This degree set me up for my career in International Development. One of the strengths of this degree is that it is quite interdisciplinary, so it can be framed in many ways, depending on the position you are applying for. My mom thought, “What on earth will you do with this?” but it doesn’t box you in, you can emphasize different pieces and shape it certain ways.
Tell us a little bit about your work as a Policy Analyst on the Bretton Woods Unit for CIDA. This position consisted largely of writing memos and commenting on documents. Day to day, I liaised with the World Bank staff to figure out their priorities, discuss Canada’s priorities and find a meeting place in the middle. Gender plays a large role in CIDA’s work, so every proposal had to have a gender lens. Similarly, every proposal had to be examined to determine whether it would help or harm the environment.
After working for CIDA, you went to Bangladesh as an International Development Management Fellow with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. Can you share with us a bit about that program and your experience with them? The Aga Khan Foundation Canada fellowship is one of the best entry points for young Canadians in international development. This program picks young leaders that they think will have a role to play in their work, and provides them with the experience that they need (solving the chicken and the egg dilemma of needing experience to get experience)! After a month of training in Ottawa, I went to Bangladesh to work on a Canadian government-funded early childhood development program. My main role was monitoring and evaluating what had happened to children who had graduated from the program’s preschool three years earlier, and comparing them to a control group of children from the same villages. I organized the data collection, which was then completed by local partners, and returned to me. After analyzing the data, I found that children in preschool were more likely to stay in primary school than kids who had not attended preschool.
Did you have research experience prior to this project? I had completed my dissertation at a refugee camp in Malawi, but that was very much qualitative. However, I did do one statistics course during my undergrad, which I used during this program. Aga Khan wants to send young professionals that can make a contribution, but at the same time it is a fellowship for young people, so they want you to learn. It’s a balance of bringing something to the table and learning new skills.
Now you're a Policy & Strategy Officer at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Tell us about your work there. My team consists of three people and a director, and is quite high-level. The IDRC grants money to researchers, think tanks and universities in developing countries, as they believe that it’s those people in the countries themselves that can best figure out solutions to their own problems. Most people at the IDRC manage programs of research projects. My position involves a lot of moving information around and sharing information with colleagues. For example, I would explain to new Canadian ambassadors that are posted in Haiti or Togo what the IDRC is doing in those countries. I also liase with DFATD to let them know the results of our projects and how they related to Canadian aid.
Is there anything that you wish you knew while you were still a student that you’d like to share? I've heard from a lot of peers, “Oh, I’ll travel when I have the money” or “I’ll finish University and then travel.” If you’re able to and have the money, travel during university. It can be so difficult to get that field experience once you have a ‘9-5er’ and can’t stay overseas for a semester. If you want a career in International Development, don’t wait or give an excuse, get out there if you can!
Development is happening less and less in NGOs, private sector companies are having to consider their role in the world, and how they will be sustainable or contribute, so you can get into this sector as well. I started in government because of Singapore’s success. In the 60s, Singapore had less promise than a lot of African countries. However, these formative years of independence were shaped by government policies that allowed for national development. It was these policies, not international aid, that has made Singapore extremely rich now. So don’t box yourself in, development is not just working in an NGO in a certain country.
Lastly, know your own country, but don’t let that stop you from saying that you really love elsewhere and identify with a particular place that you want to work in. People often say, “Why don’t you start at home, we have so many challenges in Canada.” I respect that, in fact, one of my next steps may be to go to the north, as they are, materially-speaking, impoverished communities, and struggle from a lack of jobs. But there is a role for Canadians overseas as well, you just have to be sensitive in determining your role.