Opinion: 6 barriers to working in development — and how to change them

Photo by: Christina Morillo / Pexels

When we talk about diversity and inclusion in the development sector workforce, we tend to focus on gender parity, racial diversity, and local engagement. There’s no question that these dimensions deserve our attention, but there’s another that intersects them all: socio-economic background.

The sector works with the world’s most disadvantaged communities — so it’s ironic that our workforce is dominated by those who, irrespective of gender or other characteristics, are likely to be from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Ultimately, the criteria that we use to assess and select candidates to perform these services creates barriers and promotes the exclusion of those who come from less advantaged backgrounds regardless of gender, race, or nationality.  

So, what are these barriers and how can we eliminate them?

1. Qualifications

Employers and donors often favor candidates with postgraduate qualifications, even when a high level of technical expertise is not necessary for a role. Whilst qualification setting might appear to be an equitable differentiator, we need to consider that those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds who may be less likely to achieve these qualifications, not due to lack of ability but through lack of opportunity and financial constraints.    

Valuing the transferable skills necessary to be a world-class chief of party — such as people, project and financial management skills — and introducing approaches that test capability and potential will open up opportunities to high-potential diverse candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.  

2. Schools and institutions

When we think of unconscious bias we often think about how this relates to race, but it has the potential to impact way beyond this. When reviewing CVs, built in bias and social conditioning mean that we may find it very difficult to treat candidates from exclusive elite institutions and less prestigious schools equally. Many talented people from lower socio-economic backgrounds won’t make it to these institutions, not because of a lack of talent but because of bias inherent in the selection criteria that creates a lack of opportunity.  

The sector needs to better engage with candidates from a diverse range of educational pathways including those who have studied part-time, flexibly, and those who have vocational qualifications. Introducing unconscious bias training and blind recruitment methods, whilst not a panacea, may help to reduce at least some of the bias experienced by some within the sector.  

3. Type of experience

The importance placed on the internship as a preferred entry route into the sector acts as a barrier to those who can’t afford to work for free or for a salary below a level that enables them to sustain themselves and any dependants. Those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds may be locked out of such opportunities, not because of talent, but because of finances.  

Introducing targeted paid and inclusive internship programs that provide candidates with an income they can live on independently will help to reduce barriers and attract candidates from less economically advantaged backgrounds. To help level the playing field, the sector should also consider experience achieved by potential candidates in home countries, in particular, experience gained working in socio-economically disadvantaged communities and with disadvantaged and vulnerable people and groups.

4. Years of experience

The number of years somebody spends in a particular role is not an indicator of their skills or performance. Yet, too often in the development sector, recruiters are restricted by donors to filling vacancies with candidates with a certain number of years of experience at a certain level.

This practice has the potential to impact on diversity from a range of perspectives — those who have not been able to afford to take an internship position; locking out younger candidates who may have quality experience but not quantity; those returning to the job market after taking time off for caring responsibilities; or those whose length of service has been interrupted due to a health condition. More focus should be placed on the actual skills or competencies needed for the role and assessing how candidates meet the criteria.  

5. Pay and conditions

Offering entry-level candidates competitive salaries in the sector will also be crucial in attracting candidates from less advantaged economic groups. If salaries don’t provide entry-level colleagues with a living wage, then the industry will limit its candidate pool to those who have additional streams of financial support. Using a candidate’s previous salary as a benchmark, which may already be disproportionally low due to unequal pay in the past, is a common requirement for some donors. This approach makes it increasingly hard for those in the unequal pay gap trap to ever get out.  

The sector should consider introducing rates of pay that are built on the competencies and skills needed for the vacancy rather than on the basis of what the person was paid in the past.  

6. A lack of diversity

This includes the often ignored area of socio-economic background — in the sector has led to a lack of diversity of thought and value for diverse experience. If we want to deliver the best outcomes for the communities we work with and provide solutions that offer value for money for Donors we have to do things differently. We have to think about diversity more broadly and bring a more diverse set of players to the table.

How can we bridge the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development? #GlobalDevWomen Leadership Weeks explores tips for professionals and organizations on how to reach gender parity through advice articles, op-eds from industry leaders, online events, and a virtual career fair for mid-senior level women professionals.

About the author

  • Image%2520%25282%2529

    Rosanna Duncan

    Dr. Rosanna Duncan joined Palladium in 2016 to lead on the development and implementation of their diversity and inclusion strategy. Rosanna draws upon more than 20 years of experience of working within the field of D&I that includes embedding D&I contractor requirements into Europe’s largest infrastructure project, High Speed Rail Ltd. Underpinning and enhancing her experience are a Ph.D. that explored the implementation of D&I within the construction process and chartered membership of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, as well as a significant body of research and internationally published work on a range of D&I related topics.