Alumni of the Month: Hilary Clauson

Hilary Clauson

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to virtually sit down with Hilary Clauson, a highly successful woman who sat on the Undercurrent’s Editorial Board in 2008 & 2009. Hilary, who lives in Ottawa presently, was very gracious to meet with me, despite the tragic events that had occurred a day earlier in our nation’s capital. Read on to hear some of our conversation!     What was the Undercurrent like when you were involved with it? The Undercurrent was very decentralized. Although I never met the Editor-in-Chief or my other volunteer colleagues in person, it was fantastic to be a part of, and was very inspiring to see the thinking that other students were doing. While completing your International Development Studies degree at Simon Fraser, you spent a semester at the University of Cape Town studying politics and economics. Tell us a bit about this experience. In Cape Town, everything felt very current. I found the people to be very comfortable talking about politics, society and recent events. The people were engaged and knew their history. Plus, it’s a beautiful city. Did this semester abroad shape the rest of your degree when you returned to Simon Fraser? Definitely, it was a very formative experience. When you study abroad, you are learning every second, beyond the classroom. I took a South African political thought course with a professor who had lived through apartheid, and students whose parents (and some of the students themselves) had lived through apartheid; it felt really real to study with them. If you’re doing International Development Studies and you want a career in International Development, you have to be comfortable traveling and jumping into other cultures. It really informs your work at home, helps you to better understand your own culture and makes you a better International Development worker. However, it is important to have a theoretical foundation before going abroad, which is why I went in my third year of studies. After completing your B.A., you completed a M.A. in African Studies at Oxford University. What doors did this degree open for you? I completed this degree because I had fallen in love with Africa and wanted to learn all about it. This degree allowed me to enter the Accelerated Economist Training Program, which is essentially a fast-track government position, however any M.A. would have qualified me for this position.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *