17 February 2014

International Development - The Process versus the Theme

I'm very fortunate to have been born to parents that were both willing and able to pay for my education. However, as with most Indian parents, the payment of my undergraduate degree came with a few restrictions:

- It must be public and in-state (I'm from the US state of Virginia)
- You have to do science/pre-medicine or business

Growing up with many medical doctors in the family, I knew straightaway that I had neither the passion nor aptitude for many aspects of being a physician, so I chose business. The less-than-desirable atmosphere my university business school created for me as a minority woman* aside, I think I made the right choice. Business classes are about learning a process, and it was then that I realized the subjects that took the least effort on my part to do well (namely, math) was because I am a process-oriented person.

If one looks at any major UN agency, NGO or non-profit in international development, one can quickly see how jobs are organized - by theme. UNDP, for example, breaks their posts up in themes including democratic governance, poverty reduction, and environment and energy. The IRC, a major international NGO that supports refugees, has child protection, economic recovery and development, and governance and rights as a few of their themes. Within each theme, there are still further sub-divisions based on specific content. For example, the IRC includes livelihoods within economic recovery and development.

A Senior Technical Advisor for environmental policy within the UN could have a vastly varied skill set. As with one of my previous bosses, they could be an atmospheric physicist, or a lawyer, or a statistician, or simply a person with a lot of knowledge on environmental policy. Thus, without specializing in a specific theme, searching for international development jobs can be a nightmare, as the title of a post does not tell you much about the skills required.

Conversely, many private sectors jobs - especially in consulting - are much less theme focused. Certainly having a certain background or degree will play in to what clients a consultant secures; however, a strategy consultant can easily switch from advising a pharmaceutical company to an engineering firm, to a food and beverage conglomerate. These switches can easily happen every few years, because much of consulting is about the process, not being an expert in knowledge of a theme.

I knew by my senior year of university that my passion truly lied in international development; ironic to my process-orientation, I decided to make my career there. Having now narrowed my focus on ICT4D, which is the application of ICT-based solutions for international development, I swung back to a more process-oriented method. Technology development, deployment and implementation is very much about the process. In the past seven months, I have networked non-stop for my next long-term ICT4D job. I realize part of my lack of success is due to this process versus theme.

In international development, I have worked in disaster risk management; public health; nutrition; economic, social and cultural rights, and microfinance. Because I have not focused on one kind of theme, I appear as a generalist in international development. Because I have made my career in places that have not invested in me receiving specific certifications, such as PMP, Prince2, or Agile/Scrum, I appear under-certified to many private sector recruiters. I am caught in a limbo between the two worlds, despite having a wealth of experience and skill sets that easily demonstrate I can successfully take on a multitude of jobs.

Of course, there are process oriented companies in international development - namely private sector development firms. Though without an MBA and former management or strategy consulting experience, my application quickly gets lost in pile. As much as my work, as much work in the UN can focus on a process, the processes are not as known or as emphasized either internally and externally.

While I still have hope that ICT4D will become a more commonly known and appreciated niche in international development, the waiting game to secure relevant jobs is a struggle in an already highly competitive field. My advice to those looking to get into the international development career path is this: focus on a theme, develop a highly technical skill set (preferably quantitative in nature), and network like crazy. Things will change, but as with all things international development, that will not happen quickly.

* I plan on elaborating this point in a future post about why diversity initiatives actually matter.


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04 February 2014

The Lack of Progress Since The Shooting, The Virginia Tech Massacre

Over the last two weeks, a good friend of mine was in town from France. As it often goes, over a year without seeing each other meant that the life reflections we had were much deeper than with what usually comes in more frequent catch-ups. Zooming the life lens out means only things that are truly important are discussed. Being in the midst of promoting my upcoming novel, The Paths of Marriage, which is on a completely different set of subjects, the one single most impactful event of my life has been phased out of nearly every important conversation in the past few months. It wasn't until last Thursday did it dawn on me why I have barely written about this event, this event being what the media dubbed as "The Virginia Tech Massacre." 

For those of us who were there, we simply call it "the shooting".

If the Virginia Tech Massacre had happened in nearly any of the United States' fellow economically developed countries, a reference as generic as "the shooting" would be enough to distinguished the event. It is deeply unfortunate that America cannot claim that same statement. In America, we so often have a mass shooting in which random civilians die en masse that we actually need to title each shooting with a proper noun for it to be identified. I realized last Thursday that this is at the core of why I have found it so hard to write about the subject:  
In the almost seven years since the shooting, I feel nearly no progress on the issue.
Before I go any further, I would like qualify the above. There are some absolutely fantastic initiatives out there to better gun control, increase dialogue, and fight against the extreme lobby interests of the NRA. To name a few, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Demand Action Against Gun Violence are doing great work.

Rather, what I mean by the above is that in contrast to some of the issues I address in my upcoming book, the progress seen on gun control is a fraction of what it needs to be to both make a difference and to allow those directly impacted by shootings to freely speak their mind. As a minority and as an ally to causes that have been severely demonized in the past, I know how critical this can be.

When I was doing my bachelors degree at Virginia Tech, the issue of LGBT rights was still a largely taboo subject for much of the student body. In order to have a discussion on what LGBT rights actually means - practically, emotionally, economically, historically - one would first have to thoroughly vet out whether the person sitting on the other side of the conversation was an extremist. Otherwise, what should be a civil argument could quickly dissolve into batting away ridiculous, offensive, completely illogical statements about incest, polygamy, abomination, the apocalypse, whatever. 

It is exhausting constantly having to argue points that should not be points; it is exhausting constantly having to argue against people who are uninformed and biased, yet unyielding in their views. Over time, it can be destructive, as nothing is ever achieved, nothing really progresses despite so much time, energy and effort. Over the past seven years, that is how I have felt about the issue of gun control, about preventing future events like the Virginia Tech Massacre, and therefore about publicly reflecting on what happened. Fortunately, I have spent the majority of the time since the shooting in places where I feel comfortable talking about what happened, though attempts to speak beyond those borders are exhausting given the potential backlash.

I could enumerate the many arguments to better gun control across the country. I could even take it a step further and argue why I think the Constitutional argument is flawed. But I'm not going to. I'm not going to because every time I try, points that should not be points are somehow still points. The conversation is still so polarized that nothing short of another shooting changes opinions. Worse, even when people do shift in their opinions in support of gun control, lobbying groups and Congress metaphorically, and sometimes literally, hold voters hostage.

There are a number of aspects of the Virginia Tech Massacre about which I can write without delving into the highly contentious political arena. Indeed, I suppose this is as good a place as any to announce the shooting is the subject of my next planned novel. Still, as a constant contextualizer, as an intellectually curious person, as simply me, it is both painful and heartbreaking to know how little has changed since I laid the first flower bouquet of many over the memorial stones of the three friends I lost on April 16, 2007.