Experiences

Working In Aid Without Volunteering

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.

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Commentary, Platform

Managing Risk or Creating It? The Real Message Behind the 2014 World Development Report

This past Sunday, the World Bank released it’s 2014 World Development Report titled Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risks for Development. This report delves into the process of risk management, looking at how it should be conducted, what obstacles prevent people and societies from conducting it effectively, and how these specific obstacles should be overcome.

The theme of this years report will not come as a surprise to most, as ‘resilience’ is one of development’s sexiest new buzzwords. In the age of aid effectiveness, these concepts have massive appeal to donors because proactive and systematic risk management can help to build resilience and protect hard-won development gains (read: investments).

While on the surface the report focuses on preparing for, preventing, and mitigating risk, the real message that the World Bank hammers home is about creating an environment where people are less averse to taking risks. Many people may be baffled by this concept – why would we want to invest in risk management only to encourage more risk? Let’s follow the argument.

Under the leadership of Dr. Jim Yong Kim (the President), the World Bank has set out to transform risk management from being viewed as merely a control function to one that is more dynamic and responsive to change. When risk management is only focused on regulation and preventing potential losses, it results in missed opportunities day after day. In his forward to the report, Kim illustrates the link between risks and opportunities:

“Pursuing opportunities requires taking risks, but many people, especially the poor, are often reluctant to do so, because they fear the potential negative consequences. Failure to act can trap people in poverty, leaving them vulnerable to negative shocks and even less able to pursue opportunities that would otherwise improve their well-being”.

The report cites the example of farmers in Ghana and India whose access to rainfall insurance has encouraged them to take on risks in search of higher yields, such as increasing their investments in fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, and other inputs. Taking these risks has led to increased prosperity and other positive development outcomes. Conversely, Ethiopian farmers who lack access to risk management tools often choose not to use fertilizer because they fear drought and other potential shocks. They prefer to stash their money in a mattress for when the next dry spell comes, as opposed to investing in intermediate inputs

In many cases, the risk of inaction is often the worst option of all.

Illustrating the extent to which risk management can unlock constructive development opportunities is the first step towards changing the way people perceive risk, and how they strategize and execute risk management.

This past summer, Dr. Jim Yong Kim came to my work place (the North-South Institute) for a round-table discussion with key leaders of Canada’s private, academic, and third sectors. This was the first time that I really started thinking about risks and rewards in development. While the Bank’s 2014 report looks mostly at risk on the micro level, during the round-table discussion Dr. Kim mentioned that the Bank itself must become more bold and not be afraid to take risks to support projects that have the potential to transform a country or a region. While one of the key constraints in development may be an individual or nation’s aversion to risk, international development institutions and donors are equally guilty of this.

I think that part of the World Bank’s underlying strategy is that by changing the way institutions think about risk and risk management on-the-ground, it might lead them to adapt the way they approach risk internally. While a farmer may shy away from taking risks because they fear negative repercussions, a donor agency may not pursue a new project or strategy that has the potential to transform a country due to fear of resource waste, pressure to avoid fiduciary risks, or concern that the outcome will have negative effects on their reputation ( for more take a look at this ODI report).

Now, I’m not saying that international development agencies and donors should start taking crazy risks in search of massive rewards (à la Wall Street traders). That is simply not possible, especially due to the role that public opinion plays in development and foreign aid. However, I do think that we need to eliminate incentives to take part in excessive risk aversion if we want to see truly substantial and transformative change.

In my opinion, individuals, societies, and institutions could be doing a much better job at managing the trade-offs between risk, opportunity, and reward, and implementing effective risk management strategies will be the first step towards remedying this.

So what do you think? Do you agree that excessive risk aversion is hurting development? Do you think that implementing risk management strategies will actually encourage people to take “smart risks”? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

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