Emma Jones, Program Assistant, Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment

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Being in the places where the roles are available will ensure that you will meet the right people whilst staying informed about the sector. Securing employment or an internship is much more effective when your CV is handed directly to someone or placed directly onto a director’s desk instead of arriving to a full email inbox.

Name: Emma Jones Current Position: Program Assistant
Nationality: British Organisation: Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment (ACODE)
Qualifications (and university): Bachelor of Arts in Peace and Development Studies (Honours), the University of Bradford
LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=196315722&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile
Languages: English (fluent); French (conversational)

 

Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit.

My current role as a Program Assistant is my first paid, full-time role in the sector; it started in May 2014 and my initial contract runs until May 2015. I am working with a Ugandan NGO based in Kampala, ACODE (Advocates Coalition for the Development and Environment), supporting their peace and development programs.

When did you first start working in development and what was your first role in the sector?

I volunteered and fundraised extensively during my teenage years and interned twice (ACODE, 2011 and INTRAC, 2012) during my undergraduate degree, as well as taking on an intern role after graduation with the University of Bradford Union (2014). My initial role in the sector was in 2008 as a volunteer on an international service project to Eastern Rwanda at the age of 16. As part of a team of students from Gordonstoun School, we worked with Rwandan nationals to build a volleyball court for a rural primary school, sleeping on temporary beds in an empty classroom as a team.Since then, I have volunteered in Thailand and again in Rwanda to support a Christian charity (Rwanda Restored), teaching English and fundraising prior to completing the three internships during my BA in Peace and Development Studies.

My first institutional role was working with research, policy analysis and data management for three months in Kampala, Uganda during 2011. I worked as a student intern with Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment (ACODE); the exposure was phenomenal because ACODE have a strong management team, a supportive human resources department and a very well structured intern programme. ACODE work across three main areas: 1) peace and democracy, 2) environmental democracy and 3) trade, innovations and biotechnology and I supported their work on local governments under the peace and democracy stream.

During my three months with ACODE, guided by excellent management, I supported eight weeks of field activities on the Local Government Scorecard Council Initiative (LGSCI) across 12 districts all around Uganda. During my time, I learned enough from exposure in the field and analysis during data collection to publish two opinion articles and receive accreditation on a published district report.

This formal role in the development sector, beyond volunteering and fundraising experience, professionalised my approach to securing entry level work and made me appreciate the level of education, dedication and expertise required to intervene effectively in the lives of others.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?

My first development role (my initial internship with ACODE in 2011) came as a result of applying to organisations for internships constantly throughout my first year of university and receiving no feedback. I was articulating my frustrations to my first year university tutor (Professor David Francis) who recommended I speak to a PhD student of his (Dr Arthur Bainomugisha) who was also the Deputy Executive Director of ACODE in 2011. I met and shared my CV with Dr Bainomugisha during an informal interview and he invited me to apply formally for an internship. Following my formal online application I received an offer as an unpaid intern for three months in Uganda.

My current role (as a full-time, paid Program Assistant) came as a result of me getting back in touch with Dr Bainomugisha, now the Executive Director, after I  graduated with first class honours in Peace and Development studies to enquire about vacancies at ACODE. I was invited to apply for the role of Program Assistant and following a successful application, I was offered a 12 month contract as a full time member of staff.

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

If your role involves coordinating international staff (such as volunteers) or applying technical knowledge (medicine, engineering or software development) in your role as a development worker; field experience, to a degree, is negotiable.

My understanding of development work is that it is serves to improve the lives of people by supporting and sharing best practices, policies or service delivery between countries and institutions. Thus, knowing the area or ‘field’ is important to ensure relevance, sustainability and peace.

In particular, understanding geographical intricacies, the lived experiences of nationals, historical context and current situations before engaging with them with ideas and actions that are intended to change or adapt them is very important.

