.
Although the job description is all-encompassing, and your studies may not sufficiently prepare you, I do think there are certain and discrete competencies that you can develop and build to enable you to work effectively: what Tobias refers to as ‘critical learning’, which continues beyond the classroom. These are more than the desirable qualities of teamwork, critical thinking and an ability to work towards a deadline often found on job advertisements. In addition, many job application processes, particularly the later stages, include a competency-based interview. So, I reached out to colleagues, asking a simple question:
“What is the most important competency needed to work in aid and development?”
Those who I reached out to are intelligent, engaged, passionate and experienced. They know what they are talking about. They represent a broad range of backgrounds, experiences and knowledge, as fitting of the job description above. Those who aspire to work, or who already work, in this world should take note. They know what it takes to wedge a foot in the door, but more importantly, they also have an understanding of what it takes to be effective in working towards change.
“The question you ask sounds simple and easy, but in fact it’s quite complex — which is part of the reason there *aren’t* standard, agreed upon competencies in international development. For one thing, it’s an incredibly broad field. So when we speak of competencies, what we expect a water & sanitation specialist to demonstrate is going to differ from someone working in ICT4D. And maternal & child health expert is going to have different technical competencies than a director of development (the fundraising kind of “development”)…If there were one I would add, it would be along the lines of adaptability. Whether one is adapting to a new culture in order to be effective in the field, or one is adapting to an unexpected cut in funding, there are always ways that development professionals must adapt in order to succeed. And it’s not only the tactical side of adapting (e.g., “should I do X in order to cause Y?”) but the attitude – expecting to learn from others; listening well; taking time to reflect; being open to new ways of thinking, seeing the world, and doing things”
“The most important competency is the recognition that change must occur through championing ideas and initiatives of people within poor countries, and that long lasting change can only really occur through aid centred around the needs of beneficiaries. This means specifically targeting and seeking out the voices of those who are least commonly heard. Having this attitude does not make foreign aid workers obsolete though. There is a time and a place for outside opinions and expertise, as long as it is used to give people what they really want and need, rather than forcing it upon them”.
“If I can answer simply, it would be that the principles of project management in a broad sense are the most important competency for those working within the field of development. Understanding the project cycle and the technical knowledge required for the planning, implementation, reporting, and evaluation is essential. Because of the nature of development projects being relatively short term and funded by external donors, understanding project management is relevant regardless of the specific sector or country you are working in. Becoming familiar with tools like logical frameworks, work plans, and budgets as well as funding modalities of various donors can be useful for those wishing to enter the field”.
“I would say the ability to know when to ask for help and to not be afraid to ask. Having worked personally and managed people who have been in higher stress jobs, the people who thrive are the ones that are willing to ask for resources, help and advice. It is vital to remember that the people that surround you have knowledge that they can share that will help make your work/life easier. There are times to try to figure it out on your own, but there are times to understand your limits and seek out an expert. Such a skill requires the humility to know your own limits”.
“Whether you are chairing a meeting, conducting an interview, or delivering a training, every aid worker must be a good facilitator. This means being able to create and sustain an environment where people can speak openly and where collaboration, dialogue, and learning occur. You’ve got to have the right mix of communication and listening skills, tact, resourcefulness, creativity, and perhaps most important, a willingness to be yourself, warts and all. The ability to display warmth and quickly establish rapport with people may be considered a “soft skill” but it’s probably the most challenging and most important skill for aid workers to build”.
“This is one of those questions that is tempting to answer with a nice allegory (‘Working in development is like competing in every Olympic discipline at the same time’) or with a quote from someone famous and/or from the Global South. But in a nutshell, I would say most of it comes down to *perseverance* – the ‘continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition’ (Merriam Webster). I don’t know many ‘industries’ that rely to such a large extend on issues outside their control, are blamed for many things and get credit for very few other than the aid industry. But I also believe that perseverance to work in development means that you should never stop believing in, talking about and working towards alternatives to the ‘way things are’. Whether you face global economic realities, listen to people from other walks of life and point out ‘development issues’ whereever you live, work and play, you will need the perseverance to continue despite ignorance, setbacks and that one out-of-context example (usually involving an autocratic regime/dictator of your choice) that always ridicules your argument. And I don’t think there is an ‘it gets better’ philosophy to wrap it up”.
“I’ve thought about this a lot and it is very hard to choose just one. As with most fields, this work requires a wide range of competencies. But if I have to chose one, I’d have to go with empathy, by which I mean the capability to understand another person’s circumstances, point of view, thoughts and feelings. Empathy is different from sympathy, the feeling of concern for another, and pity, the belief or feeling that someone is in need of help. It is essential to our ability to understand another person’s experience of the world, and therefore essential to our ability to support individuals and communities to find their own solutions to development and humanitarian challenges”.
