I have just finished my undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy and am now attempting to pursue a career at the intersection between international development and academia, in a policy or research-based role.
The main issue with this plan, which became apparent in the last few months of my degree, was that I have very little experience or knowledge of this area of work called ‘research’.
I have always been interested in development (particularly in Africa); an interest sparked no doubt by being lucky enough to visit Malawi on a voluntourism project at the age of 16. As I grew older, I realised that working in development was a legitimate career option, which was great as my main career aspiration was – and remains – to help make the world a better place.
I have no direct skills in education or sanitation. Although my degree has furnished me with theoretical knowledge and numerous opinions relating to development, I have far less to offer directly to a poor community in need of ‘development’ than my engineer boyfriend who, despite suggesting “Ljubljana” when pressed to name 20 African countries, has a set of extremely specific and applicable skills.
Initially, the idea I had of working in development was a romanticised aim of working for a charity, providing immediate aid to poor communities in order to directly improve health, sanitation or education. The more I have learnt about and engaged with development, the more I have realised this was not the best way to achieve my goal.
I have studied development through a political lens. For me, tied to the idea of development in the sense of poverty alleviation is the development of the state to become a capable and meaningful provider for citizens. Whilst a number of charities – including many which I have worked for – do very impressive work providing short-term or immediate help to needy communities, the effect of this on the long-term viability of the state can often be disastrous, as the state is effectively absolved of its responsibility to its citizens.
This is especially true in a region like sub-Saharan Africa where the democratic state is weakly consolidated (leaving aside for now the issue of whether Western-style democracy is necessarily the best option for these states). This realisation has led me to modify what I envisage myself doing, when I say “I want to work in international development”.
Beyond this, and given the recent rise and correlative criticism of ‘voluntourism’, I have to ask myself what I, as a relatively unqualified social scientist, can offer to those who need it most.
All this paints a very bleak picture for the aspiring development intern. Which is what drew me to research. Having completed my degree at a research-intensive university, and (despite the procrastination) actually quite enjoying academia, this is an area of development which I could actually apply my skills to, whether that is by pursuing further study (I currently hold an offer for the African Politics MSc at SOAS) with potential to proceed to PhD, or aspiring to work at a think tank or as a policy advisor to an NGO or a foreign government.
Of course, a number of issues remain.
- Research is useful, but it is removed from the cause. Much of your time will be spent in isolation from the people you are trying to help, trying to solve problems not related to development (relating to data analysis and publishing conventions instead, for example).
- Even if your research is influential, it may take a while to gain traction, or may not gain traction at all.
- It may not reflect the results which you expected or wanted.
Like many areas of development, the path is not clear. At this stage in my career, I have decided to throw myself into research and try to find out as much as possible about whether it is right for me. At the moment I am a Research Assistant to a PhD project which is looking at natural resource management in Tanzania.
In September, I begin an internship in Ghana for the Alliance for African Women Initiative, working on their Operation 100 research project which aims to discover the levels of AIDS and sex education of junior high school students in Greater Accra. For this project I will be working at the data collection level.
Over the coming months I hope to contribute further to this blog, discussing in greater detail some of the issues I’ve raised here, and offering an insight into my experience as a development intern in the research side of development.