“S/he who follows another’s footsteps leaves no footprints”*
Despite not (yet) having achieved gurudom, I am occasionally asked for advice about joining the development sector. Most of those enquiring can be slotted into two categories. The first are well-spoken but mediocre people who are getting nowhere in their chosen professions and have (therefore?) developed a social conscience. Their impression of the sector is as a place where the effort to returns ratio is second only to the spirituality business. The second are those whose short-term career objective is to join Kofi Annan in New York, and their impression of the sector is as a place where one hops on to intercontinental flights with the same regularity that you and I used the local public transport system in our student days. But occasionally, very occasionally, some young person approaches me with intent in his or her eyes, not knowing what ‘development’ is, with this vague idea of working with people in some faraway place and dirtying their hands, firm only about using their good qualifications and skills to do something different. I never know what to tell the former types – whether to play up their fantasies or to give them a reality check. As to the latter, this is what I have to say.
First, to address the basic questions:
Is there scope for good people here? The development sector needs bright people coming in as much, if not more, than other sectors of the economy. The array of problems that the sector addresses is mind-boggling in its variety, intensity and complexity and, should you decide to make a career here, you will require all the skills and drive that you think you possess. The sector also offers the opportunity to make one’s mark, and leave one’s footprints, in ways that are not possible elsewhere. So please rid yourself of the notion that this is a sinecure for the mediocre, the retired, the idle rich and the infirm.
Is long-term financial survival possible here? All of us have nightmares about being middle-aged, washed out and broke. Whether this sector provides more scope for such a turn of events than others is debatable. Most people here, as elsewhere, manage to get by, build their houses, educate their children, etc., etc. It is possible, and quite easy if you are good, to move to more lucrative segments within the development sector at some stage in your career. But – you will have to deal with the ass kissing, red tape and white domination that often go with the money. Anyway, by that time you will be aware of the pros and cons of the decisions you take. If money is important in the short term, however, then forget about coming here – you will be better off peddling soap or consulting or doing whatever it is that you are alternatively qualified to do.
What to do? Where to go? You need to figure out some basic questions before you start looking, such as rural or urban setting, in which part of the country, in an activist or a welfarist set up, and how close to the community you want to work. Finding organizations to work in that suit these settings is fairly simple after that, and good organizations are always looking for good people. Donor organizations are good places to enquire about these matters.
And now for my personal advice on what you should do:
Start out doing a field job – one that involves living and working directly with a community. The community consists of a large number of people who don’t have to say yes sir or yes ma’am to you and don’t care which fancy institution you did your post-graduation from – you have to earn your spurs from scratch, throw management theory out of the window and prepare to be surprised and tested every single day. You will discover that the class 5 pass man working with you is much better at the job than you will ever be, or that the supposedly pathetic women your activities are directed towards have much more guts than the modern, educated babes back home. Doing something here involves stress, fun and serious learning, and it is this part of your life that will stay on with you wherever you go. Spend a good amount of time here, ensure that you are not stuck with the report and proposal writing jobs and ayah-duty (i.e. escorting funding agency wallahs into the field) that you will be passed on because of your English-speaking skills, and see that you leave something intangible behind when you go. Later in life, when you are dealing with NGOs from a funding or consulting perspective, you will have plenty of NGO-wallahs giving you the what-would-you-know-you-city-asshole vibes – watch their tunes change once you let slip that you were once in their position.
Do the above with a good NGO – be careful about this because, though there are many good NGOs, they are still a small proportion of the total number of NGOs around. Good NGOs, in my opinion, are honest, secular and transparent. They formulate their plans and activities on the basis of the needs of the community they work with and are answerable to them for this. So be careful about this – you would not want your CV littered with associations with family businesses, feudal empires, pimping and middlemen set-ups, money laundering operations, touts, donor puppets, crooks, etc., masquerading as NGOs.
