Plenty of room for aid worker 'knowledge and networks' in private sector

Arlen Cordero, an ECHO expert from the Central America office personally visits all projects carried out with European humanitarian aid in Nicaragua to talk to the beneficiaries and make sure aid reaches those who need it. Use your knowledge, experience and network in international development as an advantage when transitioning to the private sector. Photo by: EC / ECHO / Silvio Balladares / CC BY-ND

From the Peace Corps to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Tim Docking cultivated a career in international development while becoming particularly knowledgeable about initiatives in Africa. So when multinational technology and consulting corporation IBM was looking for a candidate to help navigate government relations as it built its business on the rapidly growing continent, Docking was an excellent fit — not in spite of, but because of his development experience. From there, he pivoted out of government relations into his current role as lead of the emerging markets funding group.

The impetus for his career move was a belief that development can be enhanced by the private sector — and that the thoughtful growth of corporations can lead to hugely important sustainable socio-economic growth in developing countries.

Docking is not alone. Companies worldwide are increasingly seeing business value in doing good — and the development community is taking note, pushing forward public-private partnerships in a variety of sectors from health to education. And as firms make plans to expand their businesses into emerging markets, individuals with years of experience working in developing countries find themselves in a unique position — to put that knowledge to use in a for-profit environment.

It isn’t always an easy switch or an obvious transition, but when someone with the right skills meets an innovative company, it can be an extremely effective combination for both, Docking told Devex.

“You need to get a company to say ‘I see your value add, I see the gap you could fill,’” he said.

In Docking’s case, he came equipped with a deep understanding of emerging market realities and contexts, which can add plenty of value to a multinational corporation expanding in frontier markets and seeking a handle on national agendas, as well as who to connect with and how.

A meeting of minds

Now is the time to take advantage of the open attitude business is developing toward development, according to Docking.

“There is a meeting of minds that hasn't fully occurred yet, but I see it happening,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Keith Wright, who felt compelled to step down as president of Food for the Hungry to focus more intensively on enterprise connections and solutions.

When Wright first traveled to Africa more than 20 years ago, he possessed a strong desire to make a difference. Later, as a nongovernmental organization executive, he started observing the economic growth of Africa and the fact that more and more of his senior staff were coming from the “global south.”

While he still possesses that original pull to do good, Wright explained that his sense of what that role looks like has changed: “It’s about leveraging Africa’s strengths more than meeting its needs.”

Currently president and CEO of Thrive Global, a strategic advisory firm that provides solutions and connections for its clients in African markets, Wright emphasized that the aid sector is still very relevant, but the draw of figuring out how to use for-profit solutions to do good was irresistible.

“The business sector is skeptical of NGOs. They think ‘You guys are getting in the way of economic development’ … NGOs are skeptical of business because they're cutthroat,” he explained. “We’ll see this change a lot. They're backing toward each other but don’t recognize it.”

Knowledge and networks

The most transferrable skills that a development professional wishing to transition to the private sector possesses boil down to knowledge and networks. Those working for an NGO or a development firm can gain a nuanced perspective and knowledge of emerging markets that the corporate world is hungry to understand.

Acquaintances and contacts in government, civil society and business, strong working relations with local staff, topped off with knowledge about the way aid work is undertaken, means aid workers can often piece together an impressive tapestry of contacts across many countries and continents.

But their “value add” doesn’t stop there. Indeed, Wright noted that enough exposure to program countries while managing projects also allows for a sense of potential future growth.

“Where is Mozambique going to be in two years versus Zimbabwe?” Wright said. “You might realize you actually have an opinion on that.”

It’s knowledge that a development professional might take for granted, Docking warned, so start thinking more creatively about the potential business value it could bring and how you can articulate it to a corporation, since the language of development isn’t going to translate directly into business.

Study the language of the private sector, Docking advised, as well as what’s currently driving business.

