Guest post by Tom Kirk
For the last few years, I’ve co-delivered an MA module on influencing, activism and campaigning with Duncan at the LSE. For the last lecture, we always ask students what two topics they would like us to delve into in more depth. They’ve plumped for everything from leadership and how INGOs are responding to critics, to social accountability and our own personal career failures (quite cathartic, actually). Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, advice on how to get a job in the aid and development sector is always top.
So how has Covid changed the panorama on aid jobs? These are anything but ordinary times and, I suspect like many, I have spent a lot of the last year worrying about where the sector is heading, and me with it. This has only increased as the British government has outlined what ‘Global Britain’ will look like, and the cuts to aid and research have begun to hit home.
What to say during such times? Below I’ve paraphrased my hour-long lecture (I’ve skipped the where to find jobs bit) with the hope that others will add to, nuance or debate my broad-brush advice in the comments. We force our students to read F2P2 at gunpoint so I am sure they would appreciate your input.
Starting with major trends that will likely outlast the virus: Students’ positionalities will continue to be the biggest determinant of their career prospects. Early career opportunities are concentrated in the global north. This is not to say one cannot find a way in elsewhere, but the competition is arguably fiercer and the paths opaquer. My knowledge of routes in is also largely limited to my own and immediate colleagues’ experiences.
The sector’s swing towards fragile and conflict affected states will likely endure, as will debates over what to do about poverty in middle-income countries, the localisation agenda, #AidToo and the political causes of underdevelopment. There are also two ongoing blurrings: firstly, between humanitarian and development activities, sometimes called the ‘nexus’; secondly, between the types of ‘developmental’ activities and programmes implemented by states and civil society organisations in their own back yards, and those implemented elsewhere. Here, I’m thinking of everything from cash transfer and digital ID programmes to participatory democracy and accountability and transparency initiatives. Across all of this, evidence, results, and value for money will continue to be championed by aid donors and generate jobs for geeky graduates.
With regards to what will likely change or accelerate due to the virus: Aid and development funding will be increasingly politicised and more ODA will be spent by non-development focussed departments and private consultancies. There will be further folding of dedicated aid departments into others and an increase in Aid for Trade. An expanding set of aid actors and development banks will continue to shape what development looks like in much of the world. A possible speeding of the localisation agenda will occur, but the perceived loss of power means it’s probably not going to be substantive.
Pragmatic students should aim to be in security, health and disasters preparedness, or RCT wonks, with those interested in the politics of poverty thinking about legal activism, professional campaigning or CSR. Serious consideration should also be given to putting their analytical skills to work for social movements with clear goals or aims to eventually capture formal political power.
This is because the space for generalists will likely be squeezed as funding is funnelled to projects with clear feedback loops to the ‘national interest’, and away from risky or hard to measure institutional reform or democratic deepening programmes. And because the closing/changing space for civil society demands both more radical and better targeted activism.
I also lifted a bunch of practical top tips for getting started from sector veterans. The main advice is to network, network, network. This involves putting yourself out there: attending events, cold calling organisations (it’s not illegal), asking people you admire or want to learn from for coffee, going abroad for your first position and having a ‘presence’.
The latter means being known as someone interested in a specific issue or region. This can be as simple as retweeting others’ musings, to blogging, writing opinion pieces or research. Introverts may quake at the idea of self-promotion, but there are enough niches in this sector that I suspect most can find a groove.
There is also the need to learn soft skills, from writing succinct emails and presenting to convening colleagues, working across cultures, delivering bad news and asking for help when you’re a bit stuck. It’s amazing how formal education doesn’t equip one for these things. They can be learnt through internships, but those should only be undertaken if paid or you get to shape what you do and when.
Chief among the more cerebral pointers is advice to stay humble, have courage and follow a moral compass. Your guiding frameworks and principles will and should be challenged by the sector. Often you will have to change your focus or speciality as the place you work in, your understanding of it and opportunities evolve. This can mean moving sideways in your organisation or career. And it will also likely mean many years of comparatively low pay as you find your feet.
These characteristics also require accepting that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, with even the nature and goals of ‘development’ heavily contested. Although a truism, it is surprising how much of my colleagues’ and the sector’s wider navel-gazing stems from such things!
Lastly, I gave a bit of advice on the academic route. I generally only advise a PhD in development if you do it part-time or want to be a full-time academic. To my mind, a PhD is about as valuable to most of the sector as an MA and it can completely stunt your soft skills growth. The methods you’ll learn really only matter on the research side of things or for some policy jobs.
Yet, part-time, it can be a great way to gain experience, build your networks and find your groove before looking for roles. But bear in mind, a PhD is akin to willingly undertaking multiple solo lockdowns whilst everyone else parties in the sun. Or is that just how it felt for me?
And that was about it for this year’s helping of pessimism-laced optimism. Please do chip in below with your own thoughts.