Top tips on building a career in aid and development

February 12, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Chaired a great panel on this at the LSE last week. The speakers were from the big donors – bilateral ones like DFID and USAID, regional banks like the ADB and EBRD, and a World Banker to add the multilateral view, and from all stages of their careers, but their advice applies pretty well to the rest of the aid and development sector. They were asked to give their top tips to a room full of global bright young things. Here’s a selection:

Courage, humility and moral compass: it’s not just about geek qualifications but the kind of person you are. You will face scary moments – embrace them; you will get called out for arrogance – listen and learn. And do not abandon your moral compass – it is, after all, at least partly why you are looking for a job in this odd neck of the woods.

Stay mobile: the speakers had moved around a lot both within and between institutions and across specialisms. They didn’t overplan, but grabbed opportunities as they arose. Some got a start in what are often seen as the less sexy departments (fund raising, admin), but then moved across to programme and policy jobs.

Travel wisely: If you’re a northerner, overseas experience can boost your CV and your confidence when talking to seniors, but it depends on how you do it. Try and travel with a real, substantial purpose, not just voluntourism. Always beware of substituting/squeezing out local people who are perfectly well qualified for the job.

Keep learning even once you’ve landed a job: languages, tech, keep studying.

Appreciate yourself: ‘be an advocate for what you’ve done – don’t discount it’

Build your soft skills: comms and influencing are valuable everywhere, not least in making stuff happen within large bureaucracies – ‘be a persuader’. Learn how to ‘read a room’ and develop empathy for those you engage with. Be patient til you see an opportunity (often born of an institutional crisis), then grab it (which you can only do if you have learned how to ‘dance with the system’ in which you operate, working out how decisions get made and how to influence them).

Networking: Everyone went on about the importance of networking – putting yourself out there, sticking your face in front of big cheeses, getting their cards, offering to help, asking the first question. Volunteer for stuff. I started to feel quite queasy. For anyone who is not an extrovert (which included me and several panellists), that sounds like torture. So what about careers advice for introverts? Do you just have to fake it til you make it, or is there some other way to prosper without subjecting yourself to endless, excruciating ‘networking opportunities’?

Finally, the panellists were asked what practical skills are likely to become more important over the next few years. They come up with a mix of the new and the timeless classic:

  • All things MEL and Quant are only likely to increase in importance (whatever your misgivings)
  • Data viz
  • Draft and synthesize concisely – practice doing a two page exec sum of your college essays! Alternatively, learn to blog…..

Here’s some other related posts (and please add your own links and thoughts):

Update: Lots of interesting social media convos kicking off on this post, eg my old mate Makarand Sahasrabuddhe reckons it’s all to northern-centric and has posted a great response on how this topic looks from the Global South.

February 12, 2020
Duncan Green