Development as a Career

—> Some reflections on career aspirations and their implications for the global poor.


It is good to have a historical understanding of career and look at it as an institutions which serves a societal function rather than a naturally given way of structuring one’s life. The idea of career as we know it today emerged in the 19th century and reflects the economic transformation of industrializing countries. Putting it positively, career allows people to specialize and build up a stable income and a pension. Putting it negatively, career increases competition among the labor force through incentives and undermines effective struggles against systemic exploitation. 

When it comes to the development sector, which differs substantially from the private market, there are a number of additional issues that need to be kept in mind. First of all, the purpose of development, at least on a conceptual level, is the enhancement of the global poor. Its function is not to provide livelihoods to well educated and privileged people like me but to improve the living conditions of the poor. On a more practical level, however, development seems to be a highly professionalized realm and characterized by a steep hierarchy. The career path is fairly narrow and there is little space for acting beyond the rules dictated by governmental donors and dominant organizations. Sometimes I have the impression that the development world is neither progressive nor driven by its theoretical purpose but simply mirrors the global power distribution and therefore the interest of the political and economic elite. 

Thinking this further, it can be said that perusing a career in development means to accept the legitimacy of this system. When I talk about the system, I mean both the globalized economy as well as the institutionalized relationships between rich states and poor countries with little negotiation power. Because I am personally convinced that poverty is the product of this system and that change lies in the effort to overcome its exploitive mechanisms, the development sector seems to be the wrong place for me. A successful career depends not on one’s critical engagement but on the ability to play with the rules. It may appear unacademically but there is no better way to understand this then by watching the Netflix series House of Cards. Clearly exacerbated, the series demonstrates well how the political system in the United States is not driven by the people’s demands and a democratic mindset of its leaders. Instead, the actual decision-making is mainly shaped by the strategic interest of politicians and the outcome of the unevenly distributed negotiation power. Given my modest experience, I have the impression that similar mechanisms can be found in the development sector. 

But there is another dimension to consider. Recently, the institution of career has undergone structural changes. If I can believe my older colleagues, opportunities to work abroad after graduation were widely spread and well compensated. This is not the case anymore today. I have experienced how interns and young employees (which are often trapped in cycles of consultancy contracts) feel pressured to go abroad. Given the opportunity to work in a developing country seems to be the lottery check pot. Weirdly enough, the more underdeveloped the country the better. After all, a year in South Sudan proves the ability to cope with risks and the capacity to remain effective in an highly demanding environment while a year in Fiji could also indicate that one simply likes crystal clear water and white beaches – something that looks less impressive on your CV. Needless to say, this is my subjective perception and I hope to be wrong in any regard. But I cannot shake off the feeling that most people around me (especially the young ones) make their decisions mainly on the basis of career considerations. There is no blame in my argument nor the claim that I am resistant to such a way of thinking. But it seems that many people do not work in development to overcome other people’s poverty but to avoid one’s own impoverishment. 

This is a systemic problem where scarce career opportunities reinforce an uncritical way of working. The provision of aid is not backed up by a progressive agenda but by people who are in competition and therefore in need to adapt to the dominant rules of development. This is well illustrated by the major narrative of the New Deal which is taken as a self-evident paradigm and hardly critically approached during programming. 



We work culturally sensitive, we rely on participatory activities, we foster community ownership, we are aware of the local realities - I would bet my internship salary that it is not possible to find an approved proposal without at least one of these terms being mentioned. That development assistance needs to be locally grounded is probably the most important lesson from the last decades. And this should clearly be seen as a positive change as it renders the imposition of Western values upon the rest of the world into an outdated model. At the same time, however, the emphasis on the local seems to inform a way of thinking where development is limited to the places where poverty, violence, corruption and marginalization are materialized. By limiting programming to the developing countries themselves, all the causal drivers of poverty which lie beyond those places are rendered less important. A development organization which does not work, as it is often called, on the ground is considered illegitimate. Of course there are a number of arguments which support this but one issue that bothers me is that it sidelines the global dimension of local problems.