It’s my personal opinion that if you plan to shape and implement projects in a country then it is entirely unfeasible or unwise to believe that this can be done without spending a significant amount of time within the context that you plan to facilitate change. Whilst people are relatively similar (most want a job, some education, medical care, a couple of meals a day and a future for their children) some key distinctions remain .Cultural awareness and contextual understanding is therefore crucial to connect appropriately and sustainably when engaging in the lives of others.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role? If yes, do you think your field experience was essential to your job application?

I had practical field experience of working abroad through volunteering in Thailand (three weeks) and Rwanda (two trips of three weeks), as well as interning in Uganda (three months). I also gained office experience from interning in Uganda (as above), Oxford (two and a half months) and Bradford (three months). During University I also gained technical experience (basic marketing, finance, ‘getting-stuff-for-free’ and networking skills) by running the Yoga and Meditation Society at the University of Bradford in my final year of university. What made these experiences crucial was that they demonstrated willingness and  proven ability to live abroad in basic accommodation and being able to deliver outputs according to deadlines.

Beyond practical experience, experience abroad meant I could then engage intellectually with practising development professionals to form and share opinions on development trends and impacts in the majority world. This demonstrates an active interest in the field which is vital to set you apart from others. For example, my volunteering experiences abroad were particularly important for me to demonstrate to Dr Bainomugisha that I would be able to cope with moving abroad alone for a three-month internship in Uganda even though I was only 21.

Additionally, it’s not just ‘being abroad’ that counts – pay attention to what you do when you are away. If for example, if you visit a national museum in Rwanda with your time off, it it is far more impressive to a potential employer than three weeks spent lounging by the pool.

Making your existing achievements relevant to potential employers is also important. Running the finances for a university society or being able to use Excel are skills which are directly transferable to budgeting on a project or collecting data for analysis. Think about what an organisation wants and demonstrate how you can give it to them; it’s essential for them to know you can do the job and you need to make it easy for them to see how you would fit directly into their organisation. If you have been to the area where they work, find some common ground with them to make yourself memorable. If you are a professional, capable and a decent person, the job is probably yours.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

Networking is vital but often determined by the degree of financial backing you can access. My first internship opportunity with ACODE came through speaking with my university tutor but I could only access the role because a) I was at university and b) because I had savings and could fund myself immediately when the opportunity arose.

I had allocated savings for an internship because each summer I worked as a waitress to save whilst I lived at home. I had no bills which meant it was very easy to save, which is not the case for most people. My financial situation meant that when I secured an opportunity, I could take it (such as the two internships I completed as an undergraduate) and if there were no internships available, I could create my own opportunities.

After graduation I didn’t have relevant work lined up for September so I planned a trip on Google Maps and convinced a friend to travel from Arusha, Tanzania to Kigali, Rwanda, using local means. We arrived ten days later having travelled by shared car, Cessna airplane, overnight ferry and bus. Whilst in Rwanda, my friend returned home and I networked with international development professionals. My first introduction came through a friend and business partner of my father [E1] (who has worked in post-conflict economic reconstruction for decades as a consultant). Following an informal dinner I mentioned how I’d love to meet inspirational women doing the career I envisioned myself doing.

I ended up meeting the UN Country Representative for Rwanda and a lead economist for the Ministry for East African Community, Rwanda, as well as employees of Microjustice for All and the UK Department for International Development. Although no job offers came as a direct result of this networking was invaluable as as the development world is close-knit.

As development work is fashionable there are lots of highly qualified people vying for employment., One way you can stand out is by being yourself but this does require being ‘on location’ in terms of context. Surrounding yourself with people or institutions that have access to job opportunities is also important, which is why I started a Facebook group called ‘Careers in Development’ to connect young professionals looking for entry-level jobs.

Most people that I have spoken to who are employed in international development were either lucky or could afford to be in the right place for a considerable period of time by funding their own higher education, internship or life abroad. Being in the places where the roles are available will ensure that you will meet the right people whilst staying informed about the sector. Securing employment or an internship is much more effective when your CV is handed directly to someone or placed directly onto a director’s desk instead of arriving to a full email inbox.

