Opinion: Is it right to expect a career in development?

The developing world has changed dramatically since the development aid field took off in the late 1950s, and the message is simple: We are not as needed as we once were. Photo by: StockSnap.io

When the development aid field took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the independence of many former colonies, Western experts who went to help “underdeveloped” countries, as they were called, were borrowed from professions such as civil engineering, agronomy, economics, law, public health and medicine. They were not “international development professionals.”

In fact you couldn’t get such a degree at the time. One could get a degree in international relations or area studies, but none in the development subspecialties that exist today such as development practice, or project management, or development policy.

Back then doing this kind of work was as often as not a vocation rather than a profession; it was certainly not a “career.” Especially in the world of the NGOs that worked abroad (CARE, SCF, and a handful of others go back in those days) the staffs were composed of quite a few volunteers as well as people from other fields. These people did not expect development work to be a source of lifelong work. In fact, development at the time was seen as an endeavor that would soon end. C.P. Snow, a famous British scientist, expressed this view in 1959:

“Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still. This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won't last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won't. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can't survive half rich and half poor. It's just not on.”

He was wrong. Today most agencies in development work are larger than ever: USAID has close to 10,000 employees and the annual budgets of CARE, SCF, Mercy Corps, and World Vision and a few others are in the hundreds of millions of dollars (World Vision alone comes in just shy of $1 billion). The top 25 USAID vendors — many of which are nonprofit — do between $80 million and $500 million of business with the agency.

And along with this growth has come the professionalization of development work.

There are over 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in international development just in the United States. Today you can get a master’s in international development policy, a master’s of development practice, an M.A. in sustainable development or a master’s of global human development, to name a few, with many subspecialties such as human rights, conflict resolution, microfinance, etc.

Every year between 4,000 and 7,000 people (mostly American) graduate from these programs and most look for jobs in the development field. During their coursework, the idea that they can play a meaningful role in developing countries is reinforced, as is the expectation of a career.

But here we are in 2016, some 70 years since the beginning of development aid. Is it reasonable to think that a 27-year-old American can have a 40-year career doing what people my age have done for decades — flying in and out of Nairobi, Manila, or Quito, visiting villages, talking to local people and officials, managing contracts as chief of party for three years here, three years there, designing, implementing, and evaluating projects and all the other things one is now being trained for? That 27-year-old person would retire from development work in about the year 2060 — well over a century since the beginning of official development aid.

The answer is no. To expect a career such as that does not make sense. The developing world has changed, dramatically. The capacity of local people to undertake the work we used to do now exists, and in fact their capacity is far greater than ours since they speak their language and understand their culture and political economy better than we ever could. The reason we sometimes don’t see this capacity is perhaps because it is not in our interest to do so, and also perhaps because we have caused them to hide it.

The message is simple: We are not as needed as we once were. Ironically the appropriate stance for us to take now is similar to what it was 50 years ago — being a short-term sounding board, occasional colleague and interlocutor, but not a manager, planner, or implementer. Given this new reality (what the rhetoric of the development community since the Paris Declarations of 2005 calls “country ownership”) we should not expect further growth in our U.S.-based development industry, but rather the opposite. We need fundamentally to change our role and stance; to get smaller, employ fewer people, and do less. To expect a lifelong development career is an illusion. To count on such a career verges on being unethical.

Devex Professional Membership means access to the latest buzz, innovations, and lifestyle tips for development, health, sustainability and humanitarian professionals like you.  

Our mission is to do more good for more people. If you think the right information can make a difference, we invite you to join us by making a small investment in Professional Membership.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Thomas Dichter

    Thomas Dichter's career in international development spans 50 years. He has worked in over 60 developing countries on four continents, as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Peace Corps country director in Yemen, vice president of TechnoServe, program officer of the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, a researcher on development issues for a think tank, and a staff member of a for-profit USAID contractor. Since 1994 he has been an independent consultant, including for UNDP, IFAD, USAID and the Asian Development Bank.