This is the season when college seniors are wondering how, a few months from now, they’ll answer the question, “Did you get a job?” So for those with an inclination toward a career in international development, here’s some advice, of the free and unsolicited variety. (Fellow old timers, I invite you to use the comments function to add your own.)
First, make sure your motivation surpasses hero worship or the goal of being a savior. The field of global development, and particularly global health, has more than its fair share of charismatic leaders, some of whom preach a compelling gospel of service and salvation. It has been a boon to the field to have celebrities calling attention to places, people, and problems that in the not-too-distant past were unknown to most Americans. But helping from outside to make positive change in a society is far more complex than any tale of passion and transformation can convey. It’s a long haul with uncertain prospects, not a quick route to being a celebrated savior.
Second, when you have the chance to get to the field, grab it—and build in time to learn about the fate of development projects from years ago. Even if getting opportunities to travel means doing “grunt work,” like organizing a survey or sorting out the logistics for a meeting, it’s well worth it. The field of global development is a mish-mash of disciplines, from economics to anthropology to public health and more. The unifying feature is that all those who work in development want to affect the reality of people’s lives in far-away low- and middle-income countries. And learning about those countries and the people who live there from books, talks, and Wikipedia doesn’t hold a candle to being there, observing, asking questions about past success and failure, and listening.
Third, find ways to learn about and work on social and economic problems in the U.S. This is a good way to escape the trap of magical thinking. We’re all fed a daily diet of news about development programs—from microfinance to girls’ scholarships to childhood immunization—that purport to lift people out of poverty and toward good health and prosperity. Because we don’t personally see the on-the-ground reality or have an intuitive understanding of how complicated it is to sustain gains, those stories reinforce the notion that solutions can be built quickly from money and know-how. I guarantee you that it’s not easier to make progress in poor countries than in rich ones, so getting first-hand experience where you understand the politics and culture can be tremendously enlightening. It is also possible that, while experiencing the highs and lows of working on problems that affect American society, you’ll find that the professional rewards you seek overseas can be found closer to home.
And now some unsolicited advice for friends who have been in this field for a long time: Take time to respond to young people when they come asking questions and seeking opportunities. Not only is this the right thing to do for the next generation, but meeting the outstanding young professionals who are bringing creativity, energy, and commitment to global development will lead you to reflect on your own careers and contributions anew.