9 development trends and their implications for tomorrow’s aid jobs

June 18, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Graduation leading to unemployment

This is an expansion of a blog first posted in February. According to the reader survey, most people reading this blog are a lot younger than me – students or entrants to the job market, with at least half an eye on how they are going to earn a living in the decades to come. I read and write a lot about trends in aid and development, so it’s worth speculating what they mean for the kinds of jobs today’s students might be doing in 20 years’ time, focussing on aid sector pracititioners, rather than academia. Here are some initial thoughts (in no particular order) – over to you to flesh them out:

Trend 1: Poverty will become concentrated in fragile and conflict affected states

Implications: Tomorrow’s aid workers will need to grapple with issues of violence, conflict and messy politics. If the ideas behind the Doing Development Differently network prosper, there will be a premium on the kind of adaptive skills necessary to ‘dance with the system’, rather than the implicit Stalinism of ‘rolling out best practice’.

Trend 2: There will still be a significant flow of philanthropic funding from North to South

Implications: There will always be a need for money people – raising it, spending it, reporting on how it is used. That is unlikely to go away, though it may change in form (eg the move to direct cash transfers rather than projects, aka disintermediation)

Trend 3: Localization of Humanitarian Response and long term development programmes

Implications: The days of the expat white men in shorts are over. Running projects in developing countries is a job for people in and from those countries, and about time too. On the other hand, if you’re from the South (as many of my LSE students are), then there will always be lots to do, whether in government, NGOs or the private sector.

Trend 4: The rise of Advocacy and Campaigns

Solving problems without ethics

Implications: Don’t panic, altruistic northern youth, there will still be lots to fix, not least stupid or evil policies and practices of your own governments or companies (tax havens, arms trade, pollution, protectionism, terrible asylum policies). ‘Influencing’ – the umbrella term for advocacy and campaigns, requires political savvy, born above all of experience. Get involved in campaigns, or lobbying, or other attempts to influence the system – they don’t really teach this stuff at school (although I am giving it a go). Alternatively, get some comms skills – always useful, or go to law school (‘the state sees the world through the eyes of the law’ as one Spanish lawyer once explained to me).

Trend 5: The end (or at least blurring) of North-South distinctions

Implications: Some of the big challenges in ‘developing’ countries increasingly resemble those in ‘developed’: accountability, gender inequality, environmental management, migration, non-communicable diseases, road traffic, alcohol and substance abuse, depression. ‘Aid’ will look less and less like a separate sector, and more like an extension of domestic debates and reform efforts – eg environmental health specialists being seconded from one country to another. Soft skills like matching experts and helping them work together across countries and cultures will be invaluable. Alternatively, become an expert yourself in something useful, and then travel.

Trend 6: the rise of the Private Sector

Implications: Aid itself is increasingly being administered by big private companies, but given the declining overall importance of aid in most developing countries, other forms of private sector activity will matter more in the long term. Sorting out supply chains of global companies; taking social enterprise through its current hype into something that makes a genuine contribution; making markets work for the poor. Hating/dismissing the private sector was never particularly sensible (aren’t small farmers everywhere part of it?), but will make even less sense in future. Instead, think about getting experience in different bits private sector and then applying it to development challenges.

Trend 7: The push for evidence, results and value for money

Implications: Hard to see this trend going into reverse, although I do hope it becomes more nuanced and intelligent, better able to cope with complexity and unpredictability and to stop pushing projects towards doing dumb-but-measurable stuff. Lesson here is learn the skills and jargon of the bean counters, and then use/adapt them to make all our activities more effective.

Trend 8: The technologization/digitization of everything

Implications: Beware the hype. Yes there probably is an app that can help, whatever the problem, but it won’t substitute for the interplay of power, organization and struggle, and in any case, the app is probably best written by a bunch of coders in Nairobi, Manila or Bangalore, not some café hipster in Brooklyn or Hoxton.

Trend 9: #MeToo, #AidToo and intersecting inequalities

Implications: I think we’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon on this. Wherever you work, you will need to be literate on issues of power and exclusion. That means being self-aware and self-critical both in thought and practice (reflexivity).

Looking at these, ‘aid’ and ‘development’, which were never synonymous to begin with, are diverging rapidly. I fear that one consequence is that Development Studies, at least at undergrad level, may be less and less suitable as a direct route to a job – it feels like it’s designed for a vanishing world (see here for a trenchant critique). That’s worrying, as the numbers of DS students are booming, but maybe its decline as a path to jobs will be compensated by other factors, like what you learn about the world while you’re studying it (a bit like studying history). Back out in the jobs market, the premium will be on a combination of specialist skills and emotional and political intelligence. Not sure what department teaches that!

I look forward to your additions, corrections etc

And just in case you’ve never seen them, or want to watch them again, here’s a couple of my favourite satires on the aid biz. Enjoy.

June 18, 2018
Duncan Green