Growth outside of the BRICs, combined with flat economic growth in industrialized markets, means development professionals are well-positioned for private sector roles if they understand the motivations of the sector. This requires strategic thinking and being persistent with ideas.

“I can’t think of a business that isn't trying to think of strategically in this very quickly globalizing business context about how to best position itself for new revenue growth,” Docking said.

Docking admitted that it may not come naturally at first, but articulating suggestions such as “I think it would be smart to do X because you could raise revenues,” or “I think Y would be good market entry strategy and help your corporation articulate to the local agenda” is what corporations want to hear.

Aid workers also have perspective to add in the context of fast-moving consumer products like toothpaste or matches — just by understanding the purchasing preferences of the people in the country in which they work.

While at Food for the Hungry, Wright helped carbon credit trading companies segment their market and learn about market entry by suggesting what the local population would pay and why it might buy a certain product or not.

“When I'm talking to a client now that does energy storage for renewable energy production, they’ll ask: ‘Does this have any application in Africa, and if so, where?’ I'm not an energy specialist, but I have an opinion on that and I know what it would look like to manufacture in Kenya,” he said.


How to make the change

Both sectors could use more influence from each other, and a transition from development to the private sector can work in much the same way as moving from one role to another within the same sector. This can be especially true when realizing that a role inside an NGO or a contracting firm working on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development can translate to a role that exists in the private sector. For business development and fundraising, read marketing and sales; for contract management, read finance and project management.

Docking warns a development professional interested in making a similar move to his own should not expect an opportunity to fall in their lap — it takes time, flexibility and open-mindedness, he suggested.

Try not to get thrown off by a few hard questions in the interview process, said Glen Burnett, who left a business development role with Carana Corporation for a position with a telecoms firm.

“Some companies will say ‘well you've been doing so much international work, our main concern is you're going to come here and get bored.’” Burnett said.

And though he ended up working for an international firm, it’s possible to change that conversation if need be — either by taking advantage of the fact that people think development work is much more exciting than what they do, or by pointing out that it’s pretty similar, perhaps “just dustier,” Burnett said.

At the end of the day, it’s more often: “Oh you've managed 3,000 people in 26 countries — you know how to get things done,” Wright said of the hiring process.

To make the transition more natural, gauge your own experience and leverage the years you’ve spent in a certain sector. That might mean looking at multisector multinationals, like Deloitte Consulting LLP and its work with Power Africa transactional support. If finance is a sector of interest, think impact investment, for example, by drawing on local contacts.

“If you’ve lived in Uganda for years, you are ahead of 99 percent of people who might want to work for KPMG in Kampala — you've already figured it out,” Burnett said.  

And if it’s not a strong sectoral interest that drives you, get an MBA, he suggested, which will provide preparation for nonprofit management or to get involved in business, depending on where your interests lie.

It worked for Burnett, who got his MBA right about the time that he was looking for a job in the private sector, and was able to leverage it.

Carve your path

The differences between the sectors might seem vast, but they’re shrinking fast.

“People need jobs, infrastructure and socio-economic development — they're all development concerns, they're all business concerns ... It’s very easy to connect the dots,” Wright said.

And not all for-profits can be lumped together, just as it’s possible to be working for a social enterprise startup or a huge contracting firm running multimillion dollar contracts, all under the development umbrella.

“The main culture shift is who your customer is versus who your beneficiary is,” Burnett said. “That conversation becomes different, and you’re ultimately delivering shareholder value versus delivering for donor requirements.”

What’s going to be interesting, the transitioners agree, is what will come after corporate social responsibility, as firms realize that local communities and country governments are looking for more.

“There is so much being formed, the path isn't cut, so grab your machete and start heading into the tall grass,” Wright said.

Development and private sector will continue to find common ground, not least because in 10 to 20 years there will be a lot less funding devoted to traditional development, according to Burnett. For him, having transitioned back to development work, the challenge is now to consider how to bring his customer experience expertise from the private sector along with him.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.