So far, all my paid development roles have come through networking and I consider it vital to a career in development although it has been expensive.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

One of the main advantages is that I love my job; it took three years of strategic work, planning ahead, saving money, internships, prioritising my degree and taking risks, but I’m 23 years old and living in Kampala. My colleagues are fantastic, my managers are inspirational and the work I’m doing makes for a fascinating Facebook page and Snapchat account. This is what I have always wanted to do (one nickname at school was ‘Mother Teresa’) and I find my work massively satisfying.

Difficulties include finances – moving abroad cost about £2,000 initially including flights, antimalarial drugs, bulk-buying contact lenses, paying rent upfront and visa expenses. My current wage (in pounds sterling) is less than half of what I made as an intern at the University of Bradford. Thisis difficult in the sense that moving back to Britain next month would be impossible without parental support or a loan.

Other disadvantages are because of living in a foreign country. The weather is great and the food is fresh but police institutions and services are unreliable compared to the UK. My employer provides health insurance which I have needed three times in five months (one leg infection and two flus), but fortunately I haven’t needed to report any crimes. Transport is scary; I can’t afford a car and travel regularly on a motorbike taxi (with a helmet) but there are always accidents and you can’t help but be nervous. Additionally, if you want efficiency, avoid Kampala – securing a work permit is tenuous, expensive (thankfully my contract ensures that all costs be met by ACODE) and difficult; there is no online clarification on what documents are needed to apply, so it involves many hot, long and stressful trips to immigration offices.

I would say that before working abroad; make sure your employers contractually agree to support you with things like health insurance. Financial and practical support for legal working documentation is vital. Before I could receive my first month’s salary, I needed legal working documents, a functioning bank account, an address and an NSSF (National Social Security Fund) number; they all require each other and none are supposed to be provided without proof of the other! I couldn’t have organised it all without support from ACODE in terms of providing transport, time off work and meeting visa costs; some things you really cannot do by yourself.

Otherwise, perks include the work, as mentioned, and enjoying Kampala; I live relatively near the city centre and enjoy the bars, nightclubs, kick boxing, jogging, cultural centres, national theatre, dancing and delicious food. Generally, all the people you meet are interesting too; I’ve made great friends and there’s a different depth to friendships abroad when you know you are all living abroad for a long period of time.

It’s also fun navigating early twenty-something life when nothing is normal and everything is unexpected. Recently, whilst heading out of town to find a nice swimming pool, a friend and I arrived at five police checkpoints, drove past a tank and had the underside of the car scanned. The reason? An army representative helpfully clarified that ‘We (Uganda) have visitors’ and then wished us a nice day.  Some stuff just happens and there’s no explanation; you just have to go with it and try not to worry!

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

Have a skill. My efforts paid off thanks to luck and a longer term strategy. If I was advising my younger self I’d say to do medicine, do law, do engineering, do teaching and then transfer to the development sector.

I say this because whilst a development degree is great, particularly for understanding sector trends and world history, people need houses, they need water and they need functioning governments to provide security, support and services. Understandably, they don’t want to hear your opinions on neoliberalism.

Most development work requires getting stuff done without much time and without much money, so choose a skill and learn to do it under those conditions. If it’s too late for that, then invest in yourself more – if you can’t find work, pursue an MA or learn a language; those will also put you in good stead. And always look for scholarships before paying for tuition and other expenses.

Beyond that? Know when to quit. If you are spending thousands of pounds to work for free for the year just to work in ‘International Development’, then re-evaluate. Surely you could get a regular office job in a different sector, get paid and get the same experience there? A tactical transfer could put you back into the sector at a later date, or you could do a part-time MA whilst you study, network and keep earning.

You also need tenacity and focus; I often felt like I was missing out on the fun of being an undergraduate when I was interning each summer but now I can’t remember which parties they were or why I thought they were so awesome.

If you’ve already made up your mind about working in development then keep going. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.

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