Things to remember as you volunteer or conduct research in a developing country this summer

Some fantastic tips on working overseas in a developing country.

An Africanist Perspective

Rafia Zakaria, on Al Jazeera America, writes:

My friend Jack likes to tell his favorite story about a summer he spent volunteering in Colombia. He recounts that story anytime he’s handed the opportunity, at parties, lunch meetings and airports. He highlights varying facets of the story on different occasions — the snake he found in his tent, his camaraderie with the locals and his skills at haggling. The message to his audience is clear: I chose hardship and survived it.

If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character. As summer looms, many Americans — college students, retirees and others who stand at the cusp of life changes — will make similar choices in search of transformational experiences. An industry exists to make these easier to make: the voluntourism business.

As admirably altruistic as…

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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.

Advocate, Causes

Four Critiques Of RCTs That Aren’t Really About RCTs

As most people who follow international development know, the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) has sparked impassioned debate between so-called “randomistas” and the researchers, practitioners, and evaluators who oppose RCTs. Academics have been arguing about the merits and ethics of RCTs since they first came into use, and bloggers of all stripes have  contributed to the debate over the last few years. (A compilation of posts can be found here.) I hear these same conversations take place among my graduate school classmates and professors, whose opinions on RCTs are also divided.

In each of these arenas,  strong criticisms of RCTs have been made, some of which I don’t have good answers to. But many of the common critiques I hear really apply to research, aid work, and evaluation in general, and I fail to understand why these criticisms are levelled at RCTs specifically. I find it particularly troubling when researchers, aid workers, or evaluators make these critiques of RCTs without applying them to their own work.

Below are some examples of common critiques that I don’t believe are really aimed at RCTs.

“Studying People”

Many of my classmates and professors dislike RCTs because they are uncomfortable with the idea of “studying people,” particularly if nothing is provided to those people (in the case of a control group). In particular, for many RCTs, teams of surveyors go to people’s homes, schools, or workplaces to observe them or ask them questions, often of a personal nature. Opponents of RCTs argue this is voyeuristic and intrusive and that it interrupts people’s daily lives – and all for the unsavoury purpose of “studying people.”

Yet, as Kirsty Newman has explained, these complaints apply to much social science research, which is similarly based on going to other places, talking to people there, and gathering stories or data about them. Research is, in its essence, the study of people, done with the aim of extracting knowledge about them and their community, lifestyle, or past experiences and without providing benefits to them. I don’t think it makes sense to oppose RCTs on the grounds that “studying people” is bad, without also opposing the many forms of research that affect people in the same ways.

“Withholding Treatment”

I also frequently hear opponents of RCTs argue it is ethically wrong to “withhold treatment” from some people (again, in the case of a control group). RCTs rely on the ability to compare those who received an intervention with those who did not. Opponents believe that “withholding treatment” from anyone is unethical and that organizations should offer their interventions to everybody. They argue it is unfair for some people to receive a service while others don’t.

However, a similar critique could be made of aid programs in general, which Kirsty also noted. Like all providers of aid, those conducting RCTs have the funding and capacity to provide programming to a certain number of people. All aid projects provide services to some people and not to others, and no organization can include everyone in its interventions. In their inability to provide assistance to everyone, and the feelings of unfairness that result, organizations implementing RCTs are largely representative of NGOs in general.

External Validity

A more technical critique of RCTs is the argument that they lack external validity – a program that an RCT finds to be effective will not necessarily work in other settings. Because their results cannot be generalized, the argument goes, RCTs are useless.

But alternative types of evaluations (which are often based on before-after differences or comparisons of non-random treatment and control groups) face exactly this same problem, as Timothy Ogden explains. Organizations often use non-randomized evaluations to determine whether a program should be scaled up or expanded to additional areas, based on results from its initial implementation. However, there is no reason to think these evaluations would have higher external validity than RCTs.

Little Use

A final critique I want to address is the belief that the knowledge generated through RCTs rarely gets used to create improvements in aid. The results of RCTs are generally published in journals and primarily read by academics, not by people designing projects or making policy. For this reason, critics argue, RCTs do not actually lead to improvements, because they are inaccessible to the people in a position to them.

