Opportunity driving change in global development sectors

Devex speaks to professionals from USAID and MSI to find out their predictions for the future of the global development workforce.

BARCELONA — While global development is going through a time of transition, certain sectors, including health and energy, are expected to feel the biggest impact of this change — with the required skill sets for practitioners shifting as a result. Advances in technology and multistakeholder collaborations are among the drivers of change.

According to a recent Devex Next Generation Professional report, produced in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and DAI, the health and energy sectors — along with technology for development, agriculture and food security, and climate change — will experience the greatest shift in skills required by global development professionals.

Devex spoke to experts from USAID and international development firm Management Systems International to ask about their predictions for the future global development workforce: Why will some sectors be more affected than others, and what does this mean for development professionals?

New opportunities bringing about change

In the case of technology for development, the demand for new skills seems inevitable as increasingly complex challenges require new, and often technology-driven, solutions.

Technology is also drastically impacting sectors such as health and the way we are addressing epidemics and new diseases. In other areas, such as climate change, the demand for new skills comes as professionals are increasingly expected to work through crosscutting issues, which impact other areas of development.

The reasons behind the change we are seeing in the sector, more than anything, are due to opportunities, according to Alexis Bonnell, division chief of applied innovation and acceleration in the U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID: It’s about “taking advantage of the opportunities that exist now in development that didn’t before.” This can include harnessing blended finance, private sector partnerships, supporting innovative entrepreneurial models, or embracing different technologies that weren’t there before, Bonnell explained, with these opportunity sets likely to result in “dramatic changes” for the aforementioned sectors.

A number of USAID projects demonstrate the types of new skills and knowledge already needed to deliver projects in health, energy, and agriculture. Pay-as-you-go solar panels are delivering electricity to poor communities in sub-Saharan Africa, while satellite imagery is helping herders find greener pastures for their livestock in Ethiopia. In health, the agency is funding projects to combat the Zika virus by using drones to deliver medical aid to hard-to-access areas.

“These innovations, these approaches are really transforming lives,” said Bonnell. “They’re transforming the way, the ‘how’ in which we approach the field of international development.”

Collaborative approaches require specific skills

The involvement of new funders and implementing partners across global development is also changing the type of professional profiles that will be sought after by employers. While Bonnell believes that sector-specific and technical expertise is still important, “that needs to be able to be complemented with a deep appetite to work with new partners, new methods, new opportunities.”

In Devex’s recent report, 74 percent of respondents believed the “integrator” would be the development professional most in demand over the next 10 years.

As a result, the type of global development professional expected to be in greatest demand is the “integrator” — someone who has a solid understanding of multiple sectors and how they impact each other, and can foster collaboration between various actors such as governments or private sector players.

In Devex’s recent report, 74 percent of respondents believed the “integrator” would be the development professional most in demand over the next 10 years.

Lawrence Cooley, founder and director of MSI, agreed that skills in relationship building and collaborative management will be very important in the future — in some cases, perhaps as important as sectoral skills. This is, he said, due in part to the number of different players now involved in the delivery of global development solutions, including military.

While Cooley believes the “integrator” skill set will be important and that there will be less demand for generalist profiles, he also thinks there will still be a strong demand for specialists.

“In all but fragile-state settings, I believe more subject-area specialization, not less, will be required by tomorrow’s development professionals,” said Cooley. However, he added that these professionals “will indeed also need to be more versatile in spanning the public-private divide.”

Keep up with the conversation

While the buzzwords surrounding new technologies and approaches can be daunting, Bonnell stressed that it is important that the sector’s existing professionals engage and keep their skills up to date. They must “keep their finger on the pulse,” whether that’s through training — even if informal — or the numerous conversations that are taking place on topics such as artificial intelligence or data.

It is also important to recognize that these long-serving technical experts “have just as much to offer to those conversations as a technologist or an integrator specialist,” said Bonnell. “They really bring a field reality that helps us know how these new technologies might work.”

To read the full Next Generation Professional report and find out what the future for development workers looks like, click here.

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.