Tag Archives: ngo

Pounding the pavement: DevQuest-ing your way into a development career

By Giles Dickenson-Jones

What I’d probably classify as my international development origin story was a short-term research project with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Essentially, during the year, the ADB advertises research and work they need done, which you (and hundreds of others) apply to do as part of their internship program.

In my case, I applied to help them develop a model to predict which roads would be impacted by climate change, so they could target where to do more detailed analysis or invest in climate proofing. And as comparatively boring as this origin story might sound, it crucially altered the way I viewed working in international development.

For one, I realised the development community is full of high achievers. People at the ADB were clever, good-looking and fluent in multiple languages. International development seemed to be as competitive as I’d been told.

But I also quickly realized that most people there were extremely approachable and happy to help. In fact, people came to speak to me, probably both because of how undeniably interesting road engineering is and because they guessed I had questions about building a career in international development.

And while this is partly a testament to the ADB placing a high value on their interns, I think it was also because many professionals there had, at one point, asked the same questions:

  • “Should I apply to an international organisation through the young professionals program?”
  • “Is it more important to network, or to apply to jobs through formal channels?”
  • “Is a Masters degree enough, or do I need a PhD?”
  • “How important is field experience? Where do I start?”
  • “Why do people love karaoke so much here?”

Some people thought that to be a professional economist, a PhD was a minimum. Others suggested accruing a good chunk of experience outside international organisations was the way to go, as it provided a wider view of the development sector. By and large, field experience was recommended – not for the purposes of “slumming it,” but to ensure you receive an adequate dose of humility through being exposed to the day-to-day challenges faced in communities being “developed.”

On the other hand, advice on how to acquire this experience varied, with some people working it into their PhD research, some undertaking internships in the field and others having studied overseas.

"One does not simply...get field experience." Meme by WhyDev.
“One does not simply…get field experience.” Meme by WhyDev.

Not only that, but the advice was (as one would expect) extremely different depending on people’s specific sector, as well as both where and when they started their career. International development seemed to be a field involving an intricate web of vertical and horizontal links between organisations, specialisations and regions.

After attending enough lunch events to give me a pronounced “networking belly,” a key theme, it seemed, was that there is no set path to getting your foot in the door. While persistence, international experience and a specialisation in a useful field will help, don’t expect the combination to necessarily result in an interview. In fact, whether you’re even considered might depend on where you fit with nationality quotas, whether other high-performers have come from your university and whether you’ve worked in-country before.

And this is what can make development seem like the career equivalent of getting a backstage pass – if you don’t fit the club’s demographic, you’d better know the bouncer.

While I’ll never be the kind of person who looks like he belongs backstage, I do realize how valuable my experience was in providing some clarity about where I might fit in the sector. But two years later, as I came to the end of my post-graduate studies in development, I also realised I’d been lucky. I had the right skills at the right time, and the right person in ADB’s human resources department had seen my application.

But not everyone gets a backstage pass. In fact, few do. Perhaps as a result of this, many people I was studying with seemed to be afflicted by professional paralysis. These feelings made a world of waning development funding all the more intimidating and uncertain, particularly when many had no idea where their skills might fit into the development sector.

And perhaps this was the most difficult thing for people I spoke with. How does a person make an informed choice about the value of doing an internship, earning a degree or even pursuing a career in development, without having a mentor to learn from or a sounding board to bounce ideas off?

Should I seek a role in the field or target an organisation that has offices in regions I’m interested in working in? Should I self-fund an internship in a United Nations field office or with an NGO, or am I better to target private consultancies?

And whilst analogous problems are faced in any field, the non-linear nature of development careers makes it that much harder, especially with there being relatively limited pieces of good advice from seasoned professionals.

Not only that, there isn’t a standard recipe for pursuing a career in development, meaning the “one size fits all” advice provided by many Human Resources departments and Career Services offices isn’t always helpful. Following their advice, newcomers risk forcing themselves into a cookie-cutter mould of selection criteria, pursuing a role they might not be passionate about or simply trying to accrue qualifications or experiences that in fact place them no closer to securing their first position.

And this is the first reason we started DevQuest: as a simple avenue for newcomers to learn from their peers, hopefully making those initial steps a little less daunting. But there is another reason we thought the idea was long-overdue: despite a trend towards unpaid internships and young professionals programs, there is nowhere a person can read reviews of development entry points. Unless you know somebody who has gone before you, it’s hard to know what to expect when taking those first steps in your development career.

After all, how can someone tell the difference between an entry-level position where they’ll be forced to restock printers and one where they’ll get the opportunity to use their experience and even learn some new skills?

And whilst some Human Resource departments suggest interns and young professionals should be honoured to have even been selected, we think that every hour someone with a PhD spends getting coffee is an hour lost for an organisation that needs their skills.

We also believe personal stories can provide a powerful way to help newcomers cross that first bridge into development, by providing clarity about what’s out there – and assurance that they’re not the first person to have put in twenty applications without receiving a single reply.

