What it will take to be a next generation development professional

Do you have the skills it will take to be a development professional in 10 years' time? Find out by reading our latest report.

BARCELONA — A big data analyst, a biotechnician, a sustainability officer, a drone operator: These are all roles within the global development community that have emerged in the past few decades. As the complex industry keeps evolving to tackle old challenges with new approaches, technologies, and finance, so too do the types of professionals and skills the sector needs.

How can today’s development professionals make sure they’re equipped for tomorrow, and what does the next generation of development professionals look like?

Devex, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and DAI, asked approximately 2,500 development professionals — donor and government officials, development consultants, and nongovernmental organization workers among others — working across regions and sectors to characterize the future of development work and predict what new technology, skills, and approaches will be needed to help them thrive. Here are five things we learned.

1. Changes are coming.

Development professionals believe the skills needed to operate within their sector are likely to change and evolve. Some 86 percent of survey respondents anticipate major changes in the required skills and career paths of future development professionals. Overall, they highlighted the importance of taking the time to acquire new skills, and keeping an open mind to new approaches to tackling health, equality, and poverty issues.

2. Many external factors will drive this transformation.

Next Generation of Development Professionals

To uncover broader trends and opinions around the future of global development professionals, Devex, in partnership with USAID and DAI, has produced a report to determine the perceptions, trends, opportunities, visions, and solutions around the future of the industry. Offering practical insights for recruiters and talent alike with this new report, read Next Generation of Development Professionals here.

Although skills of the next generation of development professionals will need to be different, respondents do not believe there is one single reason causing the shift. Over a quarter of respondents think the evolution of development finance outlooks will lead to changes in the types of skills needed. The emergence of blended finance, public private partnerships, and development bonds in recent years has already led to new roles such as PPP experts, impact investors, and venture capitalists being seen as firm fixtures on the development job market.

“PPPs and other private-oriented innovative funding for development will be key to financing the [Sustainable Development Goals], as subnavigating the intricacies of these funding sources will be imperative for development professionals,” said one survey respondent.  

Looking to the future, as innovation around development finance continues, other skills and roles within finance could present themselves. Program managers, resource mobilization officers, and grant managers might continue to seek financing from bilateral aid agencies, but they may also increasingly partner with private sector corporations, attract impact investment funds, or manage crowdfunding campaigns targeting specific causes.

Technology is another area 19 percent of professionals cite as influencing the skills of tomorrow. As new technologies continue to be rolled out, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine a time when drones streamline every agricultural development or land rights program, when each health worker is equipped with high-tech mobile diagnostics, and when machine learning and artificial intelligence provide real-time data to guide social protection strategies and humanitarian interventions.

As another survey respondent explained, the management, application, and innovation around such devices will continue to push the boundaries of the skills required of development professionals, meaning new roles may emerge.

“As different technologies develop, new possibilities will open up that we may not even be aware of yet,” said the respondent. “This will open up opportunities that bring new people into the development sector, and require those in it to be more agile in adapting technologies to assist in meeting development challenges.”

Political and geopolitical changes, education, and human capital transformation were all seen as additional contributors to the idea that, in 10 years’ time, the technology, skills, and approaches development professionals use will be significantly different.

“Gain as much practitioner experience as you can; it is more valuable than knowledge on its own.”

3. Sectors themselves could bring about change.

As external factors influence the operating environment, current specific sector prioritization will change. Thirty percent of respondents indicate that climate change will need the most development assistance, while 27 percent say peace, conflict, and security will demand the highest amount of attention. In order to tackle these issues, solve such problems, innovative new roles and required skill sets will emerge.

4. More people plan on acquiring ICT skills.

Respondents recognize that technology is one of the keys to addressing critical sectors including climate and stability. 39 percent of participants believe technology for development will see the most progress. With that in mind, the vast majority of participants — 91 percent — indicate that they plan on learning and using advanced information and communications technology in the next 10 years.

“Put more emphasis on the technical skills, whether it be around technology or statistics and data analysis,” advised one respondent. “The content can be learned on the job, but these hard skills are more difficult to develop.”

Respondents believe geographic information systems, technology integration, and big data are the most important areas within technology for the next generation development professional.

Before choosing which tech skill to acquire however, one respondent suggests doing a literature review on similar technology upskilling already carried out by others in the same field: “Look at how it has improved the work of development professionals and, by doing so, it will give you a clear understanding on how relevant it will be for you to learn that particular skill — and how it will help the people around you to also benefit from your skill.”

5. It’s not all about ICT.

Although many respondents intend to sharpen their ICT skills, the survey reveals that soft skills are also critical for the next generation. They indicate that interpersonal and relational skills are the most important talent, skill, quality, and characteristic for development professionals to thrive and excel — some 77 percent of respondents rate adaptability and flexibility as critical assets for those planning to work in the sector. Cross-cultural sensitivity, verbal communication, and resourcefulness are also thought to be necessary attributes for a development practitioner.

These skills are far more likely to be acquired through experience rather than training: “Gain as much practitioner experience as you can; it is more valuable than knowledge on its own,” said one survey respondent.

Global development is undergoing a dramatic transformation impacting the industry’s human capital and talent landscape. Multiple issues are converging to accelerate this transformation, including technological advancement and increased private sector engagement. As a result, success in the sector requires more creativity, flexibility, and problem-solving, as well as new ways of thinking, executing, evaluating, and learning.

Survey respondents appreciate both the potential and the challenge: They express clear willingness to take advantage of new technologies, innovations, and business models that could contribute to development scale and impact, but acknowledge that they will need to acquire and refine certain skills to succeed.

For development organizations of all sizes, this means providing the right training, while hiring fresh skill sets to cultivate and leverage the next generation.

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

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About the author

  • Rebecca root%2520%25281%2529

    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is an editorial associate and reporter at Devex. She has a background in journalism and communications, and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York and London. She is now based in Barcelona and produces multimedia editorial content for digital content series and media partnerships.