Changing gears on international development

A number of my readers are, just like me, young professionals who are attempting to break into the world of international development. A few of us might already know from the beginning of our career that this is the type of job we want to do. For others, the calling for international development work might come a few years later after taking on a job that is seemingly unrelated to our new chosen path. A young professional trying to make this transition raised this topic in the Devex Linkedin Group. Many have shared insightful answers. One of the most comprehensive is from William Finseth who wrote about his own career, women in international development and even relationships. While addressed to young professional women, his thoughts still generally apply to ID-types of many variation. With his permission I am re-posting his response here:

It is not that easy to break into International Development these days. Things have changed over the years since I began my career in ID. I began as a volunteer with World University Services Canada. At the time I had an BA in political science and economics and a Bachelor of Social Work degree in Community Development. I was sent to a very poor rural district of Swaziland. I lived in a mud hut, used the public washrooms and got my water from the river. It was rough and ready but it opened my eyes to the real challenges of fighting poverty and it help me grow up to be a caring human being. It also inspired me to return to Canada to get an MBA, with the goal of becoming an expert in enterprise and economic development, trade and investment and national competitiveness. I knew that I would need special knowledge and experience. I got that by being a business consultant/marketing specialist working for private companies and for government departments in Canada. I spent seven years in the trenches learning my craft, making contacts, learning about the world of business. My experience eventually led to my being hired by Industry Canada as a Senior Policy Adviser for Small and Medium Enterprise Development. It wasn’t something I sought. It was a job that came to me by serendipity but it played a crucial role in raising my profile and it opened a door for me, again a case of serendipity that led to my being hired by the Canadian International Development Agency to work as a Senior Enterprise and Economic Development Adviser for Africa and the Middle East Branch. It took me fourteen years to make my dream come true. Eventually, I had to return to my consulting practice when the Canadian government laid off 45,000 employees but by that time I had the bona fides to be hired by the top international development organisations and by developing countries directly as a Senior Adviser to Ministries of Industry and Trade and the national business communities. It hasn’t been an easy road. I have done what I set out to accomplish but I had much bigger dreams of helping many more countries than I have to date. In recent years, I have noticed that the investment made in the education, training and coaching of senior officials overseas has taken root and there is much less demand for a person with my expertise because these countries are growing their own experts and that is a good thing. Do I think there is still a need for someone like myself. The answer is yes but the challenge is finding the work, often through intermediary firms.

I think for individuals such as yourselves who wish to pursue careers in international development the marketplace will become more challenging for North Americans or Europeans to break into. Nevertheless, there are still many opportunities for individuals such as yourself to apply for junior posts with UN agencies, the World Bank, the IFC, other international development banks, the World Trade Organisation, the World Economic Forum. You can apply for jobs within the development agencies and NGOs within your countries. In the US there are organisations like CARE, World Vision, the Red Cross, etc. that can offer entry points. Sometimes it’s like doing the grunt work that I did learning my craft. It may not be the job you want but it may be the bridge that will get you to the job you want. It takes hard work and it also takes luck (serendipity), being in the right place at the right time. It’s the law of large numbers. I applied for close for 400 international development jobs in the in between years. It never led anywhere but when the opportunity appeared out of the blue I was ready because I had continued to work at preparing myself. Some people may think that the idea behind the book “The Secret” is a bunch of hooey but I kept a mental picture of myself working overseas in the kind of business and government environments and providing the type of services I imagined I would provide.

To sum up.

1. Picture exactly the type of work that you want to do.

2. Generally, you need to be an expert in something, although I have met many generalists with university degrees who have worked as project managers but in my opinion they often lack the technical knowledge needed to properly manage the projects they are responsible for. Look at your technical weaknesses and set up a plan to develop your strengths in those areas.