Giles Dickenson-Jones is a Coordinator at DevQuest. Currently, he is an economist working in Myanmar, where he is responsible for developing and advising on economic policy. Before this, he worked in a range of roles for NGOs, government and the private sector. Giles holds a Masters degree in Development from the University of Sydney and an Honours degree in Economics from the University of New England. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows a silhouette of a businessman running up steps. Photo from Pixabay.

How only small NGOs can address unmet needs

Whether it is Daniel-san in Karate Kid, the Jamaican Bobsled team or Mel Gibson in a kilt, people love to support the underdog. Here’s a feel good story with a simple lesson – in international development, we should often do much of the same.

In Cambodia, it is estimated over 600,000 people with disabilities lack access to basic Speech Therapy services. These are people who have disabilities related to communication and swallowing. They may have had a stroke and cannot swallow food independently. They may have been born with cleft palate, and require surgery and therapy to eat and communicate. They may have Autism Spectrum Disorder, and require communication strategies to interact with their family, friends and community.

Despite this great need, there is a huge lack of services that exist for this population. There is a multitude of reasons for this, but this lack of services can be explained through this (grossly oversimplified) diagram.


At the top of the diagram, there is no explicit mention of disability in the Millennium Development Goals, nor does the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities mention Speech Therapy services, or the needs of people with communication and swallowing disabilities.

When conventions, laws and policies are not inclusive, this creates the same problems in funding. This affects programs, which in turn affects services. As a result, although no disability organisations in Cambodia could claim to be flush with funding, some of the best funded focus on hearing and visual impairments.

One organization, however, was unable to ignore the needs of 600,000 people needing Speech Therapy services in Cambodia.

CABDICO, a small organisation with 11 Cambodian staff and an annual budget smaller than many UN salaries, went searching for funds to support a program that helped initiate sustainable in-country Speech Therapy services and education.*

Despite the huge need, almost a year of searching provided fruitless. The most common response was “I can see that you’ve raised something very important (for over 600,000 people), yet this area of disability is not our focus and we cannot help.”

When needs are unrecognised at the international level, but felt at the local level, what could CABDICO do?

Larger NGOs often pursue funds that are in the order of millions of dollars. These funds exist because they are in internationally recognised areas of need – education, HIV/AIDs, maternal health, for example. Yet, smaller NGOs like CABDICO, pursuing funds that were closer to $30,000, face tremendous challenges in finding resources.

The little guy often displays more flexibility, which can be beneficial as demonstrated in this photo.

How do most NGOs respond when then cannot find funding? A good example can be seen through a large and relatively well-funded disability organisation in Cambodia, who, like CADBICO, also recognised the need for Speech Therapy a few years ago. However, due primarily to lack of motivation from funding bodies, they were unable to take steps towards addressing it. Concurrently, they started to develop programs in mother and child health. Why? Due to the availability of funds this area, as a focus of the Millenium Development Goals.

I am by no means suggesting that a focus in mother and child health is unwarranted, nor that this NGO’s work in this area is ineffective. However, the choice this organisation made to pursue available funding affected its ability to be flexible and responsive to the population it serves.

CABDICO, on the other hand, decided to start a funding campaign through the online platform StartSomeGood to offer community-based Speech Therapy services. With these funds, and later, having successfully secured funds through the Australian Embassy, CABDICO began to take steps to address this huge problem.

The first task was to gather everyone who had been doing bits and pieces of Speech Therapy, and those who should know about it, together in the one room. As simple as this sounds, CABDICO had never organised a workshop on a large scale before. It was a daunting task, yet with their can-do attitude, something that they embraced. They partnered with a government coordination body, the Disability Action Council, to help  get access to people from Ministries of Health, Education, Social Affairs and Labor, whom they would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

As a result, for the first time ever in Cambodia, people, international and national, governmental and non-governmental, came together to discuss the future of Speech Therapy in Cambodia.

2013-12-16 10.04.57
Secretary General of the Disability Action Council, HE Em Chan Makara, speaking about Speech Therapy on national news. Unprecedented.

Working groups were set up to address the problem. Buy in from government, so crucial towards success, has begun. Speech Therapy was explicitly mentioned in the strategic plan of the Disability Action Council, but as importantly, in the National Strategic Disability Plan. A Cambodian university that teaches Medicine, Nursing and other Allied Health disciplines has agreed to initiate a Speech Therapy course.

Although there is so much more to be done, the change that has already occurred has happened at breakneck speed, and CADBICO has shown that things can happen like this:


Identifying an unmet need requires going to one place, listening and observing. Anybody can do that. But, often, only small organisations have the agility and capability to do something about what they hear.

In this underdog story, ordinary people generously helped to create change, because those in positions of power wouldn’t. CADBICO’s efforts, and those of countless other effective, small NGOs demonstrates that it doesn’t take millions of dollars to create change, just the belief of the little guy to dare think that things can change for the better.


Addendum: There is still a long, long way to go in this journey. If you would be interested in supporting, in any way, please contact CABDICO.

*I have worked as an external advisor to CABDICO since July 2012.