This is another way in which RCTs are no different from other types of evaluation, a point Kelly Steffen makes here. It’s no secret that organizations are typically resistant to admit failure or make changes, and a common complaint among evaluators is that their reports often go unread and their recommendations are frequently ignored. Though I think people in both areas are working to overcome this problem, neither RCTs nor other types of evaluations get used as much as they should.

These four arguments aren’t necessarily incorrect, but they’re not really criticisms of RCTs. Unless we consider them reasons to stop doing research, aid work, or evaluation in general, these critiques do not offer compelling reasons to stop doing RCTs. Instead, we should think more about how to best counter these shortcomings in all facets of development and social science work.


“The existing measures of [state quality or capacity] have a number of limitations. There is an inherent weakness in expert surveys, especially when trying to create time-series data. Since the concept of [good governance] is not well established, different experts may intend different things when responding to the same survey question.”

Francis Fukuyama, 2013

If you replaced the phrases I have put in square brackets with practically any from the jargon heavy grammar of development, you would be making an equally valid point.

Worth thinking about the next time you read a report or (even worse) some article proclaiming to indicate the consensus on such issues.

Read the full paper here

Terms of Development

Experiences, Learning

After The Internship: What I have learned

It’s almost two weeks into September, and I’m only now coming to terms with the fact that summer has come and gone. While most students dread the end of summer because it marks a return to the daily grind of juggling classes, coursework, a job, and a social life, for me heading back to school has always been something to look forward too. A challenge of sorts.

However, this year, for the first time ever – I’m not excited about it. I suspect that some of this unwillingness to return to the classroom stems from the fact that I’ve had a taste of my future career path and going back to school feels like a backwards step.

Like many students who use the summer months to attempt to gain a foothold in their chosen field, I landed a summer internship. My experience was with a Canadian policy research institution specializing in international development called the North-South Institute (NSI). Although I’m thankful to have had this experience, part of me wishes that I had gotten this internship after I graduated instead of before – stopping my newly found career momentum feels counter-productive. But that’s the way it goes.

In the months leading up to my graduation, I really could stand to benefit from a reflection on the valuable lessons that I have learned throughout my internship. At the end of the day, it’s all about building on what you know and refining your skill set to become the best candidate possible for future positions.

Working for the North-South Institute was not my first internship in the field of international development, but it was by far the most educational and enriching experience I have had to date.

When people ask about how my internship went, the first thing that comes to my mind is how fortunate I was to have such amazing colleagues. I can’t oversell the importance of networking and building personal connections with your coworkers! An integral part of success is your ability to cultivate emerging relationships and how well you can leverage your network. Working at NSI provided me with many networking opportunities, and I even got to meet many key international figures, ranging from the President of the World Bank, to member of the Post-2015 High-level Panel, to high ranking officials of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).  Of course, building strong relationships is critical to advancing your career, but developing a rapport with your coworkers is about so much more than reaping the benefits of networking.

Throughout my work term, I held the position of research assistant with the Governance for Equitable Growth team. I was completely blown away by their passion, their work ethic, and the innovative research they were doing.

At first, I was extremely intimidated and felt like I was in way over my head.

My research skills were inadequate, my writing skills far inferior, and my ideas bland and uncreative. When I was first asked to help draft a policy brief I distinctly remember glaring at my computer screen in frustration, overwhelmed by the desire to send it to the trash instead of to my supervisor for review.

Luckily, by the end of my work term I had lightened up a bit and realized I was being far too hard on myself. At 22 years old, and having only studied international development for two years, to place such unattainable expectations on myself was not doing me any favours. For every aspect of life there is a learning curve, and while it is essential to aim high and push yourself in order to improve, there was just no way I was going to be spewing epoch-changing genius when I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the issues I was writing about.

Over the summer months, I continued to become better versed in many of these subjects which helped me to accept that gaining expertise takes time. This learning process can be accelerated in an environment where you have the opportunity to consult experts and ask questions on a daily basis. In my opinion, that is the true benefit of getting work experience and building a rapport with talented coworkers. I’ve often heard the saying ‘surround yourself with greatness, and you will become great’, and I think that will most likely be my strategy moving forward.

Now to get back into student life!