Ed Carr, Associate Professor and development professional
‘Critical self-awareness + think integratively’
“In short, I would say that the most important competency is the ability to honest evaluate the situation, your role in it, and adjust to better meet the needs of beneficiaries. How you get to that is not important to me – there are many pathways to this sort of critical self-awareness. However, without it technical skill is worthless. Nobody gets it right at the design phase – there are always unknowns and unexpected outcomes. I tell people that research proposals only tell me that you know how to think through research…which is important, as when you reach the field reality will intrude and you will have to rethink the whole project. Those who can do this will always do better work. After that general skill, I would suggest that the ability to think integratively is the next most important thing. You can be a subject area expert – great if you are – but you need to think about how what you know and worry about impacts things that other people know and worry about. The failure to think integratively (or in an interdisciplinary way, in academia) does in a lot of projects, and limits the utility of a lot of smart people…find a team of people working across boundaries, intellectual or physical, and work with them: you will have the foundation of an important skill set”.
Do not despair if this list intimidates you. The competencies listed by my colleagues above are developmental; they can be learned, practiced and grown. And, if you are ever feeling dissatisfied with where you are professionally, reach our to your peers and seek to ways to develop your competencies. And, always remember Marvin, the Paranoid Android: “Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, ’cause I don’t”.
What do you think is the most important competency needed?
This post originally appeared and is a cross-post with AidBoard
Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.
This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?
Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.
Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.
Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?
How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?
There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)
Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development. This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which
“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)
That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.
However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.
Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.
More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort. Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.
There are any number of academics, professionals and bloggers offering advice on working in aid and development. Dave Algoso’s post is a one-stop shop if you are seeking a round-up of disparate opinions on career advice. However, in light of some more recent thoughts about motivation, well being and knowledge in aid and development, I have been thinking about the space in-between motivation and jobs: education. That is, pursuing higher education for future work in aid and development. More specifically, about what a ‘development studies’ curriculum looks like and what it should/might include. This is not a guide to where you could or should study, although that would be extremely useful. Dan Drezner, of Foreign Policy, offers ‘A useful primer of higher education choices for international affairs‘. Drezner’s analogy for undertaking a PhD is attacking the Killer Bunny:
“And, just to be clear, aspiring Ph.D. students: I’m the guy with the weird Scottish accent, the bunny is the Ph.D. program, and all y’all are the ones suffering from the blood and gore. Unless you really want to kill that bunny, just walk away” (Dan Drezner).
Good advice. Such is not available, to the best of my knowledge, for undertaking ‘development studies’ in higher education (Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh are exceptions). In particular, undergraduate and postgraduate (Masters) studies in development in Australia. Degrees in ‘development studies’ have multiplied as the aid and development industry grows and expands, particularly across Australia. UNSW, Deakin, Monash, University of Melbourne, ANU, USYD, Murdoch, University of Queensland, University of Melbourne all offer degrees in ‘development studies’. ANU’s Development Studies Network has a great summary of these courses, but no real critical insight for prospective students. Perhaps if the results of the graduate exit surveys taken were publicly available, students could make a more informed choice.
So, I want to open a forum and think about what should/might be included in a ‘development studies’ curriculum. This stems from my own experience as a postgraduate student and the ebb and flow of dissatisfaction I experienced in terms of relevance, value and skill development.
My experience in higher education is both as a student and a researcher. The latter, in teaching & learning for business and economics. There was, and still is, a radical shift occuring across global business curricula in terms of students’ outcomes, skills and learning. Life-long learning has become a key concept, as it is now recognised that education should not be for employment, but for employability. Students face an uncertain future. This has also seen a shift to a discourse of ‘transferable skills’, which I am sure you are all well aware of (and have). Academic standards are also being developed in partnership with government, industry and universities to engender greater accountability, quality learning and employer satisfaction.
I do not believe that ‘development studies’ has benefited from this shift (nor have my majors in Ancient Roman & Greek History or Near Eastern Archaeology). And I believe this is because there is not the same impetus to invest in research for improving the teaching and learning of ‘development studies’ (again, neither for Ancient Roman & Greek History or Near Eastern Archaeology). Investment is being geared towards those degrees that attract the most number of students and that are considered to contribute most effectively towards the ‘knowledge economy’ (apparently, a nuanced understanding of the prosprographical characteristics of consular elections in 2nd Century BC Rome is not valued in the knowledge economy). The Global Masters in Development Practice (MDP) was set-up and developed thanks to a $16 million MacArthur Foundation grant. Many universities offering ‘development studies’ do not have the same resources at their disposal.
Following are some thoughts about different aspects of studying ‘development studies’.
Skills & competencies
Surveys from across the business world, of students, academics, employers, have usually found similar desires in terms of skills. However, there is the constant problem of matching education and skills with available employment. The problem of skills mismatch arises even in growing economies. There are severe labour shortages for some kinds of workers and a massive oversupply of others. Often this is in spite of market forces rather than because of them, since markets and higher educational institutions tend to lag behind employers’ skill demands before oversupplying them.
A 2008 Tuning Report on the design and delivery of business programmes in higher education in Europe found very similar rankings of the most important skills and competencies by employers, graduates and academics.
What skills and competencies are the most important for those working in aid and development?
