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Practitioner Experience for Young Professionsals in International Development

Recently on the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals (CAIDP), I saw William’s request to provide Stephanie with some input with regards to seeking a career consulting to NGO’s providing services in the field of International Development.

A little bit about myself ....

I have a Master in International Development (Rural Planning) from the University of Guelph (1986) and have acted as a consultant providing services to Canadian for-profit companies that have pursued bilateral and regional development assistance projects (beginning in 1988). Most of my international experience has been located in Indonesia. My original interest in rural development has morphed over the years to institutional development, capacity development, environmental management, watershed management and renewable natural resource management, livelihoods.

My undergraduate degree (Hons. BSc) was in Genetics from the University of Western Ontario (1978). In the period between when I graduated from UWO (now simply Western) was a stint with CUSO in Benue State, Nigeria as a secondary school science teacher. This is what finally pushed me into pursuing a career in international development.

However, even prior to that, I grew up in the age of Lester Pearson .... very clearly it was felt that: the best path to peace throughout the world was to promote democracies and build stable and growing economies throughout the world; and Canada had a responsibility to “underdeveloped” regions of the world. To be sure there were sub-themes including: stabilizing population growth (and put a break on migration from the “south” to the “north”); poverty alleviation; health; providing conditions by which all peoples of the world could reach their full potential; and others. These early themes eventually evolved to become the SDGs. Personally, I always felt the need to “do good” in my life. The point is that I felt very strongly that my career should follow a path along these altruistic lines.

Since then I have worked as a consultant (either on the terms of an employee contract or on a fixed-term consultant contract) to several Canadian companies (5 Canadian companies and 1 International company in total) involved in bilateral and regional aid projects for close to 30 years.

Right now, I am an independent consultant actively looking for work. You can see my whole profile on LinkedIn.

Now for my perspective based on my experience (I will try to be succinct):

The path has been difficult. I have found that over the course of the years I have several periods of “boom” followed by “bust”. Typically, I have worked as an employee to a Canadian company providing expert services to a project for 3 to 6 years and found myself out of work at the end of the project and  relying on a mix of EI and short-term consultant contracts (3 – 6 months) for a period of time (on average about a year) before finding a new project and a new employer. Financially speaking, I feel that my commitment to International Development has meant that I have not met typical / expected financial goals for a Canadian (compared to friends who have not pursues International Development). There has been a huge cost to the family as well. There were periods where I have had to uproot the family to move to Indonesia to take up a new position, or spend long periods of time away from the family. On a personal level, as a result of the experience, I have found that it is difficult to establish long-term / enduring collegial relationships. It is also extremely difficult to reintegrate as a productive member of Canadian society (my skills and experience mean nothing in Canada – making it extremely difficult to find work in Canada without “starting-over”.

On the other hand, I have been blessed with the experience of living and working among people of the world. I found an enduring relationship with an Indonesian woman (my wife). My children have benefited from two cultures. I have learned what a blessing it is to be Canadian. I have reaffirmed the validity of the original premise for the experience (which became the SDG). To be honest, the rush of living and working in a different culture / setting is addictive as well.

Regarding the work:

  • Development Aid is either based on Governmental policy or private donation. Whether you work on bilateral aid projects or with International  NGOs their funding is based on what “sells” or can be “justified” to their base/source of funds. This means that often, there is not a clear and direct relationship between development assistance provided and desired impacts (especially achievement of SDGs);
  • I have found that development assistance is not sustained (changing goals – the latest being related to the feminist development perspective or changing policy and regional priorities) or focused enough. I have found that my greatest impact has been with the individuals with whom I have interacted over the years (in this sense being a good person in practice is ultimately very important);
  • Make no mistake, if you work for a for-profit company, once you cease to bring in money for the company (through mark-ups on salary charged to donors), you will very quickly find yourself unemployed. Only one company that I have worked for has provided an assistance package to help me transition to employment after the project). Although NGOs have different motivations (i.e. not necessarily profit), I have no doubt that once your period of usefulness to the NGO ends, a similar situation will transpire;
  • Entities providing services for International Development may not be effective in moving towards achievement of SDGs. Although NGOs may not pursue “profit” as a motivation to implement projects, they have other issues that affect aid effectiveness. All organizations have an element of internal distractions / relationships / politics that have to be managed (and may be a greater challenge than technical issues) that also affect effective and efficient implementation;
  • Not only do practitioners have to deal with employers and donors, but also have to work with / report to foreign stakeholders and all their sensitivities, administrative requirements and idiosyncrasies.

