Maϊa Gedde is a Country Manager for Spark, a Dutch NGO working in entrepreneurship and job creation in post conflict countries. Her new book, ‘How To Work In International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: a Career Guide’ has just been published by Routledge – April 2015 (use the code FLR40 to get a discount). Maϊa interviewed us when researching her book and, since publication, we have spoken to her by Skype in Rwanda about her background in the sector and how she came to write the book.
Firstly Maϊa tell us a little about your background and how you came to be working in the sector. I graduated with a degree in biology from Oxford in 2000. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do but was sure there was more to than cells. I decided to explore options by doing some temping work, but I also saved to go travelling for a year. That is when I became interested in writing and the potential of small scale businesses (fashion producers initially) to contribute to the economy of the developing world, although it took me a long time to actually work in that field.
I found my first job in the sector through a temp agency that happened to have DFiD as a client. I had worked for them before and specifically expressed interest in DfID. It was rare for them to get assignments but I got lucky – like many of these things: right place at right time. I worked as a PA to the deputy head of the Africa Great Lakes and Horn Department covering for someone taking a six-month sabbatical. It was 2002 and an exciting time to work in the sector with lots of MDG enthusiasm and I helped prepare documents for the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. The job exposed me to a wide variety of development professionals and I started to get curious how all these people from diverse backgrounds had found their way into the sector and how I could chart my own career path. I guess this is what planted the seed for the book idea.
I took an evening course in international development at Birkbeck and LSE, taught by SOAS staff to learn more about the sector, along with other evening course in freelance journalism – just for fun. The general advice I kept getting was to do a masters in development so I went on to do an MA in Development in Sweden (then, as now, Masters are free of charge in Sweden for EU residents). I prioritised doing some fieldwork for my Masters to give me that field experience and spent six weeks in Malawi researching primary education.
After that I started to seriously look for jobs, but like many who have just completed a Masters, still didn’t feel a specialist in any particular area. It was my jourmalism “hobby” which – coupled with my Masters – led on to my first position – to write a manual for a health NGO working in sub-Saharan Africa. The moral here is pursue your wider passions, not just academic achievements. When someone left that then led on to a full time programme coordinator role, where I was based in London but travelled to Uganda, Ghana and Malawi a few times a year. It was my idea job for about three years and I had a steep learning curve and was loving it. But then I started to think where next? What are the options?
How did the book come about? At that point in my career it was the book that I really wanted to read – how could and should I plan my career and what were other people experiences? I started to look around but didn’t find any adequate resource. Yes there were some on volunteering, some on first jobs, but no real comprehensive resource which also covered the breadth of the sector and included humanitarian assistance. So that is when the idea for the book really took shape. I have also been involved in recruitment in my various different positions, and knew how much interest there was in the sector and some of the difficulties people who want to transition to the sector face – so I knew that there was also demand. At the time I was involved with some colleagues in writing another book (Working in International Health, OUP, 2011) so it didn’t feel like such a daunting task, and the publishers were interested.
The book finally took shape and is comprised of four different sections. The first is aimed at newcomers to the sector – including an overview of where you could work and who you could work for. People often just think NGOs and UN, but the range of employers is vast and useful to keep this as wide as possible during the job search.
The second section is aimed at the job seeker, but also covers academic qualifications (useful for anyone planning the academic studies with the sectors in mind) and how to get the most out of volunteering and internships.
The third section is for the people like me – a number of years experience in the sector but planning their career development. There is also a section on becoming a consultant and moving out of the sectors.
The final section covers 54 different areas of speciality. People often say “I want to work in development” or “I want to be a humanitarian” but the sectors are so broad. Some specialisation is vital, although of course the ideal is having T-shaped skills. Breadth of experience with the depth of specialisation. So this section covers everything from Advocacy to WASH and everything in between – education, M&E, development communications and how to become a country director! With a case study of someone working in each of the specialisations.
What were some of the themes that emerged? Well it confirmed how broad the sectors are and the range of people who work in it – from the urban planner now working on issues of orphans and vulnerable children, to the astrophysicist working on policy issues. It also confirmed how transferrable various skills are – and some of the techniques used by career changers, although for some entry to the sector is planned and very deliberate.
There isn’t one uniform career path or trajectory – everyone has a very different route and it’s often highly personal and depends on the opportunities which present themselves. Because of this developing and nurturing your network is very important for the sector and important also during the job search. As the sectors are also changing so quickly our senior peers career paths are not a clear role model – we have to chart our own.
What were some of the potential growth areas you identified? From my own perspective, the private sector is becoming increasingly important – the old cliché ‘trade not aid’. Impact investing and supporting entrepreneurs for job creation are important emerging areas. Another important theme is the much welcomed emphasis on rigorous evaluation – coming from a scientific background I welcome the growing trend of impact evaluation although I do recognise its difficult to run on all projects.
It also seems that it is going to become harder for people from the west to get careers in the sector as there is a significant shift to the southern hemisphere and an increasing desire to recruit local people wherever possible. At the same time there are lots of opportunities for people to get some initial experience and again when they have some significant experience and are able to apply for more senior jobs