Business experience will be valuable for development professionals of the future

Devex takes a closer look at the impact of the private sector engagement on talent demands. Photo by: Devex

Technology isn’t the only factor changing the global development job landscape — private sector engagement is also having an undeniable impact.

In Devex’s recent Next Generation Professional report — produced in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and DAI — survey respondents acknowledged that the future of development work would require professionals to understand different funding models, practices, and partners, including those from the private sector.

Respondents also believed that increased private sector funding and engagement in the development sector would require professionals to have more skills in resource mobilization and fundraising, a deeper understanding of market dynamics, more business-driven skills and focus on results, and familiarity with corporate techniques and jargon.

Devex takes a closer look at the impact of private sector engagement on talent demands.

The importance of private sector engagement

Private sector development is one of the sectors expected to achieve the most development progress in the future, according to the survey. At the most basic level, private sector engagement means looking at where business opportunities and interests align with development and humanitarian interests and objectives, explained Sarah Glass, acting director of USAID’s Center for Transformational Partnership and Private Sector Engagement, project lead, transformation task team.

In nearly every country that USAID is working in, the private sector is really the major driver of development, said Glass.

“The private sector creates nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries. They are one of the largest flows of financial investment and financial sources into the countries in which we work,” said Glass. “And so when we think about long-term sustained development, we can’t not engage the private sector.”

Lawrence Cooley, founder and director of Management Systems International, agrees that private sector engagement is having a huge impact on development work. There are several instances of big companies with commercial interests “converged in important ways with development activities,” said Cooley, adding that they are working on issues including clean and safe water or eradicating trachoma.

“There isn’t any question in my mind that in the most direct sense, corporations that build, make, and sell things are finding important links into what we would have thought of as development,” said Cooley.

Whether part of their corporate social responsibility efforts or an integrated part of their business strategy, Cooley believes that going forward this may mean that the current handful of major development donors will no longer be the biggest employers and funders for this kind of work. The private sector itself, he said, is going to be doing a lot more.

A changing approach to development work

USAID sees private sector engagement as “a means to an end and not as the end itself,” said Glass, adding that the agency can gain from engaging the private sector across each sector of its activities and not just its traditional economic growth work.

“There’s also a role for engaging the private sector and advancing market-based approaches in the health sector, in the education sector, and even in democracy and rights and governance,” said Glass.

Something USAID Administrator Mark Green often talks about, said Glass, is the shift to enterprise-driven or enterprise-led development, adding that this demonstrates the agency is really focused on “looking for market-based approaches that will be sustainable long past USAID or another donors’ involvement.”

Does this signal a shift in USAID’s role and in the way it achieves its priorities? While the agency used to design their development programs from end-to-end — fully designing the scope of work and how it would be achieved — they now serve as a “catalyst” for business investment and activities that drive development outcomes, said Glass. In doing so, USAID is moving away from being the “sole owners” of the activities they are supporting.

“This is really shifting our role from being just funders of development to hopefully catalyzing investment and participation of others, most especially here the private sector, in advancing global development outcomes,” said Glass.

No substitute for experience

Many of USAID’s partners have already been embracing opportunities to collaborate with the private sector. And, according to Glass, civil society and NGOs are increasingly seeking market-based approaches in their work, which she believed was an “exciting trend.”

As a result, development employers — from funding agencies to NGOs — may be looking more and more for professionals who are proficient in private sector engagement.

To work at the intersection of business and global development, Glass said it is not enough just to be a development professional — it’s only half of the equation. The next generation of development professionals must also really understand business and become as passionate about business and its role in society, as they are about development, she said.

“Take a job in the private sector and learn how businesses work, what their success metrics are, how they operate and make decisions,” said Glass. “Then bring [these skills] to work at the intersection of business and development.”

When it comes to hiring, Glass also said there is no substitute for having worked in a developing country or emerging economy. That hands-on experience allows professionals to know what it is really like to work in the places in which USAID is operating.

“It’s absolutely important to understand both the opportunities as well as the unique challenges that come from operating in a developing country,” said Glass. “I really encourage people — early on in their career but also throughout their career — to get that experience working in developing countries and emerging markets.”

The demand for private sector experience could mean more career opportunities for professionals looking to transition from that sector and do meaningful work in the development sector. These professionals can certainly bring with them some relevant technical skills, said Cooley.

However, this demand can also depend on how “directly transferable” those skills are, if that person has good acumen in business but doesn’t have any experience in development or applying those skills to the development context.

Look for any opportunity to learn

Development professionals should embrace any opportunity that allows them to deepen their knowledge of how business works and its impact on transforming development. In addition to getting hands-on training, Glass encouraged professionals to take advantage of online courses or formal academic curricula that can help develop private sector knowledge.

Professionals should also be proactive in reaching out and starting conversations with individuals working in businesses that overlap with development stakeholders.

“A lot of this is about really gaining a deeper understanding of what both businesses and development bring to the table in advancing our shared objectives,” said Glass. “Networking with professionals in this space and who play various roles in this space is really valuable.”

What skills do you think future global development professionals will need? Let us know by posting your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook using #NextGenPro or tagging @Devex. Visit our Next Generation Professionals site to read the report and more coverage of this topic.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.