The ‘development workers of the future’? They’re right under our nose

Perry Maddox is Restless Development’s COO and  is responsible for a small army of development workers worldwide. In this piece, he challenges the findings of a new report  into what development workers will look like in the future – and points to a crucial factor  that has been overlooked.

As development professionals we spent much of 2015 looking into the future, working out how we can improve the world over the next fifteen years via the new Global Goals. Perhaps lesser known is that some of us also took a stab at what we think our colleagues will look like in the future  – but there’s a glaring omission from our vision.

Devex recently released the results of a survey entitled “Meet the next generation development professional“, compiling responses from more than 1000 development professionals about what the next generation of “aid workers will look like”.

Their collective view is strikingly similar to that of the expat or headquarters development worker of today.   While predictions on technology and optimism around new ways of working are suggested, the bottom line is that their next generation will look pretty much the same. Here’s the picture:

Bring your diploma to the interview. 79% of respondents thought that a graduate level degree will be necessary to succeed in international development, effectively ruling out billions of young people and community members in one fell swoop.

Locally-led, a little bit. 57% saw international expats playing a decreased role in favour of local professionals.   Flipping that on its head, nearly half of respondents did not see local professionals playing a greater role in development.   Accompanying blogs noted that ‘the expat era isn’t dead; it’s just different‘ and linked the growing need for local experts to donor preferences.   Not because local leadership is ethically right or because it leads to better, more sustainable results – but because the donors want it.

Are you fluent in Jargon? 72% of respondents believe multilingual development workers will be the norm.   That’s exciting on the surface, until we explore the words they’ll be using: “data driven and evidence-based programming, multi-disciplinary approaches, impact evaluation, new methods of development financing.” I get the feeling that the development worker of tomorrow might only be able to communicate with, well, the other development workers of tomorrow.   I’m just not sure anyone else would penetrate the jargon, no matter the language in which it’s delivered.

Let me be clear: the report is stimulating and ambitious. I believe expats, the highly educated, and technical experts all have a role to play, and the more we reflect on the positive role they can play the better.

That said, the report brings to light some real biases in whom our sector believes should lead development. The demographics of the respondents are telling: 62% male; 65% have more than 10 years of development experience; and country of origin, curiously for a global survey, is not reported. Draw your own conclusions there.

This all points to a generation that pretty much sees its successors as the same people doing the work today.   Sure, add in a few more soft skills, more tech integration and more non-traditional actors, but the bottom line staffing picture is of highly educated, technical experts with expats at the ready.   Not terribly different than the staffing models of many development institutions today.

There is, however, another type of development worker – and we don’t have look ten years into the future to find them either.

From fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone to the recovery from earthquakes in Nepal to influencing the post-2015 process, young people are driving some of the most important successes in our field.   They are development workers today, not just tomorrow.

Take the Ebola response for example. Thousands of young Sierra Leoneans were on the frontline of the vital community mobilisation that played a huge role in ending the outbreak. They did not require a graduate degree, a decade of experience, or billions of flown-in aid to play that crucial role. Their agency, resource and talent benefited from investment in and commitment to their empowerment prior to the crisis. It meant that they were already connected to the communities, able to work quickly and sensitively where outsiders could not.

This is the fundamental  shift we need to make. We need to understand the concept of ‘development workers’ and our relationship to them in a way that recognises the agency and power of all the young people already leading real change on the ground and in the halls of government.

They, too, are development workers. The sooner we recognise that, the better.


Power your creative ideas with pixel-perfect design and cutting-edge technology. Create your beautiful website with Zeen now.

The ‘development workers of the future’? They’re right under our nose

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min