Globalization matters. Especially international corporations undermine development by exploiting resources from the Global South and channel them to towards the capitalist hubs. I am aware that such an understanding of global trade is often perceived as an outdated and a simplified concept. But while people tend to roll their eyes when hearing such statements, I have hardly ever come across a strong theoretical or empirical argument against the devastating impact of globalized capitalism upon the underdeveloped world. Of course, there are some examples, like China, which demonstrate how free market can lift people out of poverty. But most of those countries also illustrate that capitalism is not dependent on democratic institutions but can flourish freely in autocratic states. Such arguments seem to confuse development with economic progress and are hardly convincing. Either way, what is relevant here is that the marginalization of whole countries is to a certain extend the result of globalization. Poverty is then not so much a condition which is naturally given and whose negative impact we should mitigate by providing aid but produced by specific political and economic practices which remain untouched by most development work.

During my internship, I consciously used the term “underdeveloped” in some of my documents but I was told that it is an outdated term and that one does not want to label poorer countries as such. I still appreciate the term not because it reinforces a hierarchical thinking but because it indicates that (under)development is produced and not a natural state of being. Talking about developing countries emphasizes the process of being on the right path - Everything needed is a little push through well-informed assistance. Talking about underdevelopment, however, makes the linkage between the rich and the poor explicit. I totally agree that a boy in CAR, who was raped by a soldier, is not interested in the difference between such categories but is simply in need for a particular set of assistance. And I believe that we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to provide support which is meaningful to the problems on the ground. But if development workers are not aware to what extend local grievances are shaped by global dynamics, development work remains ineffective. It is not only important to be in line with the ground realities but to ensure that our engagement also considers the global dynamics and their impact upon the poor. 

A couple of days ago, I was having a meeting and one colleague was telling a story of him talking to a Dutch politician who was apparently in favor of reducing ODA as, so the politician, the past has not bore the desired results. The story was not followed by much discussion as everybody seemed to agree that this politician must have a somehow distorted view on how development works and what it can bring about. In many ways, I found this reaction odd. I do not intend to argue, like many right-wing populists, against ODA but simply ask myself why development has fallen into disrepute. Once we take a step back, we have to admit that the international community was not able to prevent genocides, environmental degradation, the grow of slums, child soldiers, slavery and many more grievances. I do not necessarily think that this is the case because development workers are working in a wrong way but because the whole development system is simply not powerful enough to countervail the forces of modernity. As Zygmunt Bauman, a polish sociologist, argues, the capitalist mode of production in general and its neoliberal manifestation in particular produces poverty and renders people into the outcasts of modernity. We can grant more money for the UNHCR, develop more efficient housing for IDP’s, or be more pronounced when it comes to the advocacy on human rights. All these measurements will likely not reduce the number of displaced people because they are the logical outcome of a system which increases inequality and deprives people of the possibility to build up their live in their own place of origin. Development cannot succeed because it is limited by a system which keeps undermining the attempts to empower poor and marginalized people. In many ways, the current situation of the development sector indicates that it is a futile undertaking. Now, there are basically two ways to react. We can sideline this problem and continue writing another thousand pages of lessons learnt or we take it seriously and revisit our basic understanding of development. 

To me, development should mean more than having a bunch of governmentally controlled donors with politically informed requirements and NGO’s who limit their engagement to the implementing work in poor countries and some advocacy excursions to New York. Development should not be understood as a particular form of aid provision but as the attempt to overcome those mechanisms that produce poverty in the first place. And these mechanisms are not localized in the developing world but just in front of our door steps. For example, Geneva is not only the host city of the UN, the ICRC and the WTO but also the capital for speculating on stable foods. With rice, corn and grain covering the vast majority of the world food consumption, speculation of such products can have devastating effects on the global poor. Now, I sit here working for an NGO who offers food security programs yet remains fairly uncritical towards such forms of speculation. Illegalizing such practices would probably render a vast amount of food security programs unnecessary. In short: development work should engage with the mechanisms that produce poverty rather than trying to mitigate the effects of poverty.