Aid fo­cuses on up­skilling

Com­plex and long-last­ing for­eign aid projects need pro­fes­sional de­liv­ery, writes Lyn­nette Hoff­man

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

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

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