How technology is changing the global development jobs landscape

Looking to the future, technology is only going to become more deeply ingrained in development work.

From fintech to blockchain for development and drones delivering aid, technology continues to transform the way we work. Looking to the future, technology is only going to become more deeply ingrained in development, but the gap between technology specialists and development professionals is only growing.

The next generation of development professionals will have to learn and utilize new tech skills, while the current generation will need to upskill their expertise to successfully lead future programs.

Devex spoke with technology for development experts from international development company DAI and the United States Agency for International Development, to glean insights on what skills the next generation of development professionals will need and where the gaps will be in this rapidly transforming industry.

Next Generation of Development Professionals

To uncover broader trends and opinions around the future of global development professionals, Devex, in partnership with USAID and DAI, has produced a report to determine the perceptions,  trends, opportunities, visions, and solutions around the future of the industry. Offering practical insights for recruiters and talent alike with this new report, read Next Generation of Development Professionals here.

Mind the gap

The current rate of progress in technology is set to outpace the technological skill set in the development sphere.

Data scientists and analysts may have great insights into the latest development trends and data, but that knowledge needs to be translated across to development practitioners implementing programs on the ground, who aren’t as technologically skilled.

Because of this, our experts foresee a need for positions to bridge the gap between technical experts and development practitioners, to aid the implementation of new technologies between teams. Collaboration and integration between data and social scientists is a must, in order to take full advantage of technological advancements for development.

“We’ll want to be able to lean on this technological expertise that may be separate from development expertise. But I think having the ability to translate between two domains intelligibly and serve as that translating bridge,” said Aubra Anthony, strategy and research lead at USAID’s Center for Digital Development, “that’s a gap that might exist and could definitely benefit from having somebody fluent in both languages.”

“Tech and digital need to be a part of everyone’s knowledge base.”

— Krista Baptista, senior director at DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration

Krista Baptista, senior director at DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration echoed this sentiment, new positions — coined “change agents” or “intrapreneurs” — will be key in bridging the gap between tech and program teams. Development professionals will also need to gain a certain level of understanding around fundamental tech tools for development, Baptista continued, if they are to successfully integrate technology into their work.

Face your fear of tech

One pressing need is for all development professionals to have a basic level of “digital literacy,” said USAID’s Anthony. Professionals need to be comfortable and confident using and integrating basic technologies into their everyday work as well as programs on the ground, she said.

DAI’s Baptista supported this assertion: “Tech and digital need to be a part of everyone’s knowledge base,” she said. “And even though most people in development don’t need a deep amount of knowledge in it, everyone needs to continue to get more comfortable with understanding what questions to ask and where to start.”

Striking the right balance between embracing tech and being skeptical of certain innovations is tough, but is nonetheless key to success in development practices.

Anthony explained how development practitioners tend to lie at either extreme when considering harnessing technology in their work: “People are either really, really, focused on technology for technology’s sake … or you have a deep mistrust or resistance to engage because you’re not comfortable with the technology; you’re not familiar with the technology; or you don’t trust it, period.”

Practitioners need to be educated on the true potential of tech, as well as its risks, in development, including how to critically assess where tech is appropriate, and where it will add value.

Often, technology is viewed as “the other” — something daunting and external to development work — but that attitude needs to be confronted and changed.

“Sometimes, just the mere existence of a technology can be off-putting to people,” said Anthony.

The resistance is understandable: Tech is a mammoth new sector to enter the world of development, with a lot of potential but also a lot of unknowns.

In order to embrace and reap the benefits of technological advancements, the development sector needs to keep up-to-date with the latest innovations and tools, and look at how they can be integrated effectively into development work, Baptista expressed. 

Keeping up

There are numerous ways professionals can stay tuned on the latest in tech integration for development. Some sites experts suggested include the DAI digital blog, MIT Technology Review, NextBillion, Wired, Fast Company, as well as Devex.

Networking or joining research groups such as Data & Society and AI Now, could also be helpful.

“There are ICT4D happy hours and meet ups, tech salons, and other conferences globally,” said Baptista, adding that making the effort to connect and become more involved in technology for the development community will yield dividends.

Trainings and courses were also highly recommended by our experts — available both in-person and online, such as those through TechChange — as well as approaching your organization to see what trainings they have on offer.

USAID’s Anthony advises getting “enough training under your belt [so] that you aren’t intimidated by working with data, and that you’re not put off by working with data.”

Engaging professionals from other industries

However, even if development practitioners are well-versed on the latest technologies and innovations, engineers, data scientists, and other specialists, still hold a level of expertise to analyze and understand data that untrained development practitioners do not.

But these experts are hard to find in the development sector, due in large part to a lack of awareness that they are in such high demand. Anthony herself has a PhD in physics, but confessed: “I really did not realize that the skills I was developing for my physics career would be actually quite useful in this field of international development.”

“There is that lack of engagement with the more traditional science fields and data science fields,” said Anthony. “And I think there are people that would really love the opportunity to cross over.”

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While some programs aim to remedy this — such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s fellowship scheme — a lot more could be done to publicize, raise awareness, and engage those experts in development work.

“As a development sector, we do really need to start engaging engineers and more of the IT and tech community that might not really know their skills are really needed in development,” said DAI’s Baptista, adding that this needs to start at the university level and requires specific events and outreach.

Engaging more specialists in the development sector will continue demand for intrapreneurs to bridge the gap between the tech experts and development practitioners, a role requiring problem solving and softer skills, Baptista noted.

Soft skills remain equally important

Though technology may be spearheading this global transformation, soft skills will always remain crucial to technology integration in development work.

“Technology deployment or technology integration will not be successful if you’re not collaborating and working with others who are impacted by the use of technology,” Anthony explained.

“I really can’t emphasize it enough: Technological skills are really just one piece of successful integration,” said Anthony. “So much of a technology’s success will depend on whether you’ve been able to develop a strong relationship with the host-country government.”

Key when implementing any program is building a good rapport and trusting relationship with all stakeholders. With technology, this is even more prominent. To fully understand the local context and capacity for tech, the most beneficial approach needs to be worked out — and how technology best plays into that.

A strategic mindset shift is needed by NGOs to fully embrace technology

The development and humanitarian sectors have been slow to adopt new technologies. Panelists at the 10th ICT4D Conference in Zambia discussed strategies for changing that trend.

Anthony also highlighted how tech is “continuously changing and evolving.” It’s not as simple as selecting a few specific technologies for development professionals to brush up on their skill set.

A shift away from the ‘expat expert’

When technology is integrated into programs on the ground, the local capacity for technology use will increase. This will open up opportunities for communities to use and develop tech for their own benefit.

For the global development job landscape, this will mean a shift from the external “expat expert” role toward a mentoring and coaching function, where development practitioners become “the facilitator rather than the driver,” Baptista explained.

In future, development practitioners will assist communities with the technology and skills that they demand to help build local capacity, rather than driving the programs themselves, she continued.

It’s clear technology for development is transforming the sector and will continue to do so. Development professionals therefore need to keep pace with technological advancements and not be afraid to embrace them. Acquiring a basic level of technological understanding will be vital for the next generation to thrive in the future global development job landscape.

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 for all coverage of this topic.

Update, July 10, 2018: This article has been updated with an additional quote from USAID.

About the author

  • Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters formerly covered career and hiring trends, tips, and insights. Lottie has a background in geography and journalism, taking a particular interest in grassroots international development projects. She has worked with organizations delivering clean water and sanitation projects globally.