Current trends:

  • The Canadian Government ODA over the years has declined and will continue to decline as we move into a period of economic uncertainty;
  • The Canadian Government now channels ODA to UN organizations (primarily), International NGOs, and faith-based organizations. There are only a handful of Canadian for-profit companies (service providers/consultants) still involved in International Development;
  • As a result understandably, the Canadian companies that previously provided services have left International Development as they have found it unprofitable, too bureaucratic, overly administrative (reports that supposedly measure impact, but are just bureaucratic);
  • Many consulting companies that are still in business have either: changed their mix of Canadian based business and International business to be more focused on Canadian business; or committed to International Development which has meant: pursuing contracts with current and other donors (EU, USAID, UN and affiliated agencies, DFAT, etc); changing geographic focus to match where development dollars are being spent; and pandering to donor requirements (reporting) sometime at the sacrifice of doing good/meaningful work. All of this means a ever-changing labour pool - which can make it difficult for the practitioners.
  • This is a trend that is reflected by individual consultants as well. Many of my colleagues over the years have left International Development to rebuild their lives to focus on employment in Canada (because of the financial and personal impacts and the uncertainty of International Development);
  • Many ODA Projects are now staffed by Nationals (rather than International experts) – which is completely understandable;
  • It is extremely difficult for Canadians to compete for jobs within the UN organizations. Literally there are 1,000s of applicants from all over the world for each position.

My recommendation for you is: be aware that this is a very difficult path – and certainly not a path that your family / friends will understand or encourage. Pursuing it will demand patience and commitment. This means a standard of living that is below that of friends. It therefore depends on your commitment and the type of person you are. You will also find, being a woman that you will face challenges that I have not had to face (as a man). I encourage you to seek out other women in International Development to gain their insight. My experience will be different from your own and those of others (because we’re all individuals) – I encourage others to provide their insight so you can get a more balanced picture.

Rather than a focus on International NGOs, my suggestion to you is to pursue a career within one of the UN organizations. You have a few advantages ... you can make use of UN young professional or internship programs as a stepping stone.

Alternatively, you can work with International NGOs and either commit to a set period of time before “coming home” and refocusing (e.g. for 3 – 4 years). You might explore CUSO or WUSC or something similar (some companies have internal internship opportunities). Or aim to move into management at an International NGO after a limited period of field assignments. This depends on your commitment to the NGO and weathering the internal politics of the organization.

Throughout your career maintain and build relationships / networks of colleagues that are constructive and positive. Always try to keep yourself up-to-date on current trends and professional development to keep you ‘marketable’.

Although I have tried to make you aware of the difficulty associated with this path, I want to also make you aware that I do not harbour regrets. Yes, this has been challenging (and continues to be challenging – right now I’m in a bust period and find myself having to “remake” myself yet again).

My aim is not to discourage you completely (although I recognize my comments are not “encouraging”), but to provide a reality check so you can make your own strategic choices. Like I say, I wouldn’t change my life experiences for anything in the world, but it has some serious consequences - that I wasn’t aware of (or rather didn’t know the consequences) when I started. I would actually encourage Stephanie to pursue an internship or young professional assignment for a limited period of time and then re-assess the situation.

I hope this provides you with some perspective as you make life-choices vis-a-vis International Development (who knows, maybe I’ll start a blog or something on the topic). I am willing to answer questions or if you feel a need to comment please reply. If you want specific career advise or where to start with job hunting let me know – I might be able to help.

Take care and good luck in your endeavors!

Noel Millson