Aid v. Development
As with other higher education programs that lead into a profession and industry, we have to recognise that ‘development studies’ is in the same box. However, there is a key difference. Although aid and development are industries, they are not professions. Wanderlust posted a 5-part series on ‘Becoming an aid worker’, the second of which is titled – ‘Aid work is a profession‘. I disagreed, and had a very engaging discussion on this topic. A recent study from ELRHA, a collaborative network that supports partnerships between higher education institutions in the UK and humanitarian organisations around the world, suggests that the aid industry is a long way off from becoming professionalised. Essentially, there is no professional association body or a standardised qualification system. And, if these were developed, it would be very difficult to make this a universally, globally recognised body or system. They would first have to be developed at national levels, most likely in U.S, UK, Australia, Canada or the EU. This will require funding, research, collaboration, consultation, and more. At the moment, qualifications are fragmented; competencies, learning outcomes and curricula change from one Masters degree to another. In addition, there is no one profession that the aid or development industry consists of, unlike the medical, law, teaching or accounting professions. The aid and development industry encompasses all four professions and more.
Furthermore, there is the apparent difference between ‘aid work’ and ‘development work’. Aid work largely refers to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Development work is much broader in scope, time and place and can also cut across any number of disciplines and knowledge: law, economics, education, health, etc. However, the line is beginning to blur between what is ‘humanitarian/aid work’ and what is ‘development work’. This is from a recent report on aid policy at IRIN:
“A striking finding…is that humanitarian recipients are relatively predictable: the top five aid recipients – Sudan, oPt (occupied Palestinian territory), Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia – have remained among the top 10 aid recipients over the past decade. Rather than aid being a short-term life-saving measure, the statistics indicate it is being used to deliver basic services year on year, according to Kellett, and in this sense, the divide between humanitarian and development aid may be far weaker than many think. ‘It’s not what it says on the box,’ he surmised…This points to the oft-repeated false division between humanitarian and development aid, said UK Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Humanitarian Policy Group researcher Sarah Bailey. ‘The reality is that our efforts to make a clear division between `humanitarian’ and `development’ are not well suited to the complexity of these contexts… We know that humanitarian assistance is not the best tool to address long-term vulnerability and the absence of basic services, so why isn’t development assistance doing more to tackle these problems?’”
But, I think there could still be a distinction between studying for ‘aid work’ and studying for ‘development work’ (or is there?). And, neither aid work or development work is a profession and so suffers in translation to a postgraduate degree and student expectations of finding work. However, the Global MDP seems to be trying to correct this and is leading the way in higher education.
So, if studying for aid and studying for development is different, how could we design appropriate, flexible and relevant curricula?
Core Units for an Masters in Humanitarian Practice
HUM 101 Understanding humanitarian contexts and application of humanitarian principles
HUM 102 Achieving results effectively, considering the need for speed, scale and quality
HUM 201 Developing and maintaining collaborative relationships
HUM 202 Operating safely and securely in high risk environments
HUM 301 Self-management in a pressured and changing environment
HUM 302 Leadership in humanitarian response
Add on some thematic and technical electives and you have a very good looking program of study (tip of the hat - @cynan_sez). See also the Oxford Brookes University’s Masters in Development and Emergency Practice and this index of humanitarian studies across the globe. If you want to further explore learning for humanitarian practice, there is a U.S site dedicated to talking through the professionalisation of the sector, which has particularly interesting discussions around common competencies, higher education and work-based learning. It is a great site to join and be actively involved in.
And, for a postgraduate degree in ‘development studies’, look no further than aforementioned Global Masters in Development Practice. You can view the sample curriculum here. This is a model course, from which many ‘development studies’ degrees could learn. These are some of the features of this program, with my own 2 cents thrown in for good value:
Length: a Masters should should be an minimum of two years, and this one is.
Core courses in the health sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and management sciences.
Electives can include languages and perhaps should. Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French would be extremely relevant.
Field experience: should be mandatory. The MDP seems to allow up to 6 months of field experience followed by a symposium. Brilliant.
Pre-requisites: need to do remedial courses in subjects if pre-requisites are not met.
Cross-disciplinary: encourages cross-disciplinary study and specialisation.
Core Competencies: students and employers need to know what core competencies are being developed, assessed and gained.
Inclusive: the MDP is offered globally, in 22 universities in 16 countries. James Cook University in Australia being one.
Accreditation: has the potential of being recognised internationally like the MBA. This will require much internal and external quality assurance across the network, but a much needed step in professionalising development work.
What else should be considered in developing a curriculum?
Tobias Denskus at Aidnography recently wrote that many development studies are devoid of a ‘personal component’ and that the aid and development industries are ‘messing up sane hearts and minds’. Development as reflective practice is an extremely important concept, and one that needs more currency in traditional development studies. The IDS’ MA in Participation, Power and Change embeds reflective practice in its curriculum and includes 12-months of work-based learning.
Moving equity/inequity up the global development agenda should also apply to ‘development studies’ and higher education. This is quite a significant point, but one often overlooked. Ensuring higher education, particularly for development studies, is inclusive and accessible will enable countries to take deeper ownership of addressing development challenges.
