A guest post by Nataliya Mykhalchenko.
What motivates people to pursue a career in international development? What is it like working for a NGO, a ministry of foreign affairs, the UN, or being part of a development project? What are the first stepping stones to a career in this sector? PIN Students Leeds, the Leeds-based student branch of Practical Initiatives Network (PIN) and Centre for Global Development embarked on a journey to explore these questions as part of their “Working in Development’’ talk series. The first guests in the series were Dr. Jörg Wiegratz – the Undergraduate Programme Director for International Development and a lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at POLIS; and Priscilla-Isaac Israel – an undergraduate student in International Relations here at the university.
Having worked in Uganda for three years as a researcher and consultant for the UN, the Government of Uganda, the EU and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, Dr. Wiegratz provided a highly insightful view of the realities of working in this sector. Priscilla, having spent her summer as an intern at Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave a real taste of a student experience working in a professional environment. The speakers were very keen to answer all questions during the course of the talk and provide lots of advice for students.
One of the main points made by Dr. Wiegratz was that it is very important for anyone interested in International Development to go beyond theoretical knowledge gained at University and get on-ground. By doing so, one can get an understanding of the nature of development work. He also highlighted that networking forms a foundation to gaining entry into the professional field (e.g. as an intern, or junior consultant), gaining valuable experience, growing as an International Development professional, and increasing one’s chances of employment. Due to the nature of this profession often unforeseen circumstances occur, such as issues with funding, timelines, or team related challenges, which can affect the overall running of projects. Therefore, persistence, endurance, openness and flexibility are essential.
Priscilla’s experience as an intern is a good example of the above mentioned qualities in action. A little overwhelmed at the start by the professional atmosphere in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she soon went far beyond her internship and did extensive research for her final year dissertation at the University of Leeds. Furthermore, she stated that she learned lots from interaction with staff of the ministry and gained more confidence in approaching officials. Having had a chance to attend meetings and conferences, Priscilla gained a more in-depth understanding of how government and aid operate. The speaker highlighted that being present in such environment allowed her to see how the theoretical knowledge she gained during her two years at the university is translated in practice. Priscilla spoke very passionately about her overall experience and strongly encouraged other students to give internships abroad a go.
One of the main concerns of the audience was how both speakers settled in into a different community and whether the response to their presence was positive. Such concern is perhaps universal among students faced with a prospect of going abroad. Both speakers stated that the overall response was very positive, although settling-in involved some time learning about the country’s culture and work environment.
Dr. Wiegratz also highlighted that sometimes disappointments can occur. This reflects the complexity and political characteristic of this sphere of work, i.e. several parties with varying interests are usually involved in a given project. The extent of this challenge can vary, depending on the organisation or country one works for. However, this professional reality (not unlike the situation in other professions), Dr. Wiegratz said, should not stop students and young professionals being involved in working for international organizations, NGO’s or governmental organisations in International Development; to the contrary, students should get their own experience and make up their own mind of the field. Perhaps, this is the most crucial part of starting a career in development.
Both speakers noted that their experience has changed their perspectives on International Development and has affected their future professional choices. Dr. Wiegratz eventually favoured academic research as a way of keeping engaged with issues in Uganda and with Africa more broadly and contributing to development in this way; and Priscilla realized that becoming an entrepreneur and creating jobs could be effective in positively impacting upon the country. Thus, both presentations showed that being practically involved in development initiatives provides invaluable experience and is necessary in understanding the nature of both the concept and operationalisation of International Development. Finally, the main lesson learned from the talk – don’t be afraid to give the professional field of International Development a try, but be prepared to face up to challenges!
For more tips and valuable advice, read Dr. Wiegratz’s article: What Next? Moving into the professional world’’ (from p.18).
Natasha is an International Development student at the University of Leeds and a research intern at POLIS, working on a project relating to the political economy of anti-fraud measures in the Global South. She enjoys teaching, traveling and learning new languages and is particularly passionate about education and development.
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