How to Break Into Development, Pt. 1

This is part one of a two-part post on getting involved in international development work.  Read part two here.

One day back in May 2009, I was sitting at my desk at my office on Boylston Street in downtown Boston reading Next Billion.  I had decided the week before that I would quit my job in September and leave the U.S. for an adventure.  After a cursory review of the options, I decided backpacking and teaching English weren’t for me, and settled in development.  At the end of the article I was reading about micropayments for solar energy in Brazil, Mike MacHarg, then a graduating MBA student at my alma mater, wrote a comment asking the author to get in touch with him, leaving his email address.  I am not sure if that author ever did contact him, but I did, and the meeting we set up in a Starbucks in Boston set in motion a chain a series of small-world moments that culminated in someone coming up to me two weeks ago in Brew Bistro, a bar in Nairobi, and introducing himself as Erik Wurster, formerly of E+Co, otherwise known as the person Mike first put me in touch after our meeting three years ago.  He is living in rural Rwanda now, working on a solar energy startup called UpEnergy, and happened to be in town for a clean cookstove conference visiting a friend of mine.  It’s a small world indeed.

These stories aren’t unique – in the relatively small global international development community, everyone has a story extending six degrees on some direction before boomeranging back to them.  And these stories are, to me, essential for explaining out to break into this work.  From the beginning and right through until the end, guys like Erik and Mike have been connecting me to people from around the world, and through those connections, I have learned about different jobs, companies, roles, and honed in on what it is that I am trying to do.

But for people who are trying to break into this world and have no idea how to begin – in other words, myself three years ago – I will pass on some valuable advice given to me by my father’s partner’s son-in-law when I was a lost soul.  After college, he had moved to Zimbabwe back when it was still called Rhodesia and taught science in a school outside Harare.  When he asked what I wanted to do and I responded “work abroad in development”, he knew he would have to bring it back to square one with me.  So he gave me some advice I have since passed on to many people once in my shoes.

Entering the job search with “must work abroad in development” as the only criterion is both wrong and much more common than one would think.  So, the son-in-law gave me some parameters to help me narrow down my own hunt.  There are three questions to ask before starting to look:

  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. What do you want to do?
  3. What kind of organization do you want to work for?

The first question – where do you want to go – is a big one.  For some people, this is the easiest to answer.  Wanting to learn a language (like Spanish) or already knowing one (like Kiswahili) are good reasons to work in Peru or Tanzania, respectively.   For me, location did not matter.  I wanted to go to South America, but didn’t really care either way.  I was up for anything, and moving to a place I knew nothing about only added to the sense of adventure.

The second question – what do you want to do (more specifically, what sector interests you) – is more difficult to answer when you don’t know anything about the subject matter.  For people with prior knowledge and experience – academic, professional, or otherwise – it is possible to narrow down your options.  Broadly, there are a few key areas of international development work: public health, water and sanitation, education, economic / livelihood development, financial services, agriculture, and a few others.  You could further split each of these into emergency relief efforts and ongoing systemic programs.  It is admittedly difficult to narrow this one down when you barely know the difference between public health and clean energy in this specific context.  But, if you are not like me, then perhaps you can pick a couple that interest you and learn as much as you can before honing in on one or two.

The third question – what kind of organization do you want to work for – was actually the easiest for me to answer (actually, the only one I could answer).  With three years of practical experience under my belt, I felt strongly about working for a company that knew how to leverage my skills.   This last question helped me narrow my search down to a few organizations that had not only a reputation for innovation, but also a fellowship or consultancy program that provided immersion without long-term commitment.  Ultimately, the decision came down to the volunteer consultant program with TechnoServe and the Kiva fellowship.  Kiva got back to me first, so I signed up with them.  The following years, I decided to give TechnoServe a shot and moved to Ghana.

The reason it is so important to answer this question is because there are so many organizations out there are incredibly different.  I have personally run the gamut, from technology-based non-profit to USAID to what some people refer to as the “McDonald’s of education,” without any of the negative connotations.  Some non-profits and NGOs are poorly-run and unprofessional, with a questionable impact on the poor.  Others are led by visionaries with a wealth of experience, providing opportunities for mentorship.  Some, like Engineers Without Borders Canada, are based in the field, while others, like Planet Finance or Grameen Foundation, spend more time in the office.  Choosing the right organization can easily be the most important of the key variables.

In the next post, I will add a fourth question, and discuss other issues.


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