3. Network like crazy. Put yourself out there. Share your ideas of what you want to do with your life. Tell everybody what you want to do. It’s like having a thousand bird-dogs looking for the exact type of job you are looking for. You never know when someone will send you a job posting that’s a good match. A couple of years ago, there was an open house at the yacht club I belong to (nothing fancy – a poor man’s yacht club). A woman in her mid-40s paid a visit. Being the social person I am I welcomed her and invited her to have a drink. Low and behold it turned out this lady was one of the leading communication consultants working for Ministers and government departments like the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I told her about my career. Voila, it turned out she was interested in getting into international development as a communication specialist. That day I became her ID coach. I knew where to look for the types of jobs that she would be a good fit for, i.e.,, , etc. She got in the trenches and started applying for jobs. It took about a year but eventually she got a hit and landed a job in Afghanistan of all places. It didn’t go smoothly because she had jumped into the deep end of the pool. Unlike most other specialists that work in international development, they cut their teeth on small entry jobs and they learn how to deal with the cross-cultural issues and the differences in the way things get done in other countries. But she persevered. It was a bumpy start but she kept applying for international jobs and slowly but surely she got jobs with UN agencies in her field. She began to develop a profile. She continued to do her consulting work in Canada and the combination of the two lines of work led to key positions related to G8 and G20 conferences. The things really started to develop for her. Serendipity began to kick in. I kept feeding her jobs and she kept doing the leg work. So, like I said, get the word out. You never know when you are going to hit the jackpot.

4. Start doing your own homework. In the past fifteen years I have registered with every big consulting firm, international organisation, and institution that I thought might want to hire me. I have also directly written letters of introduction to Ministers and key people within governments who might want my help. I have put the word out to colleagues in the international development field. Get in the trenches. Do the leg work.

5. Become informed by reading everything you can that you think might apply to the field of international development that you are interested and that includes keeping track of what is going on in the organisations and countries that are of greatest interest to you.

Good luck.

But wait, there’s more:

One thing I did not cover in my earlier responses is life as an international development specialist has a major impact on one’s personal life and goals. Although this can be said of any career, it is a major factor of the entire transition, life-long choice you are making when you go into international development. I think the impact of that choice is significant for both men and women in many respects but there are some special aspects of international development that you should know about when you are deciding to enter this particular field. Since the two of you are women, I will restrict my comments to what I have observed over the years. These comments are based on my associations with a number of women whose livelihoods have been intimately connected with international development.

1. International development can be hard on relationships. It is critical that you choose your significant other wisely. It makes sense that you do that anyway but the field you desire to have a career in is special in this regard. One pick a partner who is as enthusiastic about your career as they are about their own and who would be willing to pick-up stakes and move to some foreign country where the living may be easy for you as an expat but then again it may not be easy. I was married to a wonderful lady, a good person for sixteen years. I was so in love with her in the early years that I painted over the underlying differences. She wanted a life of security. She wanted to know that there would be a pay check every month. She wanted to be able to plan her life out in great detail. When we vacationed overseas it became clear to me that she was nowhere near as comfortable as I was in living and working in other cultures. She was often highly critical of the living conditions and the poverty. She didn’t feel safe in many cases. Things like cockroaches in a room drove her over the deep end. She had a good stable career at home. Why would she want to go anywhere else. As our relationship progressed, it became clear to me that I was caught in a tug of war, one that pitted my love for a very fine lady vs. my deep down desires to work overseas to help least developed countries find the best ways to overcome poverty. No matter how hard I tried or what angle I approached things from I knew that I was never going to have my cake and eat it to. It ripped me apart. Instead of being committed to same goals and sharing the many unique values that one has to have to be really good in the field of international development, we found our lives going on equally worthy but different tangents. My long-term, temporary overseas missions had an impact. Whether we wanted it or not, we were leading separate lives for several months of the year, sometimes as much as six-months in a year. It was hard to stay connected and engaged in each other’s life. We began drifting apart and it wasn’t from a lack of commitment on either of our parts. It just happened. The long distance relationship wasn’t conducive to maintaining a solid relationship, which means you water your garden (your relationship) every day, every week; you remove the weeds from your garden (deal with the issues and challenges of life and don’t let them fester or allow them to pile up) every day and every week; and you continue to reinvest in your relationship regularly and work hard at a constant renewal process that allows for growth and nourishment of both parties and as a couple. Now this stuff may sound like a whole lot of Ann Landers to some but I can tell you from experience that it is not for the majority of people who work in this field and it applies to those who are lucky enough to live and work in the same field or a related field. In the end she fell in love with the fellow she probably should have married in the first place…a guy whose goals and values matched her’s to a “t”.

The best situations that I have seen have involved couples who like to live and work overseas in the challenging development environments but it is not easy. Very rarely, do the stars line up. It is not always possible for both to get jobs in the same countries. I have seen situations were one member gets work overseas and the other tags along hoping to find work, as a consultant or a project manager. This often happens when one person works in foreign affairs and development for USAID or The Peace Corps or with some NGO like CARE. The other person comes along hoping to find work as a consultant or in some other type of job in development. The challenge is that sometimes the two individuals are not equally qualified or their special fields of interest do not match the local demand. This situation is very hard on a couple. It means living on one salary in a modern world that usually requires two salaries to make ends me. The fact that one party is unemployed or underemployed or that contracts have different time periods adds major stress to any normal relationship. Throw kids in on top of that and you have a pressure-cooker of a demanding job, a stressed out relationship, financial concerns and family demands. And all of this can be happening in a country that may go Topsy-Turvey at a moments notice and one or both of you could be out of a job.

If you are single heading into this field you should be ready for some loneliness. Even when you are an out-going, extroverted individual like me, the ability to make close connections overseas is not easy. The ex-pat community is a transient crowd. In some respects most of them are loners, to a degree. Why? Because they have had to be to survive. It takes a special person who can pick up stakes and move to another country on relatively short notice, live out of a hotel for a period of time until you get settled, wait for your goods to arrive, jump into work at the deep-end of the pool and be expected to perform at a very high level from the day you start (no warm-up) with a group of people and a business environment and culture that you are totally unfamiliar with. You have to be able to make friends quickly, to build a support network around you like you have at home to help you when sh*t hits the fan…and I can guarantee you it will hit the fan from time to time (you say the wrong thing at work – in some cultures the idea of forgiveness seems to be missing). You step in political doo-do. you never know what will trip you up.

The good friends you make overseas are rarely like your best friends you make back home, who are with you through thick and thin, who know you for who you are and who will stick by you no matter what. The people you meet overseas are work colleagues, other people working in development, embassy types, local colleagues and everyday people you may meet. These people are more like acquaintances rather than strong, loyalty-based friendships that are often cemented by common personal interests. If you are working in a city, you may join a choir, a theatre group, a church or some other religious group. You may meet people involved in extracurricular good works programs. You will also meet people through sports and other activities – exploration, camping, dinners, musical get togethers at someone’s home, etc. These will fill up your evenings and weekends but they may not address general feelings of loneliness and isolation and that applies to both individuals and families, although single folk tend to congregate amongst themselves and families tend to congregate. As a single male, working in Malawi, I never once received an invite to join any family party or get together organised by any one of the international UNDP staff. To me this was totally strange. I grew up as part of a military family and wherever we went we made friends fast. There was always a sense of inclusion. Nobody was left out.

It turned out my best friends were a British economist and his young Viet Namese wife and the UNDP Security Chief, who was from Nepal, who was married but his wife who was a doctor lived in the UK. I taught him how to golf and we became best friends. I made every attempt to build relationships will the local folks from work and from near where I lived but it never seemed to click, not like it does here at home, where anyone of any cultural background can become a good friend.