Alanna Shaikh once reasoned that she does not hire development study majors, but changed her opinion. Would you hire someone with a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters in Development Studies, an internship at ActionAid and has read ‘Dead Aid’? What would they have to offer that hundreds, if not thousands, of other students do not have? Enthusiasm? Good intentions? A knowledge of the rights-based framework? An academic understanding of neoliberalism and global trade imbalances? It is always a case of theory v. practice. Many courses would give you an excellent theoretical basis for understanding, but little practical experience or critical learning that will make you more employable.
The only advice that I would offer here is this – study something that gives you discrete knowledge, skills and grounding in a discipline and then do a postgraduate MA. Education, public health, engineering, architecture, medicine, economics, logistics, etc. will offer valuable pathways for entry into aid and development work. A MA in Development Studies has little value-added in terms of skill & technical knowledge development, but does look great on an application for the AusAID or World Vision graduate programs. It is perhaps better suited for those already working in development, particularly for graduates with a few years of experience. As a degree, it gains much more relevancy and value with work experience. If all those in the industry had a discrete background in one of the above, it would perhaps facilitate professionalisation.
Field experience: internships and work-based learning
Field experience is highly prized by both students and employers. Doing the time on internships and volunteer placements is necessary. Built-in field experience, whether it be an internship at an NGO or in-country research in India, should be part of any program in ‘development studies’. But, who should pay for it? Usually, the student bears the cost of gaining relevant field experience in the first one-two years. There are graduate programs in Australia, such as at World Vision Australia and AusAID. There are also a number of paid ‘volunteer’ opportunities through AusAID, such as the AYAD and AVID programs, but these require high levels of experience and usually an area of technical expertise such as nutrition, health, law, or education.
“Professionalizing the aid sector – by definition applying standards which would mean excluding non-professionals from practice – means improving the quality of service provided to the poor. No, of course it will not solve every problem. But it will absolutely solve or eliminate many. Who knows? Maybe I’d even end up out of a job. But even so, professionalizing the aid sector is, or if it ever happens, would be a good thing. Absolutely. I struggle to see why this is such a challenging concept”.
It is not the concept that is challenging, but the process, which starts with higher education and bringing together a hodge-podge of professions, curricula, stakeholders, studies, skills and interests. The following are some guiding questions for discussion, based on the above and more, as what I have written is by no means comprehensive nor necessarily of any value:
What is the overall aim of a B/MA in Development Studies?
What is ‘development studies’?
Is there a difference between ‘aid work’ and ‘development work’? How should this be addressed in curricula?
What is the value of a B/MA in the job market, global economy?
What courses are essential? What courses are not so essential?
Where does service learning, internships and field work fit into the curriculum?
How can this help the professionalisation of the sector?
Recently, twoheavyweights in the aid & development online community, and respected professionals in their own right, posted reflections on why they work in the sector. This was followed by very reluctant, but wise advice from Dave Algoso (who wrote ‘Career advice (from people smarter than me’ on whydev for us). I highly recommend that you read what they have to say (the symmetry of their titles is beautiful):
Rather than write a post of my own reflection (which would be called ‘Electrify‘), I want to open this thread of introspection to you. Why do you work in aid and development? Or, if you are not yet working, why are you studying for your MA in Development Studies or similar? Why are you currently volunteering at [large or small NGO]? To quip, why dev?
We often hear from, and read, the same bloggers. But, rarely do we hear from other voices. From you. Occasionally, you make a comment, post a link on Facebook or hire an airplane to write a message of smoke in the sky.
So, read the above posts. Think about Dave Algoso’s two sub-rules about knowing yourself: 1) Know what you value; 2) Know what you are good at. And, let ourselves and others know why you do what you do. If anything, such introspective writing will help you at your next job interview.
Courtesy of a good friend of mine, I recently read this speech, by American author David Foster Wallace to graduate students at Kenyon College in 2005. If you have a spare 10 minutes, I wholeheartedly encourage you to head over and have a read. The central theme of Foster Wallace’s talk was that our “default setting” is to think that the world revolves around us, and therefore everything that occurs in our lives only happens because it has an effect on us. After all, we can only see the world through our own perspective, there are no other sets of eyes which we can use. However, Foster Wallace strongly advocated for the need to push past this, and to constantly remind ourselves that there are a whole number of other perspectives and lives going on, regardless of ours. Doing this, he felt, was a vital part of being a far better communicator, a far better writer, and most importantly, a far better human.
From a young age, Foster Wallace himself was tainted with the tag of “genius”. He was constantly praised for his achievements in class, on the sporting field, in his books. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, at the age of 24. Ten years later, his second novel, Infinite Jest, was published, and it now sits in Time’s list of the 100 Best Novels since 1923, putting him alongside authors such as Hemingway, Orwell and Steinbeck. Foster Wallace didn’t complete a third novel, however. At the age of 46, he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt. He had suffered through depression for more than 20 years, and it had finally gotten the better of him.
Although Foster Wallace may have been seen by many to be a modern-day genius, what he excelled in most was an absolute denial of this idea. He was exceptionally keen on the idea that he was really no different from anyone else, that he was not exceptional, and that the world continued to go on regardless of whether he was there or not. Listening to his own words, this realisation becomes immediately apparent:
“I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person … I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”
For me, I think you could replace the word “writer” with “development worker” and it would still have the same effect. As a writer, Foster Wallace was able to connect with his readers in ways that other authors couldn’t, because he was able to speak from an everyman perspective. For those working in development, the same attitude can be adopted. One of the most oft repeated lines in development is that for programs to work, we need to get away from the model of donor and recipient, and move towards a model of empowerment, a model that values the voices of everyone, not just those with Masters degrees. From a purely practical point of view, there is no point coming into an area and forcing your ideas on others, if, once you leave, those ideas are not accepted. I believe we can take Foster Wallace’s recognition that we are not inherently any more superior, or any more important, and apply it to our field too.
Many of us live in a world that could easily make us think that we are the centre of it. We are often praised for our achievements, we often excel in what we do, and we are often told that the world is full of boundless opportunities, if only we apply ourselves. Of course, praise has its place when deserved, and can serve an important purpose, but it can lead to losing sight of where we stand in the big picture. Although many of us are put in places of privilege, it is imperative to understand the true meaning of the word “serve”.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of that concept was Gandhi. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi said (emphasis is mine):
“Service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”
In a short piece entitled The Nature of the Fun, Foster Wallace speaks of a similar parallel in the world of writing. He speaks of how initially, people tend to write simply because they think it is fun, until they are (unfortunately) recognised as having talent. After this point, it can become more about trying to write for others; for recognition, for adoration or for respect. Foster Wallace doesn’t only believe that this primarily serves the ego and vanity, it leads to, as he puts it “shitty fiction”.
I believe that by ignoring the true meaning of the word “serve”, we too can fall into the trap of “shitty development”. The following table, courtesy of How Matters, adequately illustrates this point:
We live in a world where it is easy to fall into the trap of the “default setting” that Foster Wallace described when speaking to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. All around us, we see examples of vanity and self-centredness becoming the norm. A recent analysis of modern day song lyrics showed that words such as “I” and “me” are more commonly used than ever before. Our obsession with Charlie Sheen and his obsession with winning, while amusing for 3.5 seconds, is a sad reflection on the pervasiveness of our voyeurism and the value we put on self-praise and chest-beating. And finally, my favourite study of recent times, women (as compared to men), who posted more photos of themselves and had the largest social networks on Facebook, are more likely to value their self worth according to their appearance, and use social networking as a method to seek attention.
As development workers, what can we conclude from all of this, and what is the best way forward? I think it involves taking the ego out of the equation, and removing that temptation to think that we are perhaps smarter, more special and more insightful than others. As tragic as Foster Wallace’s death was, there’s still a very important lesson to be learnt in the way he lived his life.
In the First World War, and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days. The Second World War involved every continent on the globe, and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction. And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super-science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes the War of the Worlds Words.
Bob Zoellick, ranked #2 in Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, delivered the World Bank’s Annual Meeting speech at Georgetown University last year. It has been widely publicised, commented on and critiqued. And, for good reason. In his speech, Zoellick proclaimed a renewed focus on research and the World Bank’s role in sharing knowledge. It was this particular paragraph that caught my attention:
“Yet for too long prescriptions have flowed one way. A new multi-polar economy requires multi-polar knowledge. With the end of the outdated concept of a Third World, the First World must open itself to competition in ideas and experience. The flow of knowledge is no longer North to South, West to East, rich to poor”.
As I was reading the Bob Zoellick’s speech, ‘Democratizing Development Economics‘, I also remembered having watched another great presentation by Hans Rosling. Both very different in style, content and presentation, but both with a common central theme: change. For Bob Zoellick, it is about rethinking how development economics research needs to be inclusive of other forms and places of knowledge; for Hans Rolsing, it is about rethinking how we acknowledge countries and development circumstances. That is, doing away with the terms ‘developing’ and ‘western’ and opening up discourse to the experiences and knowledge of every country.
“time has come to stop thinking about sub-Saharan Africa as one place”
“there is no such thing as a ‘western’ world and a ‘developing world’”
There are worse generalisations to make, particularly of the African continent. Take for example, Ted Nugent’s erroneous, stereotypical rant in The Washington Times, in which he referred to Africa as “an international scab”. By extreme contrast, Rosling’s is a poignant and insightful presentation, as he was able to dismantle the notion of ‘western’ and ‘developing’ worlds using UN statistical data on child mortality. It is time to stop thinking that the world is divided into ‘western’ and ‘developing’. Not only is the ‘Third World’ an outdated concept, but so to is ‘developing’ and ‘western’. Many of these terms are relics of the Cold War era and need to be torn down like statues of Lenin. It also must be acknowledged that this era, and the study of it, had an enormous and lasting impact on understandings and the terms of reference we use to reference global divisons and global cultures.
