In response to Duncan Green: My 9 development trends and their implications for tomorrow’s aid jobs

Duncan Green just proposed 9 trends and their impact on employment in the aid industry-particularly for fresh graduates or those freshly entering the sector.
As a critical reader and friend of his blog I think that Duncan has done a great job outlining his 9 trends and starting this important discussion. But that he did not get everything right and in fact overlooked a few important trends as I am going to argue in my response.

So without further delay, here are my 9 trends and their implications for how to enter the sector and find meaningful engagement and employment.
Each of my points actually deserves their own post-which maybe a project for the autumn…And while I believe these are emerging trends I also don’t judge them as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, hence the academic in me wants to add more nuances.

1. There are no trends: A lot of things will remain the same
Generally speaking, I don’t like the word ‘trend’ and I genuinely believe that over the next 2-5 years many parameters will pretty much stay the same. I don’t really like talk about ‘revolutions’, ‘disruptions’ or claims about ‘innovations that will change X, Y or Z’. I also believe that many trends are actually macro trends about how life/work/the world are changing rather than changes that are unique to the aid industry. So when it comes to the organizational architecture of how development ‘works’, a lot of things will remain the same and my earlier advice on why working for a large aid organization is a good idea still stands.

2. Experiments with new economic paradigms beyond ‘the private sector’
To contradict my previous point a little bit, I think that new economic approaches will play a more important role from universal basic income to ‘doughnut economics’. Simply relying on ‘the private sector’ and corporate engagement will not be enough-so ‘de-growth’ and co-op experts will be in more demand.

3. The importance of INGOs will decline
Oxfam talking about losing income, making savings and considering redundancies is only the tip of the iceberg.
Traditional INGO brands (Oxfam, Save The Children, Action Aid,…) are already under pressure to reinvent themselves and make a stronger case why they are actually needed to ‘do’ development (especially work outside humanitarian emergencies). Localization and re-thinking expat-driven aid work also play a role, but if you have a passport of an OECD country I would not put too many eggs into the INGO basket.

4. The increasing importance of (local) universities
Philanthropy, foundations, UN organizations and corporations all play an important part in development-but the growing higher education industry will provide opportunities for graduates-even if you don’t have a PhD (and probably shouldn
t consider one in development studies)!
International offices, affiliated Thinks Tanks, non-profit consulting branches or training programs will grow in many universities in the global South. Very often, they will be linked to local and regional efforts to create knowledge or employment, providing excellent opportunities to bring together global and local knowledge and talent!

5. A growing well-being & self-help industry for aid work(ers)
I will come to traditional technical skills in a moment, but equally important will be new skills and areas of expertise-especially those who have to do with the well-being of people and organizations. From psychologist to re-location consultants, from offering multi-lingual childcare in expats hubs to running writing retreats the future for such services will be bright!
Some of the growth has to do with serious issues around #AidToo and how the sector discusses gender, diversity, discrimination, abuse etc., but some of it is a less serious engagement to reflect about professional practices, work-life balances and why taking a break is important.

6. The rise & rise of behavioral economics & econometrics

The idea of learning ‘hard skills’ has always been part of the development studies discussion and how to find a useful and fulfilling route into the aid industry.
But we are no longer talking about ‘learn some statistics’ or ‘attend a STATA course’-we are talking about the dominance of RCTs, of evidence that is produced through sophisticated econometric and natural scientific approaches.
As I said in my introduction, this post is too short for a nuanced discussion about the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of these developments, but if people talk ‘evidence’ they mean even less ‘focus groups’ and ‘participatory workshops’ than in whatever good old days…

7. The aid industry will struggle to keep up with real-life technological developments
As much as ‘industry 4.0’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘blockchain’ or ‘crypto currencies’ are part of your latest version of buzzword Bingo at the office things are obviously changing-and many developments in the global South tend to mirror Northern developments-including their mistakes. This is an opportunity for open data activists, those working on open source software or open learning resources to step in and work with counterparts in the global South-most likely outside bureaucratic restraints of a UN system or INGOs…

8. New employment trends reach the aid industry

I wanted to stick to nine trends to mirror Duncan’s original post, so this point actually highlights a few trends under the headline of ‘how the aid industry mirrors real life’.
There will likely be more rosters, more databases, more short-term contracts and an expectation of more flexibility. There will also be stratifications, the equivalent of making a living from self-published medieval romance novels and selling five Ebooks on an online platform: Your STATA course will be topped by the MIT Economics PhD degree…and lastly, self-branding and/or small consultancies, probably one-person shops, will remain important features of how people find work in the industry in a general climate of uncertainty, precariousness and out-sourcing of employment risks.

9. Decolonization – slowly, but surely

Going back to where this post started, I think that the ‘decolonization’ agenda will be a far longer process and one that is far more complicated to be summarized as a simple ‘trend’.
But I do believe that this emerging debate signals an encouragement for different people to think about development studies or a career in development differently: Shifts from the ‘North’ to the ‘South’, from old centers to new ones, but also from traditional margins to new frontiers will occur.
Development has always been more colorful, diverse and open than other sectors throughout history and many are prepared to push boundaries again. That’s a lot easier said than done when overseas fees for an MA in the UK are pushing the 20,000 pound mark.
But it is an encouragement for institutions as well as employers to find new ways of identifying talent and include different groups in their organizations.

This post is already longer than I had imagined it-thanks, Duncan, for getting the writing and discussion started!


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