Aid focuses on upskilling
Complex and long-lasting foreign aid projects need professional delivery, writes Lynnette Hoffman
ROD Reeve’s career has taken him to hotspots the world over, from Iraq under Saddam Hussein to Aceh in Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami, with places such as Papua New Guinea and Pakistan in between. Reeve’s work in international development has provided enough insightful memories to fill 300-odd pages in his recently released book Hotspotting , but ask him what he ‘‘ does’’ and it still requires a 20-minute explanation.
Reeve doesn’t work for a not-for-profit, or an NGO; he’s not a government employee, nor is he a volunteer. So what does he do?
He manages multi-million dollar aid projects. He is a chief operating officer of Coffey International Development, a private specialist firm contracted to run major foreign aid projects.
Sounds straightforward enough, but much of the time, Reeve says people just don’t get it. ‘‘ Aid work is not well understood in society,’’ he says.
Coffey International Development’s global human resources manager Natasha Markovic says all sorts of misconceptions and generalisations around foreign aid work persist. People assume aid work is volunteer, or figure they’ll have to take a hefty pay cut to do it. Sometimes that’s true, she says, but often it’s not.
‘‘ The aid and development sector is broad and there are some great volunteer opportunities, but there are also a wide range of other opportunities in technical and professional areas and general management and leadership,’’ Markovic says.
And aid work isn’t just something you do for a year or two, either, at the beginning of your career, or as you’re nearing retirement.
Many people forge full-time professional careers as aid workers, even if they don’t aspire to lead organisations as Reeve has.
The global budget for foreign aid work has skyrocketed from $53 billion in 1990 to $104 billion in 2004 and growing. ‘‘ We’ve gone from very small scale programs 30 years ago to very large scale programs that are more aligned with the recipient countries’ goals. They’re much more collaborative,’’ Markovic says.
That means unique opportunities for those who go over to work in the programs.
Anne Glover can testify to that. Trained as a teacher, Glover has worked as an education consultant in East Timor, PNG, Fiji and the list goes on — currently she is team leader on a project in eastern Indonesia designed to improve outcomes in early education.
Among the achievements that stand out as highlights of Glover’s career in foreign aid is an education reform project in Papua New Guinea that enabled students to start a school in their home language. No small feat, given that more than 850 languages are spoken in PNG.
The project trained more than 9000 primary school teachers and 245 district-based teachers ‘‘ and developed more than 100 orthographies for communities so that children could begin school in their home language, and local languages would not die,’’ Glover says.
The work itself is incredibly varied. Nongovernmental organisations such as Engineers Without Borders or OxFam, government organisations such as AusAid, and contractors such as Hassall & Associates or GRM International or Coffey all recruit regularly to fill a hugely diverse range of positions.
They’re looking for people who have skills that can be passed on to people in developing countries so that they have a solid foundation to build on once the aid organisations leave. And as Glover demonstrates, it’s not just medical professionals and engineers to build infrastructure that are being sought. Skills in business, entrepreneurship, management, human resources, economics, agriculture, development, logistics, environmental science, public policy and finance are some of the other skills also in high demand.
To that end aid work is also more nuanced than people assume.
‘‘ People come in very bright-eyed about getting into poverty-stricken Africa and handing out food parcels, but the work we do in Ausaid is more geared to long-term changes and it isn’t always so frontline,’’ says Therese Mills, assistant director general of human resources at AusAid.
Take Stephen Knollmayer, for example. Educated in development and war studies, Knollmayer is currently based out of the Solomon Islands, where he manages community development and disaster management projects. His day-to-day work often involves liaising with high-level government officials — as well as people in rural village communities and staff in NGOs.
‘‘ I think many people associate aid work with emergency response to disaster areas or refugee camps, or working in a village to build a well, school or health clinic. But while there are elements of this in our work, a lot of the activities we fund are about encouraging positive change in peoples’ attitudes and helping people gain the knowledge to lead and manage their own development needs,’’ Knollmayer says.
Along with technical skills, recruiters are also looking for softer ‘‘ contextual skills’’, Markovic and Mills say. Those include things such as crosscultural awareness, adaptability, skills in mentoring and coaching and building and maintaining relationships, and an understanding of development issues, they say.
A recent paper by Coffey International Development that outlined the challenges of recruitment in the development sector put it this way: ‘‘ We need people with different technical skills, as well as much more developed interpersonal and behavioural skills, if we are to bring about the development outcomes to which we aspire. In simple business terms — we need to reskill and upskill.’’
Mills says about a quarter of AusAid’s new employees start as graduates, but mid-career switches are also common.
It’s a competitive industry, she says, so getting experience in different cultural contexts is a good way to get an edge. Experience with international travel can be helpful.
Volunteering can also be a good first step: Australian Business Volunteers, Volunteering for International Development from Australia, and Australian Volunteers International are a few places to start looking, and there are lots of others.
Aid workers tend to work long hours, and the job is often challenging, mentally and physically. Language and cultural barriers can sometimes be difficult, and things often happen slowly. At times it can also be confronting. The aftermath of the widespread killing in East Timor with thousands of refugees still in exile certainly was, Glover says.
‘‘ The sight of the burnt remains of the schools and preschools was heartbreaking,’’ she says. ‘‘ But, in spite of the severity of the damage, there was a great enthusiasm for re-establishing an East Timorese education system — little preschools sprang up everywhere, and more children were enrolled in primary schools than ever before.’’
But challenges aside, development work can also be a whole lot of fun. Glover likened a trip to the west part of Indonesia over the independence day holiday to a ‘‘ National Geographic vignette.’’
Knollmayer has had plenty of fun adventures during his work abroad as well.
‘‘ Travelling around the country frequently requires some serious off-road four-wheel driving, long hikes through mountainous terrain and fording large rivers, or bumpy rides on small outboard motor boats or dugout canoes,’’ Knollmayer says.
‘‘ Often visits will coincide with the opening of a project which involves a huge community gathering, and on special occasions also a feast, dancing and entertainment.’’
On a few occasions he has even been presented with a live pig: ‘‘ That can be a challenge, to say the least, taking it back with you in your small outboard motor boat.’’
School’s in: Anne Glover has delivered education in many countries, including Indonesia