International development graduates occupy a purgatory in the development field: thoroughly trained to identify ethical problems, they can have a hard time producing imperfect solutions; thinkers on a systemic, global scale, they are best suited for the executive level but have little of the corresponding experience or skills to get there; possessing a broad social science education, they are ill-qualified to work in any particular sector.
Having made the transition from an international development program to working at a mid-sized WASH consulting NGO last summer, I’ve experienced all of those issues personally and can attest to the generalized ‘weakness’ that possessing a general humanities education brings.
Yet, there are unique strengths in those who study IDS. Most IDS graduates are motivated by experience and meaningful work, not money, and will sacrifice the latter to get the former. This is a quality that organizations do well to capitalize on—the seemingly peripatetic community of IDS grads is actually intensely loyal when rewarded with plentiful, meaningful work. This is a boon for organizations that can’t afford the talent they need.
IDS grads, furthermore, have the pedigree to fill a key gap in the international development community: the need for better organizational partnerships. Collaboration, aided by technology, is uniquely inherent to this generation (and there are studies supporting this claim). Understanding of the need to tackle systemic issues with massive networks and collective responsibility is similarly inherent in an IDS education. I would go so far to say that IDS grads in the millennial cohort are not only trained, but also bred to tackle the internal and external issues that the international development field will be confronting in the coming years.
Consider the tight funding environment the field faces now; the recognition by governments around the world that NGOs need to be reinforcing each other, rather than myopically looking for progress as a sum of their efforts. Consider the all-encompassing nature of climate change and the massive tragedy of the commons that is our current global economy. Consider, even, the commercialization of academia and the ‘credential inflation’ that produces.
Solving these issues will require a paradigm shift from the current mindset—it will require a deep-seated instinct to collaborate or die, to view progress as short-term sacrifice rather than immediate and perpetual mutual gain. This generation of IDS grads possesses that instinct. An international development education equates to a four-year lesson in ethics, critical thinking, and what-not-to-do. Some general lessons I think we can all relate to:
- Growth does not equal progress;
- Doing-before-thinking inevitably leads to failure, and thinking-before-doing might anyway;
- The development industry in Canada is much more about Canada and Canadians than it is about the needs of X developing country (exhibit A: CIDA/DFAIT merger);
- Simply living in Canada makes you complicit in a massive system of violence perpetuated against the global south.
All of these learning’s are general and vague and wholly useless when attempting to acquire an entry-level position. Following from that, much of the focus in the past few years has been on reforming IDS programs to produce students with more practical skills.
I would turn this question around and ask what the field can do to make itself more compatible with students. These are individuals who possess many desirable qualities: quick learners, willing to do anything for almost nothing (exhibit B: unpaid internships), naturally blurred work-life boundaries that jibe well with any organization working across multiple time zones. What they require is organizations willing to invest in their professional development; a feature altogether lost in the current era, and a major detriment to those organizations’ future success.
As Editor-in-Chief of The Undercurrent, I have seen consistent receptiveness of stakeholders in the community to our unsolicited requests for collaboration. CASID has leveraged their network for us in numerous ways; the IDRC supported a funding proposal predicated on the fact that students were underrepresented in the community; individuals at the CCIC, WUSC, and the NSI have offered their time whenever we asked.
The missing piece here is the singular, cost-benefit dictated practitioner community. It is time for practitioners to do themselves a favour: internalize the notion that the flipside of inexperience is potential. Along with unreliability comes dynamism, and the steam the field needs to sustain itself.
With the recent changes in the way development is done and the way it is funded, partnership is more vital than ever. Successful partnerships, as many know, are predicated on successful relationships. Consider this in the discussion about what, how, and who to partner—the young, natural talents floating around the community are desperate for somebody to take a chance on that partnership, and that partnerships contains a mutual benefit both parties sorely need.
Clarke Foster is Editor-in-Chief of the Undercurrent.