Careers in International Development: Interview with Sarah Parkinson

The field of international development offers life-changing opportunities for students interested in making a difference. It may not be an obvious career choice, but it’s a great choice for those interested in learning more about the world while helping others. I spoke with Sarah Parkinson, author of Something Bigger than Ourselves: Finding a Way in International Development. The book is considered by critics to be a must-read for those considering a career in international development.

How did you decide on a career in international development?

In my case, it was a gradual decision. After I finished high school, I was interested in doing some international volunteer work before I began my undergraduate studies (which weren’t related to ID at all – I studied Cognitive Science at Simon Fraser University from ’93-’97). So I went with a small Canadian NGO and was a volunteer teacher at a secondary school in Grenada, which was understaffed. That was my first experience with international development.

Then, after my undergrad, I worked for a number of NGOs, I always ended up working on social development type issues. In 2000, decided to work with another NGO, this one called ATD Quart Monde, which had been founded in France and worked internationally on issues related to extreme poverty and exclusion. I really liked their mission.  My work with them was focused in Canada and the US, with chronically urban populations there, and also doing some public awareness work. It was my experience with this NGO that convinced me that it would be worth returning to grad school and studying an area that was more related to social development. I began to foresee that it was an area I wanted to stay involved in, but it seemed very complex and I just didn’t have the intellectual tools or educational background that I thought it deserved if I was going to be effective. I was getting a taste of the way that national policies, international conventions, and local governmental and NGO programming all coincided, and I wanted to understand it better.

So this time, I went to do a Masters at the University of Guelph in Rural Planning and Development, with an international focus. And from that point on, my career was solidly focused on international development. I found I liked research so much that I went on to do a PhD in Rural Studies, also from Guelph, from 2004-2008.

For those that don’t aren’t familiar with international development, can you briefly explain NGO’s and their role in international development?

NGOs are non-governmental organisations. That’s a very broad term, and it encompasses a broad range of organizational types and sizes. NGOs are characterized as not-for-profit and are governed by a board of directors, according to their mandate. Some NGOs get their funding from private donors, but many development NGOs depend heavily on government funding, often provided from official aid budgets. From the 1980s onwards, the growth of NGOs has exploded as they were seen as a more effective alternative for running development projects than working through weak, bureaucratic and often corrupt state institutions in developing countries. From the early 2000s, the pendulum has been swinging back somewhat, so that donor states are again favouring working through the governments of recipient countries as a more comprehensive, long-term solution, since the efforts of NGOs are often very small scale and uncoordinated.

In addition, many NGOs claim to have an advocacy and watchdog mandate. That is, they attempt to advocate for pro-poor policies and behavior from government and business. However, when NGOs are dependent upon government funding, their independence and ability to advocate based on the needs of their target beneficiaries can be compromised.

You write in your book that development efforts in war zones tend to be expensive and ineffective. What do you think we can do to remedy this?

I think we shouldn’t attempt to do development in war zones! It just doesn’t make sense. Humanitarian relief and efforts at bringing the war to a peaceful and just close would be sensible priorities during times of conflict. Attempts to do development in war zones are a fairly recent phenomenon (and are conceptually separate from humanitarian relief), and they’ve been largely political, embedded into military strategies meant at “winning hearts and minds” as part of a counterinsurgency strategy. Even on that front, it is very questionable how successful they’ve been. For example, this kind of development in Afghanistan often appears to have fueled corruption, distrust, divisive politics and undermined popular faith in local government, as studies by the Feinstein Centre at Tufts University indicate.

What advice can you give to students wishing to pursue a graduate degree with a focus in international development?

There has been a fairly recent shift to understanding international development as a legitimate, long-term career option. Even ten or fifteen years ago, many people understood work in international development to be something temporary and voluntary or poorly renumerated, done for a year or two between jobs. In the last few years, there’s been an explosion of new university programs to prepare students for international development. But it seems that many of these programs have been started because of demand from students, rather than because there will be jobs waiting for them all. So those who want to get into international development need to be very cognizant of this. If they study the field of international development without having a clear skill set or area of expertise, they may find that they are not particularly employable when they come out. So today’s students need to look ahead as much as possible and think about where in the international development system they think they want to work, and on what sort of issues, and then tailor their education accordingly.

What are some drawbacks to working in the field of international development?

As I describe in the book, the international development sector tends to be quite disorganized and has some common structural weaknesses that can make working in it quite frustrating. Donors and bilateral organisations can be very bureaucratic. Institutional memory within development organisations is often weak, due to fairly high turnover of staff within any particular office, and due to the frequent introduction of new ideas and strategies, and short funding cycles. Decisions are sometimes made because of political considerations rather than because they respond to evidence and represent good development practice. And accountability tends to be weak and upwards towards the donors, so that the people who are supposed to benefit actually have very little say and control, and can sometimes seem like an afterthought. To me, these are the biggest weaknesses, and because they’re hard to fix systematically, each individual coming to work in international development has to grapple with these and try to make the system work for them anyway, so that they can work effectively.

