Insights on International Development

By Adriale Pang

Discovery+ is a series of online industry panels which give students the chance to interact with working professionals and learn about the careers they aspire to enter. These panels provide youths and working professionals with the opportunity to better understand industry trends, hear first-hand perspectives from industry professionals, and gain valuable advice on entering or navigating these industries.

On 21 September 2021, Advisory hosted Discover+: International Development, the 42nd edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included:

  • Calum Handforth (Moderator) – Advisor, Digitalisation and Smart Cities, UNDP GCTISD
  • Chitra Venkatesh – Head of Education and Outreach and Global Network Leader, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
  • Rajan Govil – Senior Economist, International Monetary Fund
  • Yoonee Jeong – Senior Digital Technology Specialist, ADB

Below are some key points shared during the session:

Organisations that work on international development have an overarching trajectory. For example, advancing living standards in developing countries, ensuring that the global payments and trade system remains robust, and promoting environmental protection. These groups of people then work towards their organisational mission by breaking up the overarching goal into smaller projects that employees can take up in their teams.

These projects take many forms. Some examples include:

  1. Conducting relevant surveys, such as gathering information on the standard of living in developing countries and publishing a report to highlight unaddressed gaps
  2. Research to justify the need for a particular project
  3. Fundraising to support the cause
  4. Assessment of the effectiveness of projects undertaken by the organisation
  5. Education to empower communities, such as conducting courses on macroeconomics to equip policymakers with the knowledge they need
  6. Outreach to spread awareness of the organisation’s cause

The nature of work can be top-down in that employees work in teams that have a specified trajectory and specific projects allocated to them. However, it is also autonomous in that within the scope of their allocated projects, employees have the space to take initiative and innovate, in order to achieve the project goals and support the organisation’s mission.

In terms of the hard skills required, some organisations look out for specialised skills like economics, finance, translation, or data analytics. However, since there are often a wide range of teams within any particular organisation, the prerequisites often vary. In fact, many projects benefit from assembling a team that has a range of skills, be it communications or law. Hence, those who are interested in the field should specifically research on the team or department that they want to work in, and whether there are any prerequisite skills specified.

In terms of the soft skills required, having respect for a diversity of cultures is important when working with people from different countries. This is in addition to skills like taking the initiative and perseverance, as one may meet with challenges when working on their projects.

Before taking on a job in international development, it would be helpful to experience the work through internship opportunities that organisations may offer to university students. Oftentimes organisations also publish paid internship opportunities on their website, so do keep a look out for those.

Work in international development is dynamic, and projects call for a range of skills and versatility. On some days, we might be writing talking points to convince donors to contribute funds for our projects. On other days, we might be conducting outreach to stakeholders or the public, doing research, attending courses, and more.

As work in international development often involves stakeholders across multiple countries, the differences in time zones can result in tangible challenges, such as having to reply emails and attend video conferences in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, it is important to mitigate the risk of burn-out, especially with Covid-19 blurring the boundaries between work and rest.

Moreover, while most organisations have already gotten through the painful transition from face-to-face interactions to using video conferencing for meetings as a result of the pandemic, some tasks are still better achieved through in-person interactions. For instance, it is much harder for us to make an effective sales pitch for our project to potential donors, or teach policymakers difficult economics concepts through using only online platforms.

Do not take the failure that you encounter when completing projects and the rejections that you may get during job applications too hard. If an organisation does not see the unique value that you can offer, another may, so do not lose heart!

Furthermore, when considering a particular organisation that you would like to work for, do not be too fixated on its brand reputation. Instead, scrutinise the job to identify what you can learn, see if it interests you, and think of how you might benefit from working in it. Different issues and constraints are definitely present in all organisations, be it private, national or international. What matters the most is ensuring that you are working on something that you are passionate about at work. This passion will motivate you to creatively work through the constraints and challenges you face in your job.

Lastly, always look for a job that is a 70% fit for you, instead of a 100%, so that you will have the remaining 30% to experience some discomfort that can potentially push you out of your comfort zone and help you grow.