The privilege of giving career advice in international development

After Duncan Green mentioned George Monbiot’s career advice and added some reflections from his aid industry policy angle, I am yet another (white) man with a stable career – this time in academia – who is supposed to tell you how to get ‘there’…

I am probably the most careful one when it comes to the ‘follow your passion’ discourse.

George Monbiot is not writing about the aid industry
In fact, two of his three routes he outlines are potentially quite terrible in connection with international development: Just going to the field and ‘doing it’ sounds like a voluntourism disaster to happen and ‘if you are fed up with mainstream employers just create your own brand’ (Monbiot uses slightly more radical and less creative industry language) will also lead to a challenging ‘career’-even with some professional experience under your belt.
To be honest, I find Monbiot’s reflections really not that helpful as there is little room for balance with other aspects of your existence: Working for a small front line organization may sound exciting, but with all those discussions around mental and physical well-being it is worth remembering looking after yourself when you are not supported by institutional arrangements and professional networks. ‘Doing it your way’ can be a route into burn-out-especially in our age of the entrepreneurial self.

Duncan Green started his career before ‘neoliberalism’

My short piece will not turn into a ‘state of the world’ reflection, but it is important to keep in mind that the institutional foundations of ‘a newspaper’ like the Guardian or ‘an INGO’ like Oxfam have changed profoundly and will continue to do so in the future.
The biggest challenge is the vast pool of qualified, diverse global talent that went through the ‘right’ Masters programs, ‘right’ internships and have access to the ‘right’ networks. They also did the traveling and living in Africa stuff in an attempt to offset the ‘right’ formal aspects of the CV with the ‘right’ informal aspects. To put it bluntly, neoliberalism has the remarkable and powerful ability to professionalize most aspects of our lives beyond simply making sure that qualified people do no harm in their jobs.

Leaving machine learning, algorithms, artificial intelligence, ‘robots’ and their impact on ‘careers’ aside for a moment, the audit-, ranking- and measurement-culture has become a pervasive aspect of any professional environment. And for most of us it will mean that we have to arrange ourselves with those realities.

How do you find the perfect balance between ‘bullshit tasks’ and writing a blog post on Friday?
David Graeber, yet another white men with a secure academic position, introduced the idea of ‘bullshit jobs’ as his contribution to critiquing the neoliberal system. They make for great mocking of the City and related industries, but the truth of the matter is that almost all professional jobs nowadays have some elements of ‘bullshit job’ attached to it-at least in the form of some ‘bullshit tasks’. On a regular day I could log into a variety of databases that facilitate my job at the university: A database to report grades, a database to approve an invoice for a book order, a database to report holidays and maybe a database to check student applications. You can joke about it with colleagues but the truth is that there are many administrative routines that govern my conduct at work and limit my creativity. But any ‘career’ in a large organization will come with some ‘bullshit tasks’ in exchange for many positive aspects. This was also one of the reasons why I wrote
5 reasons why everyone should work for a large organization at some point in their international development careers in 2015.
In the context of international development I disagree to some extent with Monbiot’s notion of ‘freedom’: Good development work relies on routines, small tasks done well – and using creativity, experience and judgment to interpret guidelines the right way so some small social change will flourish.

Is there actual career advice at the end of the post?

Yes- and no…
If you work full time in a large organization you will have to learn how to tame bureaucratic demons. That does not sound like the most challenging and creative professional endeavor, but it is part of the reality many of us will develop careers under. So if you have the opportunity engage at least once with a large organization-maybe even only to figure out that it is absolutely not what you wanted.

Based on my own experiences and talking to our diverse group of students in our MA Communication for Development program I am quite convinced that ‘our’ sector of international development is quite terrible at ‘career development’ and talent management. You will have to develop your own, there, I said it, ‘mini-brand’ that can showcase good work with passion and creativity. One challenge is to find that niche-and just because your organization likes your creative communication approach it does not mean that you should quit your job and run workshops now freelance…

The toughest question in terms of career building is the question of the slowly changing ethical framework of international development: How can I justify my engagement?
Duncan writes: ‘I loved writing; I was (broadly) on the left; I wanted to understand social and political change and if possible contribute to it.’
Is this still enough to build a career given our global Northern/ Western, male etc. privileges?
Since social change usually happens slower than we anticipate my tentative answer is ‘yes, to some extent’-but the more important questions for which I have no good answer at this stage is, to put it more provocatively, who should have a career in international development in the future and at what cost will they happen in a globally accelerating labor market?


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