You mention that the lifestyle can be a shock for those working abroad. What important points should we consider with regard to living and working abroad?

What can be shocking sometimes, to those going to work overseas for the first time, are the enclaves of privilege that expat workers often live in, especially those working for donors and the UN. They seem to contradict what many of us think development is supposed to be about, since we think international development is premised on a recognition of the equity of all people, and the desire to combat human suffering and social injustices.

These enclaves can also maintain and exacerbate a psychological separation between nationals and internationals, a sense of separation that would probably exist to some degree anyway because of cultural and language differences. These enclaves aren’t inevitable, and many people make a huge effort to really get to know the country that they are working in, and to cultivate friendships with the people. Still, expat subcultures can sometimes be insidious and unhealthy, partly because they are easy and they can reinforce and justify the relatively privileged positions that expats often occupy. This is something we all need to be conscious of. It contradicts the values that most of us hold and aspire to, and as such, it is something we need to question and work to change.

Something else to consider about working overseas in international development is that you’re more likely to be effective in your work if you’re able to commit to it for a longer period of time, say at least three or four years. It may be difficult to personally commit to being in another country for longer periods of time. But if we can think through those possible trade-offs between work effectiveness and lifestyle, we may be able to find options that represent a good balance between personal and lifestyle needs, and work effectiveness. Talking to people who have taken similar positions can help us to understand what we can realistically aspire to and where we can best direct our energies.

What traits should young international development workers possess?

Because the international development system contains some serious structural weaknesses, as I mentioned earlier, ID workers need to be very independent, critical thinkers if they can hope to be effective. They have to be careful and selective about where they put their efforts, and even then, they’re unlikely to find a perfect set of circumstances, so they must take what they find and work with it. I call this mindset ‘pragmatic optimism’. Development workers who have this mindset are always seeking opportunities, but they’re also realistic about limitations. They must also be self-critical, because they’re likely to run up against situations that constantly challenge their assumptions of how things work. In multi-cultural situations, the way others treat them may also be conditioned by historical inequities, so they may be accorded privileges that they haven’t earned, that are essentially injust. Recognising this and responding appropriately takes a lot of self-awareness and self-discipline. The best development workers have this sort of honesty and deep integrity, and they’re really committed to what they are doing. When we come across people like this, it is really inspirational. Young people starting to work in international development would do well to seek out mentors who embody what they hope to be, and who can advise them when they’re facing complex situations and are unsure how to respond.

What has been your most rewarding experience so far?

Honestly, I don’t think I could point to just one experience. I’ve felt very lucky in my career so far, and one of the interesting aspects of it has been the variety. That said, I really love working with people on research projects. There was one community research project I facilitated in Ghana, back when I was working with IDRC. I was partnering with a small NGO offering running a telecentre in Tamale. Together with the staff, we worked with 4 small community groups and taught them how to do social research. Each group had a question that they wanted to answer. The youth group was interested in learning more about computers in high school – how many students were accessing them, and how useful they were finding it. There was a group of entrepreneurs who were worried that microcredit loans had very high default rates, so they investigated what was happening with that. I think the entrepreneurs were my favourite group to work with, they were very diverse and each member brought a lot to the research. Some had no formal education and couldn’t read, but they understand the issues around running their businesses very well, and they were naturals when it came to interviewing people who were receiving loans. They recorded their interviews, and we did a lot of the analysis just through group discussion. Their research was excellent – I saw formal research reports on microcredit years later that had some of the same findings and conclusions that this group had reached. They really blew me away, they were just so good. And they shared their research through community radio. I really loved being part of that, and watching them discover the world of research, which is something I really love.

Any other words of wisdom/general advice for students considering a career in international development?

International development is a very vast area, and it is easy to romanticize it from a distance. But that said, there are opportunities to do interesting, worthwhile work within it. It’s worth looking at its limitations as well as the opportunities that it presents, so you can go into it open-eyed. It’s also worth trying to project what area of it you might want to work in. It’s heartening that there are so many well-intentioned, intelligent young people who want to get involved in international development.

I interviewed a professor who said something I thought was insightful. She said that all of her students getting into international development wanted to help people, to change people. But it isn’t just about that, because if we want to change what we don’t understand, that seems a little patronizing, and could even be misguided or damaging. So it is really good to go in open-minded, willing to learn and listen…and with that approach, those good intentions can find a way to become fruitful actions.

Something Bigger Than OurselvesSomething Bigger than Ourselves is set to be released in March and can be purchased through Stylus/Kumarian Press .