This is part one of a two-part post on getting involved in international development work. Read part one here.
Trying to answer these questions – at first in vain, and, a few years later, more successfully – helped me so much that I have dispensed this same advice a dozen times since. But I would add a fourth question is to these questions as philosophy is to math. Ask yourself, “What do I want out of this experience?” Because figuring out that question will provide clarity in answering the other three. In retrospect, I wanted an interesting cross-cultural experience that would drive me outside of my comfort zone and give me the opportunity to give back. Choosing multiple, shorter-term gigs (defined here as less than a year) allowed me to go broad, but not deep.
I like being exposed to new things, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about as much as I could. This explains why I had three jobs in as many years – something that would otherwise be a question mark in the eyes of someone reading my resume. In the span of 30 months – roughly the same amount of time I spent at my previous job as a consultant – I lived in three countries (Philippines, Ghana, and Kenya) and worked in three different industries (microfinance, agriculture, and education). This stands in contrast to many people I know out here, who chose to specialize very early on and have no interest in deviating from that path. There are benefits to both, and you have to decide which is best.
I would also be lying if I said the opportunity to travel to exotic locales did not factor into the equation for me. In West Africa, there are fewer opportunities for independent travel. In Ghana, where you are surrounded by post-conflict, conflict, and sometimes pre-conflict countries, backpacking is not for the faint of heart. In contrast, in the Philippines, which as many people living below the poverty line as Ghana has people, you can easily fly to Thailand for a weekend for less than $100 roundtrip.
Once you have figured out what you want, the key is to network. This industry, more than just about any other, is about connections. That is because the organizations you want to work with are often located many thousands of miles away across large oceans that you may or may not have crossed. And the quality that people are looking for more than just about any other in a candidate is a local address. You really need to create a list of each organization you would like to work with and being combing your network for introductions. It is possible to find interesting opportunities on job boards and listservs, but, as a rule of thumb, the easier a job is to find, the more competition it will have. Usually, the best ones and, more often than not, the easiest to get are the ones that are not advertised that you hear about from your friend.
Of course, the best way of all is to figure out where you want to be, book a flight, and just go. On May 18th 2011, I remember sitting at a bar on the beach, drinking a beer, trying to mentally prepare myself for flying to Kenya in a few hours with a handful of job leads, a few former Kiva Fellows as my network, and a sublet in a city I’d visited once before. I had given this piece of advice before, but felt a bit hypocritical for having never taken it myself. So I decided to do it and see how it worked out.
I set up a few potential opportunities with companies that interested me – a solar lantern manufacturer, a BPO hybrid non-profit focused on the poor, and Bridge. I met with the CEO of Bridge the first day I arrived and proposed doing a pro-bono project, analyzing all of their payment data and trying to draw some conclusions about how parents in the communities where we worked actually paid their school fees. That work turned into a three-month consultancy, and continued for the next year. My last day was last Friday, and the longevity of the role validated the decision to make that leap of faith.
S o now, I can speak from experience when saying that the most direct way to find the job you want is to show up. And if it doesn’t work out, then find something else. But simply by being there, you will have a leg up over other candidates.
In the next few posts, I will discuss my thoughts on what works in development and, more importantly, why.
Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation