Written by Chloe Safier. Chloe currently works as the Regional Gender Lead for Oxfam in Southern Africa. Opinions here are her own and do not reflect that of Oxfam or her other affiliations. Chloe can be found on twitter @chloelenas
Jennifer Ambrose points out on her post, “Volunteering: The Paradox at the Beginning of an Aid Career” that many of those who work in development aid or humanitarian fields start their careers by offering their free labor in the form of volunteering in a foreign country. Ambrose points out the swath of problematic issues with this well trod path, not the least of which is that it puts (often young) people with little experience into rural contexts that require highly specialized expertise for any kind of real contribution to occur.
It also creates opportunities for those who can afford to work without compensation – most often those come into the situation with some money or cushion – and leaves those who can’t afford to work for free at a big disadvantage.
As someone who specializes in gender, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the gender inequality elements of the paradox Ambrose describes; namely, that the majority of the unpaid work force is women. In the case of the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics” in 2013. A 2009 study by InternBridge found that as many as 77% of unpaid college internships are held by women.
But I’m a firm believer that there are alternative ways to break into the international development field besides volunteerism and unpaid internships, and finding these alternate routes may help ameliorate some of the problems inherent with the volunteer/intern model (though it doesn’t, of course, address the bigger power and gender inequalities that lead to those problems).
One colleague of mine began his aid career working on the factory floor of car company. Another started as a corporate lawyer, another was a journalist, and another was a policy analyst for a US congressman.
My first job out of college was a (paid) position working for a faith-based non-profit in Boston, which included a mix of community organizing, event planning, and volunteer coordination. The job served me well, partly because it taught me some of the basics of being a working professional: project management, being accountable to a team, working with diverse groups of people, and how to craft an agenda for a meeting that actually results in a decision, to name a few.
But what’s been most useful in applying and interviewing for positions in international development has been the ability to tell my story as a coherent narrative (which, funny enough, is a skill I picked up in community organizer training). I’ve found that being able to fluidly link my work with Boston community groups to my work in the development sector by explaining the natural progression of my interests has made me (I hope) a more compelling candidate.
In interviews, I tell the story of how my two years of experience working for a community based group in the US gave me a set of experiences which propelled my interest in a graduate degree that focused on gender, law and human rights; this then led me to a job focused on gender justice and women’s rights in international development, and so on.
I have been an unpaid intern and it was mostly a good experience, but in retrospect, I’m not sure if it was necessary – had I been hired for a paid job in a different field, and continued my due diligence of networking and continuing to develop my skill base and technical expertise, I think I could have translated those acquired skills to the work I’m doing now.
In a recent job interview, I pointed to my first job in Boston to demonstrate how I’d been able to work in diverse communities, participate in community mobilization, and develop new leaders. I had tangible professional skills, and a story arc for what brought me from point A to point B, from domestic work to international work (even if, at the time, the plan wasn’t exactly mapped out as such).
I can’t speak for all the hiring managers in the international development sector, but in my case, I was offered the job.
My colleague who worked as a policy analyst before starting an international career is also able to demonstrate how that experience allows him to make a unique contribution to the international development sector; as someone who understands the ins and outs of US politics, he’s been able to position himself as someone who can translate on-the-ground experience in Ethiopia (where he currently works) to high level policy forums. The former journalist was able to translate writing and reporting skills to provide sharp and effective communications (and a strong network of reporters) for an NGO.
I’d argue, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree, that variety in our past work experience, and in our cultural backgrounds and identities, adds richness to the work environment and depth to the work itself.
If the only route to working in international development is by studying international development and getting entrenched in conventional aid industry thinking, we’re not going to bring new ideas or innovations into the field.
Which is to say: there are a lot of ways to get to where you want to be. International experience is critical, absolutely. But we, as a sector, can’t expect that the only way to get international experience is to have one type of experience, international or otherwise. And those seeking to work in the sector must develop all types of skills that can contribute to this work, so that people with real skills can make real contributions in a way that is not extractive or problematic in the way that Ambrose describes. One entry point would be to develop skills that are difficult to obtain in contexts where international aid works – technology, agriculture, engineering, monitoring & evaluation – to name a few.
Of course, in the current economy, getting hired for any kind of job- volunteer or paid- is a challenge. But it would be a lost opportunity to the development field and those who benefit from aid work to suggest that only those who have chosen to volunteer away from their home country or work for free are the only ones who have something to contribute to the collective goal of making the world a more just place to live.