This is the first post in an ongoing series offering advice to people interested in learning more about international development work. Mandy Goodgoll, a Masters Candidate in International Affairs at the New School, offers advice on urban development in developing countries and emerging markets.
First of all, let me say that urban development is a great field to get into. It can be analytical, creative, big, small, international, local… essentially, whatever you want it to be. Having said that, I would highly recommend narrowing the search a little. By that I mean, narrowing down to a sub-field you think you might want to try out.
- Water (from infrastructure like sewage management, to conservation, to increasing access to potable water for the urban poor… I’m currently writing my thesis on water management)
- Forestry (a variety of important issues in forestry like conservation… not something I know too much about)
- Low-income housing (could be in an urban environment in a big city in the US, or it could be related to ‘slum upgrading’ in any developing city around the world).
- Urban management (working with local governments to make service provision (like water works, or roads) more accessible or managed more sustainably
- Urban farming (this is kind of a big deal as of recently, not only in cities like NYC. It’s also being written about in Argentina and Tanzania – reducing the footprint of cities and eating local)
- Renewable energy (from solar panels in India to wind farms in Eastern Africa… it’s one of the hottest topics right now, and extremely relevant in the developing world)
- Transportation (another really hot topic that mostly centers around public transportation, bike lanes, and other new forms of transportation – death to the car!)
So that’s a very brief rundown of topical areas you may want to delve into. I would recommend thinking about what kind of experience you want. Large and internationally recognized organizations may look great on the resume, but in actuality, you may not have such an exciting experience sitting in the head office of some organization doing research on the internet.
Here, I suggest – go local! There are a lot of opportunities to volunteer for 3-4 months at local NGOs, so that’s why narrowing it down to a sub-field you’re interested in will help in your hunt. Then I would recommend narrowing down on a region. South-East Asia? East Africa? South Africa? Central or South America? There are very unique issues in each of these areas, pertaining to urban issues and urbanization in general.
Latin America is heavily urbanized. Look at Bogota, Carracas, Santiago, Sao Paolo, Rio, Buenos Aires… mega urban cities with big divides between rich and poor – making urban issues very complicated to answer.
In Africa, urban development is much less advanced. You have the cities of South Africa, which present unique problems in respect to the rest of the continent; you have Lagos which is essentially a huge mess of poverty, bad-governance, zero infrastructure, and corruption (don’t go there); and Nairobi, which is this complicated urban metropolis that essentially makes no sense at all, from an urban perspective.
Then there’s Asia – which I don’t know as much about as my focus and experience has been Latin America/Africa. But in cities like Bangkok, you have crazy issues with water management, alternative forms of transportation, sustainability issues, green-building, and urban poverty overlapping to create a melange of a city that is really exciting.
I would highly recommend looking into NGOs in different places that get you working at the local level. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to the urban specifically, because any exposure you get to how the city works (or doesn’t work) from a local level will give you insights on how citizens (or non-citizens) are affected by the decision made in the city. How are people excluded from infrastructure? How do they view their urban environment? How do the flows in a city impact society, economies, the environment? I would recommend this avenue because it can give you more insight into the structure at the bottom, rather than the top – which will inform you in a different way in the future.
On the other hand, you can go dig wells in West Africa, or work with a Sanitation Activist Group in Cape Town… That would give you access to very specific topics, and would also allow you to work at the local level.
Regarding where to find such NGOs… you could look at organizations that have partnered with UNICEF or UN-Habitat in the past. Also, idealist.org has volunteer opportunities. One organization which comes to mind as a good hub of information is the African Center for Cities. It’s run out of the University of Cape Town, and is led by Edgar Pieterse – guru of African urban development in general. I like the work they do, and a lot of it is really on- trend: http://africancentreforcities.net/.
Okay, hope that helps.
Mandy’s Music Recommendation