5 takeaways from the Devex Career Fair in Nairobi

From left to right: Helen Kong'ong'o, regional director of human resources for RTI International, Marionne Tucker, director of people and culture for World Vision, and Kate Warren, director of global recruitment services at Devex at the international career fair in Nairobi. Photo by: Jonathan Kalan

Along with our global supporter The Rockefeller Foundation and premier sponsor, RTI International, 45 employers and over 300 development professionals convened in Nairobi for the first-ever Devex International Development Career Fair in Africa last week.

The rooms were packed, the energy high and the mood optimistic as organization representatives chatted with professionals about what they were looking for while attendees presented their skills and networked with fellow job seekers.

Attendees and recruiters alike remarked how even those who live in East Africa didn’t quite realize both the depth of talent in the region and the abundance of organizations working in the area.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, here are five takeaways from the event.

1. The emergence of “in-pats”

The diaspora can be a great talent pool for hiring professionals for development projects. They understand the local culture, politics, institutions and nuance that are crucial to successful programming and often possess the technical and management skills more easily acquired working abroad.

A challenge for attracting the diaspora to return to their home country has been salary and benefits. Traditionally, donors and their implementers have drawn a hard line between local and international staff. International staff members receive a salary and benefits in line with their typically Western home countries, while local professionals are paid on a local compensation plan, which is typically far less. And if a diaspora candidate is still a citizen of their home country, they are classified as a local hire. For most, this would mean taking a significant pay cut, which few are willing to do.

But panelists at the Career Fair’s opening plenary said this is changing. Many NGOs and consulting firms have developed a new hiring classification one panelist nicknamed “in-pats.” This new classification gives an organization the flexibility to attract diaspora candidates while also offering compensation in line with their salary history.

2. Stiff competition for talent between local and international NGOs

We heard from smaller, locally based NGOs that the dominance of larger, internationally funded groups is creating, as Aaron Williams, executive vice president of RTI’s International Development Group put it, a “foot race for intellectual talent.”

One attendee expressed concern that her smaller locally based NGO could not compete salary-wise with the larger international organizations for the high levels of knowledge and expertise their work requires. Staff that local organizations invest in and train are snapped up by the international employers creating a “brain drain” within the country.

Ideas such as international organizations providing capacity building and training to local organizations, or even providing staff or salary support, were discussed. However, most recognized the challenge of creating sustainable local organizations and expertise in a marketplace dominated by such a large international presence.

3. Employers creating incentives to stick around

The project-based nature of much of global development work means there is a lot of movement between employers as one project ends and another begins. Most funders don’t allow their implementers to give raises to staff members during a project, though raises can be given when someone starts a new project or with a new employer. An unfortunate side effect is that often the only way for a professional to get a raise is to get a new job.

Staff turnover in the middle of a project can be very disruptive to the results they hope to achieve, and in the end can cost the organization and their donor more money. Some employers discussed incentives they are creating for people to stick around. They may build raises into their project proposal – and push back on the donors if they don’t approve – or offer other incentives such as additional benefits for sticking around.  

4. Recruiting for global needs, not just immediate project needs

In addition to building incentives for talent to stay the full duration of a project, many organizations discussed how they are evolving their talent strategy from that of filling immediate project needs to building a global workforce that aligns with their overall organizational strategy. So while they may hire someone to work on a specific project, their hope is for the professional to have the option to build a long-term career with that organization. Incentives such as building in pay raises as well as offering training, mentorship and leadership programs are some of the ways organizations are looking to do just that.

5. The U.N. is going local too, and may not be as closed off as you think

During the career fair plenary, Rolf Schaller, UNICEF chief of recruitment, shared that 40 percent of UNICEF hires are external candidates – meaning they worked outside the U.N. system. The U.N. has a reputation for only hiring its own, which can discourage professionals on the outside from even trying. However, Schaller urges professionals to take a second look, particularly those from program countries. The U.N. now has a professional level class to hire locally in the countries where they operate in addition to the more administrative level positions available to local hires in the past.

The U.N. hires internationally from their local professional talent pool, so starting in your home country could be a way to work your way into an international career with a U.N. agency.

Read more about the trend of aid “going local” as well as the Devex Partnerships Forum & Career Fair in Nairobi.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.