Last week, the United States swore in a new commander-in-chief, leaving the global development community to wonder what it will mean for our work.
With any transfer of political power comes uncertainty — but more doubt and ambiguity than ever is swirling around the incoming Trump administration when it concerns development. Since the election results were confirmed in the wee hours of Nov. 9, the most frequent question I’ve received has been: How will a Trump presidency impact global development jobs?
Whenever I am asked to make hiring trend predictions, my answer is always simple: follow the money. Where the funding goes, so too go the jobs. Predicting the funding priorities of the new administration is still mostly guesswork, but there are a few expected trends already, as well as ways to prepare for them.
One thing we can count on is to expect — and prepare for — change.
The immediate impact on jobs
Many in the aid community fear that a president who ran on a platform of “America First” and promised to slash government spending could usher in a new era of austerity, where U.S. aid budgets will shrink, even disappear, and spending on global priorities such as climate change and global health will be called into question.
However, the effects of any funding changes will not likely have an immediate impact on jobs.
Aid funding is committed years in advance. Multi-year programs are just getting started, and a slew of U.S. Agency for International Development request for proposals over the holiday break indicate the agency planned to lock in place further funding commitments as leadership changes hands. The consulting firms and NGOs implementing these programs will still need to staff these projects both in the field and in the home office. And while the U.S. is currently the largest bilateral foreign aid donor, it surely isn’t the only one.
In fact, in a survey Devex conducted of 122 global development recruiters this month, 81 percent predicted the number of home office hires to be the same or higher in 2017 compared to last year, and 58 percent expect to see an increase in country office hiring.
You may see a more immediate impact on jobs working directly for USAID or other aid-related government agencies. On Monday, Trump announced a federal hiring freeze and has warned of staff reductions across the federal workforce. However, new political appointee positions will also need to be filled. And if history is any indicator, when there is a reduction in the federal workforce, there is usually an increase in the use of contractors.
Give your expertise a rebrand
The bigger question is what changing funding priorities will mean for jobs down the line — and what you can do now to prepare.
One thing to remember is that global development has been one of the few areas that has traditionally gained bipartisan support. Republican led initiatives such as PEPFAR and MCC have been lauded by both sides of the aisle as successful models of aid delivery. A recent questionnaire from the Trump transition team questions the impact and utility of aid funding in Africa (including PEPFAR), but we can expect support from liberal do-gooders and security hawks alike to advocate our continued presence in this and other key regions.
Climate change, a relatively new funding priority for USAID, will likely be up for debate as Trump has questioned the validity of changing climate patterns and resulting impact, and has threatened to leave the recently signed Paris Climate Agreement. Global health programs that promote family planning may come under scrutiny as well. Energy projects, meanwhile, may gain more traction instead, particularly in light of the resume of Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
Trump has indicated prioritizing American security interests in overseas spending, so our community overall will need to focus on the stabilizing effects of global development initiatives now more than ever.
In fact, global development as an industry may need to rethink the way it communicates its value in a new Trump era.
For professionals working in these areas, you may want to think about re-branding your expertise, too. Rather than calling yourself a “climate change expert,” consider rewording to “energy expert” with sustainability as one of your skills. Youth workforce training specialists may want to emphasize the counterterrorism results of their work. While the above are at this point theoretical funding shifts, professionals should pay attention to how funding priorities are changing, even if just the semantics, and follow suit when it comes to packaging their expertise.
The one constant? Private sector involvement
Development organizations have been preparing for years — some more successfully than others — to weather the funding ebbs and flows that come with politically tied money by diversifying their funding base. The private sector has increasingly become a reliable funder and a true partner to aid organizations around the world. With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, businesses are recognizing that challenges such as global poverty are not only a moral issue, but a critical business issue.
When it comes to climate change, poverty reduction, global health and more, the private sector knows we cannot afford to take a step back. Many business leaders we’ve spoken to in the past months indicate they will be willing to pick up where the U.S. government may leave off.
Private sector oriented development delivery, such as the MCC, may become the model for government-funded aid programming as well.
What does this mean for professionals? Experience working with the private sector, be it as part of a partnership or adopting private sector principles to your work, will be important to stay relevant. Opportunities could also arise for professionals with nontraditional backgrounds looking to apply their expertise from other sectors to global development solutions. This goes both ways — with increased chances for experienced development professionals to lead these efforts within the private sector.
This was the case even before Trump secured the election. In a 2015 survey on the “Next Generation Development Professional” that Devex conducted in partnership with USAID and Population Services International, respondents predicted tech firms and corporations as having the most growth in impact on the development sector in 10 years.
In the recruiter survey we conducted this month, 62 percent predicted there will be a greater interest in candidates with nontraditional development backgrounds like those in the private and tech sectors at their organizations in the coming years.
Critical soft skill: Adaptability
Adaptability is key to weathering any change. It also happens to be a trait inherent to aid workers who also count resilience and flexibility as hard-wired skills learned on the job.
Whether it is adapting your experience and expertise to fit a new development framework, learning new skills to stay up with evolving approaches, or broadening your scope of potential employers, global development workers will need to continue to evolve.
Trump has promised to “shake up” Washington, so development professionals should prepare to shake up their work, too.
Update, Jan. 23, 2017: This story was updated to include Monday’s announcement of a federal hiring freeze.