If you are a consultant, you have to be ready to spend long hours working in an office or out of your hotel room. The last assignment I had in Tanzania, I worked 10 to 14 hour days, six to seven days a week. I did that four five months straight. It was a brutal job. My only friends were the television, the novels and other materials I would read for entertainment, the hotel staff, the people I would meet for a few hours every week at work, and the hotel massage therapist who wrestled the knots out of my back after staying put for hours without end. Sometimes when I would kick off early I would go to the gym in the hotel for a workout but it’s time spent alone for the most part. Am I used to it? Yes? Do I enjoy my work? Yes. Do I think I am having a positive impact? Yes. Do I feel lonely, from time to time. Skype helps. E-mail and phone cards to connect with friends back home help. But it is not the same as a life built around a community life in your home town. Would I trade my International Development life, for one that was more stable? It would have to be an exceptional job in order to come close to the richness of the life that I have lived. Has it been easy? Not so much, although I think some of my colleagues have had steadier careers but I know plenty of others who will be working until they are 95 years old to pay for their retirement. I will tell you this, some international development jobs can be boring but if you are in the right field that really turns your crank you should do alright. Choose wisely but be flexible and ready to change because the market is always changing. You may have to reinvent yourself from time-to-time.

Talk to as many ID professionals as you can. Hear their war stories: the good, the bad, the ugly (in the field and at home if they are willing to open Pandora’s Box and tell the truth). You need as much truth as you can find to help guide you in making the right choices for yourself. The stories won’t all be the same but I am pretty sure if you talk to enough ID professionals a particular pattern will begin to emerge that is unique to those of us who work in this field.

If I can answer any specific questions you may have send them to me by e-mail and I will do my best to answer them.

Addendum: I just remember what I set out to do and that was to talk about Women who work as ID specialist. Their lives are unique. Aside from the relationship material I have already covered there are other things that come into play. I know plenty of women who work overseas and with one exception I think the majority of them have lived relatively safe lives overseas. One the other hand working overseas is not the same for women. Many cultures do not pay as much respect toward women as they do toward men, particularly older men with grey hair, although this has changed a great deal, thanks to the work of women’s liberation around the world. In many countries, women are seizing the reigns of power and where that is happening the greatest level of transformation is taking place in those societies. Yet there are plenty of places in the world where that is not the case and as a woman, when you go to work in those cultures you will have a harder time of it. But here you have to stick to your guns, work you butt off, produce the goods and demand respect. As to your personal safety you need to emit the kind of no-nonsense signals to all parties concerned that boundary rules are indeed in play. If not you may find yourself in less than ideal circumstances, with not much in the way of protection, especially if it is a foreign government official.

I always tell women working abroad to carry a can of mace with them. You never know when it may come in handy to repel unwanted advances.

Married and single moms, as well as expectant moms, have a much harder time of it. Having kids while working in the field of ID is not easy. I have known many women that have made it work but in many instances they have had to have the help of other family and friends and acquaintances carry the load back home. I have known a few women to take their kids overseas with them while they have gone on mission. If you are working overseas and you have house staff to help provide support for your children the task is manageable. If your husband is left carrying the bag, expect an unhappy camper. For some reason they complain about this type of thing a lot more than mom’s do who have to care for their kids when their husbands are away on mission. It’s not fair but that’s the way it is in many (most???) cases.

On occasion couples can get ripped apart because one person loves a particular country while another despises it. I knew of a couple who had lived in Egypt. They had three or four young kids. The guy work in the development field as a consul at the embassy, while his wife, who had a PhD in something special worked for consulting firms in the field. Both were happy. Both liked the work but neither of them was crazy about Cairo as a place to bring up kids, because of the environment, the politics and some of the development issues, etc., etc. They took a cross posting to Sri Lanka. The fellow was still dealing with development issues but he was also dealing with major human rights issues. He saw the underbelly of all the bad things that were going on the country between the Sri Lankans and the Tamils. He did not want to have to work with a government that he thought was involved with murder and torture and other human rights abuses. He had had his fill. His wife on the other hand had a very good job. Her work life was calm and rewarding. She was pleased that their family life was stable. They certainly had nothing to complain about their living conditions, which were superior to most high income couples living in North America. She loved the culture through and through – it might have had something to do with the fact that some elements of the culture were similar to the kind of culture she had grown up in, in her home country of Fiji. Toward the end of their five-year posting she wanted them to renew for another five-years, until all of the kids were in high-school. She lost out. They returned to North America.


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