5 career tips for family planning and SRHR professionals

A doctor discusses family planning issues with women at Mchinji Hospital in Malawi. What career advice should development professionals in the global health, family planning, and sexual and reproductive health and rights sector keep front of mind and put into practice? Photo by: Pirilani Semu-Banda / UNFPA

One undeniable thing about the global development industry is that it never remains static. Trends and discussions about best practices, funding streams, partnerships strategies — and particularly career opportunities and staffing needs — constantly evolve and change over time.

This is particularly dynamic moment for the global development community, as practitioners prepare to harness the momentum of 2015 to hit the ground running on working to put into practice the comprehensive package targets laid out in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For global health, women’s empowerment, sexual reproductive health and rights and family planning practitioners focused on SDGs 3 (on health) and 5 (on gender equality), it is no different.

But from a careers perspective, as the work of the development community evolves to meet the changing needs of the beneficiaries they serve, so do the requirements for the professionals tasked with delivering on those needs.

Julia Bunting, president of New York-based nonprofit Population Council, told Devex how the development sector has been changing the way it views professionals and on-the-job requirements.

“I think today we've seen a big increase in the professionalization of development,” she said on the sidelines of last month’s International Conference on Family Planning in Nusa Dua, Indonesia. “You’ve got a load of people with high-class qualifications now working to make development more effective and efficient … and the skills that people need are the same skills you need to succeed in the public sector and the private sector.”

So what career advice should aspiring or incumbent development professionals in the global health, family planning, and sexual and reproductive health and rights sector keep front of mind and put into practice?

Devex talked to a series of luminaries during the #ICFP2016 in Indonesia to find out. Here are some of the tips they shared:

1. No medical degree, no problem.

One of the misperceptions of working in the global health, family planning and SRHR sector is that a medical degree and associated professional experience is a must to carve out a successful career and contribute to the cause.

But Kellie Sloan, family planning director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — not herself a formal family planning expert when she took up the post — told Devex that while technical expertise is a plus for those who want to work on such issues, it is not the be-all and end-all.

“I think having a nontraditional leader in the role has helped with some objectivity, and being able to ask some questions that may not otherwise have been asked,” said Sloan, who originally came from a corporate sector background. “But I think we need some big, strategic thinkers on some of the major things we need to do to accelerate [progress] and ensure that we're being innovative in our approaches.”

2. Hit two (or more) birds with one stone.

Another expectation of today’s global development professionals is an ingrained ability to multitask — despite some reports finding that multitasking may actually do more harm than good in terms of both health and productivity in the workplace.

Katja Iversen, CEO of the New York-based advocacy group Women Deliver, told Devex that professionals who want to work in the family planning and SRHR beat should grow their technical and managerial capacity and skills to be able to cope with the growing demands of the sector.

“More people have to be able to do more things amid diminishing resources … What’s needed is an integrated approach,” she said. “If we want to break down silos — and from an economic standpoint we have to — there has to be a broader approach in both the structure [and] the health worker's abilities.”

One of the biggest sticking points, Iversen said, was the need to break down silos within and between the work of different stakeholders from the ground up — especially in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals’ calls to action around the principles of cooperation, collaboration and sustainability.

3. Communicate with everyone (literally everyone!)

Another career skill that could ultimately be beneficial to aspiring and current family planning and SRHR professionals is the ability to communicate to people of all levels of understanding.

Although it is crucial for education and awareness-raising activities to be included in the development cycle, experts told Devex that funders, policymakers and people at the base of the pyramid may not always be on the same page when it comes to understanding the issue — particularly technical jargon and complex medical terminology.

“The ability of practitioners, whether scientists or health care workers, to advocate and to communicate is core,” Iversen said. “Both to elevate the issues to a policy level where changes can happen in terms of budgets, or in the way things are done, but also communicating effectively with the end-users.”

4. Make family planning and SRHR a grassroots endeavor.

While global agreements and international frameworks form a big part of how development is structured and implemented, the importance of highlighting grass-roots considerations and the local context has never been more significant — no more so than in the family planning and SRHR sectors.

And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Kellie Sloan believes youth need to be at the center of the discourse.

“I see the need for more and more expertise in-country. I feel like the capacity there is key,” she said. “And I think we have an opportunity here: youth are our future and a focus on in-country capacity with that group has to be front in mind.”

Iversen, who prior to joining Women Deliver had extensive experience working for U.N. Population Fund, agreed: “[There has to be] the ability to speak to different audiences. If you want to change hearts and minds, you need to be able to be in their place and their shoes and really create those win-wins.”

5. Make it a passion and commitment.

At the end of the day, working in the family planning and SRHR sector boils down to one thing and that is the drive to help people secure better access to wider family planning and SRHR methods and, ultimately, lead better lives. In this case, passion and commitment is a non-negotiable part of a development worker’s skillset.

The Population Council’s Julia Bunting, who previously worked for more than a decade for the U.K.'s Department for International Development on reproductive and maternal health programs, shared some straightforward advice: If you're really passionate about the issue, make family planning and SRHR your life’s work — and never stop trying and improving.

“I think if you're interested, committed and passionate about these issues then you should keep at it,” she said. “There will be lots of obstacles along the way, you won't get everything that you want and you won't get that dream job the first time [of asking].”

“But I think, in your heart, if you really believe and want to work on these issues or in this field, you will be able to navigate those barriers and find a way to overcome them in a way that you can contribute,” Bunting concluded.

Devex associate editor Richard Jones contributed reporting from #ICFP2016.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.