Become an expert – by the time you have put in 2-3 years in the field, there should be some topic relating to your work that you know more about than anybody else in the world. This means relating what you do on the ground to the larger picture, to what is happening elsewhere in the world and to the latest academic debate on the subject. Keep up to date, keep writing, and write to publish. This is easier said than done, field people have an innate distaste and little time for serious writing, but it is this that will separate those who will later go on to effect policy from those who will remain community organizers all their lives.
Eschew jargon – people in the development sector, like the IT sector and several others, have a peculiar predilection towards using jargon. The problem with this is that it serves to exclude people whom you would wish to include and include people whom you would probably want to exclude. Words like participatory, empowerment and sustainable, which you will find bandied about like toffees on a domestic flight, actually mean different things to different people and very often don’t mean anything at all. And when an organization wants to recruit dedicated, motivated and committed people, it usually means that they want to pay less for more work and therefore only suckers need apply. So don’t get caught up in this bullshit, learn the art of communicating exactly what you mean in a simple and understandable way.
Be humble and be nice – nothing like these qualities, even if put on, to enable you to get along. Having said that, don’t put up with nonsense beyond a point that even fake humility and pleasantness can’t handle. People and organizations that cross the line should end up spitting out teeth with their blood, so to speak.
Watch your love life – you will find yourself working closely with members of the opposite sex, often in very intense situations, and you will find yourself liking some of them and vice versa. Have your fun! But, my advice is, don’t find yourself marrying and/or having children with anyone you would not have done so with had things been different. The fiery young activist can end up a leach of a middle-aged man, worrying more about what is happening in Red Square than in the well-being of his immediate family and quite happy to leave you with all the responsibilities while he gabs on about revolution. And the passionate free-spirited feminist is unlikely, later in life, to have a hot cup of tea ready for you when you come home after a hard day at the office. And you will be shocked at how easy it is to forget people once they are out of context.
Should you take the plunge into the sector, you will find yourself interacting with a wide variety of people. Watch out for the following types –
People with halos – you will find a number of people claiming to be doing a favour to humanity by working in this sector, especially at the higher echelons. Many of them have active PR machineries supporting their claims to sainthood, and some even believe in their own hype. You can be sure that, like everywhere else, being hardworking, intelligent and capable are not enough to reach and stay at the very top – you also have to be ruthless and slimy. There are no exceptions to this. So, whenever you hear or read the words ‘S/he/I could have been rolling in it in any other line but chose to sacrifice her/him/myself to the cause of the poor/destitute/vulnerable blah, blah, blah” be warned of the existence of yet another hypocrite in the world.
Emperors – they are the lords of all they survey, and don’t distinguish between their personal assets and their organization’s resources, and this usually includes its women employees. Yes, most, but not all, emperors are males.
Pompous employees of donor agencies – donors have an inexplicable penchant for recruiting morons. They do sometimes go wrong, and you find yourself dealing with someone who knows his or her job and who is able to have a positive effect on your and your organization’s work. But you do often have to deal with someone who thinks s/he has arrived because s/he represents the money, and/or someone to whom development is about budgets and utilizations more than people. While there is no known cure for stupidity, sometimes it helps to let the former type know that they have their nice air-conditioned offices and fancy credit cards because people like you are willing to slog in the sun for peanuts. Don’t take crap from them and, much more importantly, don’t become like them if and when you are in their position at some later stage in your life.
Development tourists – these people travel the world to conferences and seminars on money that is meant for the poor. They are the self-appointed spokespersons for India’s (and sometimes the entire third world’s) poor in Geneva, Stockholm and such places. Their slick presentations, that have audiences thanking God for having created them in this tumultuous world, invariably disguise the fact that they last did something on the ground about twenty years ago – they have since been too busy traveling. Don’t make the mistake of getting impressed by these parasites. And don’t join them expecting to see the world; you will be lucky to have more than a Bangladesh visa stamped on your passport.
If you are still planning to join the sector – a very hearty welcome to you!
* A Confucian saying after having undergone a gender audit