What It’s Like to Work in Social and Economic Development

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Pearl Coleman Ackah
Pearl Coleman Ackah

I’ve worked in the economic and social development sector for more than 20 years. I love my job, but when I mention it to other people, they seem confused about what I actually do. “So, you work on funding citywide programs? You raise money to support some kind of cause?” When I explain what the day to day entails, I’m typically met with bemusement.

The development sector works to improve the economic well-being and quality of life of a nation, region, local community, or individuals. Think about intergovernmental or multilateral organizations, like the United Nations (UN) or the World Bank. The United Nations is funded by its 193 member nations and works on projects that aim to end conflict, alleviate poverty, and combat climate change. The World Bank raises funds from financial markets and gives low-interest loans to developing countries to improve areas such as education, health, infrastructure, and public administration. While the UN and World Bank are two well-known examples, these kinds of organizations also exist on a smaller scale and on a local level.

People who work in development collaborate with many agencies — governments, non-governmental organizations, and private companies — to promote and introduce opportunities to vulnerable populations, provide social development, and help improve public sectors that require support and catalyze growth.

If you’re someone who deeply cares about these issues, if you want to help individuals and societies achieve greater social and economic well-being and independence, and if you want to do a job that makes a real impact, this career may be for you. Read on to figure out if this is a path you should explore.

What kind of job opportunities are available in this sector, especially for someone with little or no experience?

Entry-level opportunities in this sector vary widely, depending on the size of the organization and the area they focus on. For instance, you could work in an office as a junior accountant, managing the day-to-day finances. You could apply to be a program associate, who helps support the implementation of new projects. You could be an HR coordinator and work your way up to managing large teams spread across regional offices. You could be a logistics assistant who ensures the right supplies are purchased and distributed as needed. There are also opportunities to work out in the field, collecting data as a research associate or a field officer (among other roles).

Where can I find job openings?

While job openings are usually advertised on an organization’s website, sites like Devex, DevelopmentAid, DevNetJobs, and ReliefWeb collate roles that are available globally. You can set up alerts based on your specific areas of interest.

If you’re just starting out, here are some additional places you can begin searching for open roles.

Foreign services: Most of the international development agencies — for example, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GiZ) — are housed under a nation’s foreign affairs department, making it easy for country nationals to sign up and serve. As a fresh graduate with an interest in the development sector, this is a great way to explore the field. Often, the roles offered at these organizations provide the opportunities to work locally or in partner countries in Asia, Latin America, or Africa.

NGOs/PVOs: There are various local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private voluntary organizations (PVOs) that work to secure grant funds and provide local or international services to certain regions. Based on the services required, they mobilize teams to implement the activities or projects.

Consulting: Consulting firms are often hired by governments or NGOs for specialized skills that they may lack on their teams. For example, firms like McKinsey may have expertise in digital transformation or digital tools. If you have domain knowledge, you could work at a corporation like McKinsey and support a government request to develop, say, a digital financial system or consult for an NGO that needs to upgrade their processes.

For-profit organizations/corporations: These are a major partner in helping attain development goals globally. Through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets and foundations, they partner with governmental organizations and NGOs to help implement or scale innovations or projects. This could be another entry point into the development sector, where you can see what corporate life looks like while assuming responsibilities that are meaningful.

Volunteering organizations: For anyone just looking to dip your toes into the field, volunteering is a safe option. Enroll yourself on a roster — a professional list where organizations can request you for specific services — with organizations such as the UN Volunteers or Peace Corps. There are plenty of local and international organizations who may be in need of your specific skills (everything from social media management to legal advice to accounting).

How do you grow in this sector? Do I have to stick to one industry or issue?

Like most careers, growth in this sector is based on professional expertise (which can include your academic background), experiences, and specialization. But what’s exciting is that your growth can be horizontal (not just vertical). As you gain more experience and your skills expand, you will have more opportunities to choose a path based on your interest, emerging issues, and new roles created to address them.

When I started out, my role was aimed at supporting the agricultural sector. When Ghana discovered oil a couple of years ago, a whole new sector opened up, and my skills were well matched to support local businesses in this industry. It was a steep learning curve and an exciting challenge, but I realized that while the opportunity and the sector were new, the needs of the businesses were the same. My skills were transferable. As is with any job, it is important to be open, dynamic, and ready to learn. With this attitude, you can grow and enjoy various experiences.

What could be a derailer or demotivator while working in this sector?

In this field, while some results are immediate, you may not see the direct application of your skills or the immediate impact of your work as real changes take time. You’ll have to be patient especially when working to change policies, for example.

Contrast it to the role of a doctor working on the frontlines, treating patients. In development, you may be doing work that allows patients better access to medical care or that eradicates a disease from one part of the world, but you won’t witness it in the same way. Your expertise may be used to create best practices and medical systems for other countries to follow.

Those who are moving from the corporate world to development world usually require an adjustment of their expectations, both in terms of time and impact.

The other demotivator can be income. You’ll often hear that the salaries in this field are not competitive enough. Some hesitate to join this field because of that. While our pay may not be as competitive as it is in the corporate world, it also isn’t drastically low. Especially for overseas positions, your housing, medical expenses, and the like tend to be covered. When you look at it holistically, the benefits seem more competitive.

Given the social, economic, and natural challenges our world is facing today, it’s surprising that the development field is still so misunderstood. It is, however, evolving at a steady pace, and can be an exhilarating space to work within for those seeking real purpose in a role. If you’re interested in getting to know the world a little better, and giving back to it, this field is worth looking into.

 

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Pearl Coleman Ackah is a development professional with over 20 years of experience in managing, designing, and implementing developmental projects, mainly those associated with agriculture, trade and investment.

She advises partners on how to expand market access, build stronger business linkages, improve management, implement effective communication and technological tools, and orient their business activities to achieve broad-based economic development. 

With a passion for intentional inclusion and effective digital technologies, she has developed various tools to facilitate female participation and a coach/mentor for various youth groups and programmes. Mrs. Ackah is an Economist with a Masters in Economic Policy Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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