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