The Cold War is an immensely complex historical period, and it you begin to look at it from other perspectives, it was a period of long, but (relatively) small, intra-state conflicts with external intervention and support. It was not simply an ideological and military stand-off between two ‘hot’ superpowers. To borrow the term from Niall Ferguson, it was the ‘Third World’s War‘ (follow this link to listen to his insightful and provocative lecture at the London School of Economics):
It is clear just from skimming down this list of conflicts, that the Cold War era cannot be reduced to a simple understanding or simple terms of references. It was not cold. Cambodia went through one of the most horrendous and terrifying political and social upheavals in history, the People’s Republic of China was founded, and Korea and Vietnam were divided (the latter being reunified). If we apply this same principle of looking from different perspectives, we will see that countries are neither ‘developing’ or ‘developed’, ‘western’ or ‘South’.
Niall Ferguson would likely argue that these terms and ways of seeing the world are products of 1968; the baby-boomers and the beginnings of mass higher education in the US. Their world views came to underpin the vernacular of disciplines such as International Relations (IR), various media, and public understanding. And, it is with IR that I want to pick a bone with, as I believe this discipline has been very influential in the dissemination of these terms. My contention is that these terms of reference are confined to three straitjackets: geography, analysis and knowledge.
Geography: Mainstream IR perspectives are spatially confined in terms of geography and universality. IR has marginalised the experiences and events of the many different countries, focusing on particular regions of the world as ‘central’ to understanding global processes and international relations. The histories, culture, laguages and knowledge of diverse peoples and nations have been reduced to convenient labels such as ‘Asia’, ‘Africa’, ‘Latin America’, ‘West’ and ‘non-West’. These concepts are problematic at best.
Analysis: essentially, most IR perspectives are derived from the past 400 years of European history. This limits their analytical capacity in terms of describing and examining the behaviour of non-European, non-North American states. Particular IR perspectives apply rationalism to a state’s behaviour. That is, rationalism can explain and predict the behaviour of states within certain boundaries. For example, that states will act within their own national and secruity interests. However, rationalism cannot take cultural, contextual or transnational ways of thinking and behaviour into account.
Knowledge: mainstream IR persepctives are limited in their inclusiveness of knowledge, marginalising and omitting ‘non-western’ perspectives, experiences and knowledge. Mainstream IR perspectives are the product of academic communities securely located in Europe, UK and North America, and the development of the field of IR was and still is dominated by academics and intellectuals from universities in these regions. It is also grounded in particular studies of philosophy, political theory and history, which are also spatially and analytically confined themselves.
In 1960, there was a very clear distinction between developed and developing countries. That is not the case now. The ground is always shifting. Even the ‘Bottom Billion’ are shifting as countries experience high economic growth, but low poverty reduction rates. In 1990, about 93% of the world’s poor people lived in Low-Income Countries (LIC). However, recent research suggests that three-quarters of the world’s approximately 1.3 billion poor live in Middle-Income Countries (MICs) and only about a quarter of the world’s poor, about 370 million people, live in the remaining 39 LICs, which are largely in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the ground is always shifting, the language tends to stay the same. Although it may have been an accurate generalisation five decades ago, to speak of ‘developing countries’ as having high birth rates is now erroneous. Bangladesh has a rate of 2.29 children per woman and the United States 2.08. To speak of ‘Africa’ as having high birth rates is also misleading. Niger has a fertility rate of 7 children per woman, but Botswana has a rate of 2.82. Similarly, the literacy rate in Zimbabwe is 91%, while in Chad it is 32%. However, to speak of ‘Africa’ and ‘sub-Saharan Africa’, by those such as William Easterly, is common development-speak.
So, what are the alternatives and what should we do? Below are a list of recommendations that I encourage you to consider, comment on or add to:
Reference legitimate and recognised benchmarks such as the UNDP’s Human Development Index or the World Bank’s poverty benchmark (These have their own methodology problems)
Examine development issues and challenges of individual communities, countries in the context of regional geography, history and relations rather than losing countries within references to regions and continents. There is a big different between ‘poverty in Africa’ and ‘poverty in Angola’ or ‘poverty in South Africa’.
If we are to stop using these terms - to stop calling countries ‘developing countries’ – then it must start in our studies. In our essays, blog posts and discussions; in our contribution as students and graduates to development studies. These are absolute terms in a relative universe. The flow of knowledge is changing, but if we continue to use outdated and misleading terms then we risk proliferating inequalities and ignoring the experiences, knowledge and expertise of many different communities.
“This needs to be more than just a slogan. This needs to be a fundamentally new way of searching for development solutions, in a networked development architecture, where none dominates and all can play a part” (Bob Zoellick).
It seems that since Angelina Jolie and George Clooney made development chic, I get more and more emails from young people wanting to know how they can forge a career in global service. While I wish to encourage their enthusiasm, I also find myself wanting to ask them one basic question: are you sure you are up for it?
