Commentary

Why I Want To Pursue A Career In Development Research

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.

  1. 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).
  2. Even if your research is influential, it may take a while to gain traction, or may not gain traction at all.
  3. 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.

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Commentary

Open Data In Development: Finding its feet

On October 28, the North-South Institute hosted the Ottawa event for Global Transparency Week. This was one of 18 high-profile events taking place around the globe focused on open data, transparency, accountability and good governance. For those who don’t know, open data for development is all about making information and data more freely available to encourage feedback, transparency, information sharing, and most importantly accountability.

Although its a relatively new phenomenon, I find the drive towards open data absolutely fascinating and feel it has the potential to revolutionize the development field. That being said, this movement also has the potential to culminate in a whole lot of nothing unless 1) we ensure the participation of all stakeholders and 2) there is a clearer articulation of the desired outcomes, and how increased transparency will lead to accountability.

During the event, the panelists discussed the importance of open data and transparency in relation to Canada’s development objectives, the changing open government narrative, challenges in delivering on transparency, and lessons learned from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) experience. The IATI Standard is a publishing framework that was developed following the 2008 High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative that has become the standard to which donors, developing country governments and NGOs are supposed to publish information on their aid spending and activities.

It is important to note that successfully publishing to the IATI standard requires a huge commitment on the part of donors and NGOs. They are required to meet a very extensive set of criteria which at the bare minimum requires publishing on aid activities in a timely manner, and in a variety of useful formats that can be easily accessed, compared and utilized.

While this may sound like a simple feat, if you actually take a look at an IATI data file you will quickly discover that it is not.

Organizations are also required to report on a number of ‘value added’ fields including project documents, impact assessments, and precise geographic information. Providing a diverse assortment of data is a necessary component of the IATI standard, as it is crucial to respond to the needs and interests of different data users.

However, as mentioned previously, two things need to happen if we really want to see the see the concrete benefits of publishing to the IATI standard. Firstly, while many donors have committed to becoming IATI compliant, there are still many development agencies, NGOs, and CSOs that have failed to follow suit. The irony is that these were the very organizations that campaigned for the government to commit to IATI in the first place. In order to see the transformative benefits of aid transparency in both developed and developing countries, all development organizations that are receiving funding from the government, providing aid, or conducting projects in developing countries should also be publishing to the IATI standard.

The hesitation of many small NGOs and CSOs is warranted. With minimal budgets and limited IT capacity these organizations question the feasibility of publishing to IATI and feel as though they are on an unequal playing field. Despite this, there are ways for NGOs and CSOs circumvent these roadblocks, and take on the IATI commitment without taking on excessive risk. Donor agencies can follow the example set by the UK in which all NGOs and CSOs receiving public resources are mandated to comply with the IATI standard, but are also provided with technical support as well as additional funding to help cover the costs involved.

The second area for concern, and in my opinion the most pressing, is the need to unpack what we mean by “transparency” (i.e. transparency to whom, to what end); and how transparency leads to “accountability”. One of the panelists expressed fear that when donors limit their focus to increasing the quality and quantity of their aid data, they risk getting caught up in the disclosure of information and losing sight of what is really important about that information.

Donors need to move away from focusing exclusively on transparency, and towards increased accountability both at home and abroad.

There should be more of an effort to evaluate whether IATI and other open data initiatives are realizing the ultimate goal of better coordinated aid, improved resource allocation, and greater participation and empowerment of citizens in developing countries who are the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. In this respect, there is little evidence whether these investments are having the desired impacts.

There is much work that needs to be done to generate a clearer picture of how open aid data will interface with state and citizen actors to bring about this desired accountability. One thing we know for certain is that there is considerable traction surrounding open data [Ed: particularly within governments], which is at an important starting point. Hopefully these concerns will be properly addressed so that we can achieve the ultimate goals of aid transparency; harmonization and co-ordination between donors, and real partnerships with recipient countries.

For more highlights from the event, be sure to check out the full report – available here

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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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