Here are a few things I wish I had known before I launched my own career in development.
Resilience is not part of the curriculum, but it should be.
When I emerged from grad school I was full of theories and credentials. This stood me in good stead at work-related conferences, but it did little to prepare me for the shock of working directly with beneficiaries — people who have suffered torture, extreme poverty and desperation of all sorts.
Neither did my degrees help me cope with halting bureaucracies, corruption, and the many health risks associated with living in challenging development contexts.
Not being aware of any practical strategies to nurture one’s resilience is not only a recipe for frustrated ambition, it’s a scourge on development forces generally. This is why attrition rates, illness, addiction and family breakdown run high. Sadly, the veil of silence on these issues is only now beginning to lift as more and more development actors draw attention to the realities of aid work, and even more importantly, question the impact this has on our primary agenda: serving the world’s disaffected.
Beware of burn out, because cynicism is a killer.
Few people like to talk about it, but seasoned aid and development workers are seldom the happiest bunch. Not surprising given the realities they deal with every day. But what is surprising is just how many aid workers wear their cynicism like a badge of honor. One of our facilitators, Kit Loring, explains the toll this can take in this video.
The great irony here is that jadedness does not serve you, or anyone else. It does not make you tougher, smarter, or better at your job. What it does do is help bring down office morale, makes you prone to giving up too soon, and makes you a difficult person to live with.
Working in the field can be a humbling experience, and this is as it should be. Behind the more cerebral approaches to development is the sobering truth that ‘results-based management’ and ‘strategic interventions’ are poor substitutes for being able to truly LISTEN and SERVE. Egocentric attitudes of how things ‘should be done’ can rob us of the flexibility and insight that is required to actually get things done. So, remember why you are there, open your eyes and ears, and breathe deeply of your surroundings (and yes, this is easier said than done). If you do the result will be transformative. You will be a beneficiary.
Meaning is your greatest motivator.
One of the most interesting things about burnout is that it is generally non-existent for people who feel truly connected to a higher purpose, whatever that may be.
Do you know what that is for you?
If you don’t, I suggest you find out, because this will be your touchstone. The most successful and impactful aid and development workers I have known are the ones who could stay true to their sense of purpose over time. And if this seems like ‘airy fairy’ talk, take heed: there are plenty of practical tools to help you stay centered no matter how challenging your circumstances.
Would I do it again?
Truth is, even if I had known all of these things beforehand, I think I would still have chosen a life of global service, because I truly believe in the cause. But I would have wasted a lot less of my time, and that of others, trying to figure out how to do it with integrity if resilience and self-care had been part of my early learning.
The good news is that we need not re-invent the wheel to tackle these issues; as a community there is a lot we can learn from other disciplines, like psychology, social work and even ancient wisdom traditions, to help us stay effective in our work.
Satori Worldwide is committed to promoting the wellbeing of aid workers, expatriate families and others working in the field. If you are keen to learn the tools that will help you maintain balance and resilience in the field, you can join us for our next retreat in Bali—where fresh air, fresh food and fresh perspective await you.
If you would like to learn more about the less-publicised aspects of working in the field to see if “you are up for it” visit our Challenges of Global Service page www.satoriworldwide.com and learn why caring for yourself may well be one of the most altruistic things you will ever do.
“The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try and reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” (Leo Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance).
In 1957, Leo Festinger introduced Cognitive Dissonance Theory to the world. This theory states that when someone holds two conflicting cognitions, he or she will act to reduce this state of discomfort in one of three ways. Let’s say I was to find out that bike riding is dangerous for my health. I could either (a) change cognitions to make it more compatible to my mindset (eg dismiss this new information), (b) add new cognitions to bridge the gap between existing cognitions (eg look for new information that states that driving a car is more dangerous than riding a bike), or (c) change my behaviour (eg stop riding my bike). With any of the three methods, the stronger the feeling of dissonance (ie discomfort), the more motivated I am to reduce it.
Festinger’s theory has been around for a while now, and not surprisingly has had quite a few criticisms and revisions over the years, but the underlying thread holds true. When we come across a piece of information that shakes our belief system, we actively try to reduce this discomfort.
New research has backed up this theory. In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to convince others of their own opinion on a particular topic. These topics ranged from animal testing, food choices and the merits of Apple products. The researchers then used different tricks to lower the confidence of those doing the convincing, such as making them write with their non-dominant hand (interestingly enough, previous research has shown that people are less confident in what they are writing when using their non-preferred hand). They also used other tricks such as making the subjects think about times when they felt doubtful, or telling them that the person being convinced was opposed to what they were going to say, before they had even started talking. These situations all lead to the subject becoming more doubtful in their beliefs. The researchers discovered that when people were placed in positions of doubt, they were more likely to be stronger and passionate advocates. In other words, when our beliefs are shaken by external factors, we become more adamant and are more likely to put greater effort into persuading others.
Perhaps this explains why people who still don’t believe in climate change are so steadfast in their beliefs. As George Monbiot writes “To dismiss an entire canon of science on the basis of either no evidence or evidence that has already been debunked is to evince an astonishing level of self-belief. It suggests that, by instinct or by birth, you know more about this subject than the thousands of intelligent people who have spent their lives working on it.”
Perhaps it explains how we can live in a world where the hegemonic nation’s conservative party has 47 out of 48 Senate candidates don’t believe in man-made climate change. (As a depressing side note, the one Republican who did believe in climate change, Mike Castle of Delaware, was recently defeated by staunch anti-masturbation campaigner Christine O’Donnell in the GOP’s Senate primary.)
Looking outward, there are many examples of people who are demonstrating the very principles of cognitive dissonance, and using strategy (a) or (b) to reject seemingly common sense information. But what about looking inward?
One of the most common phrases I hear bandied about among people I talk to is “preaching to the converted”. You could relate this concern directly to this site. Who are the people that are likely to read it, or to tell their friends about it? What type of person would be interested in its content? On a wider level, are we simply reinforcing our own views about development and social change, or do we really think we can change anyone’s opinion?
I’m not sure what the answer is to these questions, but I do believe that acknowledging how people react to cognitive dissonance helps us to understand “preaching” about social change.
A friend of mine recently moved into an apartment with a few other people, and she was concerned that they weren’t as energy conservative as she is. She was in a bit of a dilemma. Should she look to live with people who held similar views about saving energy, or should she try and live with people with a more varied mindset, and hope to set a good example so that they might also start turning off lights or taking shorter showers? As she asked my advice, I thought about how social networking sites in the US are now used to find perfect matches for college roommates based on a set of criteria. You can define, down to preferred bedprints, how you want your roommate to turn out.
My advice to her was simple. If she could tolerate living with people who were of a different mindset, and they didn’t infuriate her to the point of insanity, she should go for that option. The reason behind this logic is that I don’t believe that living in a bubble, even if it is a pleasant, reinforcing bubble, is ever a good way to live. We need a diversity of opinions and beliefs around us to keep us mentally healthy. Healthy discussion and critical discourse are good things.
But where does that leave us as far as Festinger’s notion of cognitive dissonance is concerned? If we truly believe in social change and (as cliched as it sounds) making the world a better place, then we need to be aware of how people react to views that conflict with their own belief set. We all know the feeling when someone approaches us on the street to sell us something, whether it is a product or a religion, that we don’t believe in. The louder and more aggressive the person is, the more likely we are to dig our heels in and stand our ground, or retaliate. However, as agents of development, or social change, we want to see people around us living lives that are ethical and that benefit the world as a whole. So, just like my friend with her flatmates, I think we need to take a non-aggressive approach, and hope that people will eventually give in to common sense and see that it is possible to make choices in life ethically.
It seems that all of a sudden, Australia’s foreign aid portfolio has become a matter of national and political interest. The Coalition promised during the recent election to transform the foreign aid portfolio into a ministerial-level position. Former Prime Minister Keving Rudd will oversee Australia’s aid program this year as Minister for Foreign Affiars. The Australian Labor Party has scrapped the position of parliamentary secretary for foreign aid to assist Kevin Rudd. Australia’s aid budget is currently $4.3 billion and on track to reach $9 billion by 2015. Both major political parties seek to set spending at 0.5% of gross national income (GNI); still well below the UN target of 0.7%. This year’s budget currently represents 0.33%.
There is clearly a shift in the national and international priority of Australia’s aid program, not in the least motivated by Australia’s strategic interests. The current media interest being generated could be harnessed to critically address the philosophy, accountability and allocation of Australia’s aid program. A recent review of Australia’s aid budget for Papua New Guinea found that half of the $400 million was being spend on technical assistance – a.k.a consultants.
On Wednesday this week, Kevin Rudd announced his latest recruitment – Daniel Street. A 29-year old television journalist, Daniel will now be advising Kevin Rudd on Australia’s aid budget. He recently completed a Masters of Philosophy in Development Studies at Cambridge University under a Chevening Scholarship. Daniel has also been involved in fundraising for the Jesuit Refugee Service and helping to establish a youth-run homeless shelter in Sydney. Otherwise, he has no professional experience in foreign aid.
This appointment is in keeping with Kevin Rudd’s history and liking of young, loyal and highly-positioned staff. As Prime Minister, he had at his disposal a posse of 30-somethings, including Alistair Jordan as chief of staff and Andrew Charlton, an economics adviser.
Daniel Street’s appointment will induce a wide range of reactions – least of all from young development graduates like himself. It is difficult not to be envious. However, to what extent this appointment is a recognition of the value and strengths of a development graduate (as opposed to one of party loyalty and ideological symmetry) is difficult to discern. It is impossible to gauge what his views are on aid and development, though his majors were politics and international relations in development studies. His role may be to remind Kevin of Australia’s strategic imperatives and how aid can be best used to secure them. I am sure Kevin Rudd would like his legacy to include securing Australia a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
I would love to interview Daniel to determine how he plans on approaching his position and what advice on aid and development he will give to Kevin Rudd’s ear.