Jennifer Ambrose, Research Analyst & Editor-in-Chief, AidGrade & WhyDev

Children in Rwanda

A lot of organisations that take international volunteers are problematic as development actors…  It’s critical to do your due diligence when choosing an organisation, and try to assess whether they’re doing effective work in the community.

Name: Jennifer Ambrose Current Position: Research Analyst & Editor-in-Chief
Nationality: American Organisation: AidGrade & WhyDev
Qualifications (and university): Master of Arts in International Development (The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University); Bachelor of Arts in International Relations (Claremont McKenna College)
LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeneambrose Years of experience:
3 (in development)/3 (overall)
Languages: English (native), French (proficient), Kinyarwanda (basic), Wolof (basic)

 

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

I’m not sure what I’d call my first “real” role in the sector. While studying abroad in Senegal during my junior year of college, I interned a couple days a week at a local NGO. The organisation was based in Dakar and was founded and run by a few Senegalese women. It provided donated materials and other support to rural communities.

The following summer, I volunteered for two months in Uganda. The organisation I worked with there had established a secondary school and an after-school program, where I taught English classes and led extra-curricular activities. They also organised seminars on health and entrepreneurship for women’s groups and provided donated household supplies to child-headed families. That organisation was founded by a Ugandan and had a few local staff, but relied largely on international volunteers to teach in the school and help with the other programs.

But my first more notable experience in development was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda for two years. The work Peace Corps Volunteers do varies tremendously, as do their exact living situations. But the general intention is for volunteers to live in areas where ex-pats typically don’t stay and to really integrate into their host communities. Ideally, volunteers can use their understanding of the local context and close relationships with people there to help determine what their needs are and how they can be addressed. I lived in a small town in northeastern Rwanda, and my work was two-fold. I worked with a couple of schools in the area and taught English classes (as nearly all volunteers do!), wrote grant proposals to get funding for some sanitation projects, and coordinated donations of school materials from an international organisation. I also helped a local NGO implement two larger projects across the district: one that helped farmers organise cooperatives and one that trained health educators.

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?

I obtained my position in Senegal through my study abroad program, and I got the one in Uganda through a simple application online. Both roles were unpaid. The Peace Corps application process is quite extensive (though it has recently been streamlined, thankfully!), and includes transcripts, recommendation letters, a statement of interest, an interview, a background check, and medical clearances. Peace Corps covers all travel and living costs, as well as healthcare expenses. Volunteers receive enough money to live comfortably at local standards. So the role is not exactly “paid,” but it’s not self-funded like many volunteer positions.

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

Absolutely. I think people who have fieldwork experience (preferably outside the ex-pat community in capital cities) are better equipped to work on designing and managing development projects. They develop an understanding of the problems people in developing countries face that is rarely possible to gain otherwise. I think it also provides a valuable perspective on the role of international organisations in development and how aid projects affect people’s lives, which is difficult to see from the headquarters offices where most jobs are located.

Field work is important especially for the more generalist positions. Organisations want to see that you ‘get it’, that you’ve been there and seen how things work. If you’re applying for jobs in developing countries, it’s especially important to be able to show that you can handle the living and working conditions there.

It’s tricky, though, because a lot of organisations that take international volunteers are problematic as development actors. They may put the volunteer’s experience ahead of the community served, bring in unqualified people who could make things worse, or cause disruptions in the community’s everyday work. It’s critical to do your due diligence when choosing an organisation, and try to assess whether they’re doing effective work in the community. Study abroad programs in developing countries are also very useful, because they help students understand what life is like in places where they might want to work in the future.

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

Even though many people are uncomfortable with it, networking is crucial in development. Jobs aren’t always posted publicly, and some organisations don’t keep their job postings up-to-date, so it’s a huge advantage to know people who can keep you in the loop. You’re also much more likely to make it through the initial stages if someone at the organisation can vouch for you. If your name is already familiar to the person doing the hiring, it can prompt them to look twice at your application.

If you’re in a city with an active development community, attend networking events, lectures, happy hours, public workshops – really anything where you’ll have a chance to meet new people in your field. And, no matter where you live, the Internet is a useful tool for networking. I think Twitter is a great way to connect with people, and it can be something of an equalizer. If you post interesting and thoughtful content, more senior people will often follow you, no matter who you are or where you’re at in your career.

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

Working in development can be very discouraging. If you work abroad, you’ll inevitably see programs that don’t get implemented the way they should, and quickly realise that the actual projects aren’t nearly as glossy as the organisation’s website. And a lot of the time, development probably isn’t as exciting as you might imagine. Even if you’re in some exotic place, most of your time is going to be spent on reports and spreadsheets and meetings. You’ll also see other ex-pats became extremely jaded and cynical about the NGO sector and the local culture – and it can be hard not to become that way yourself. If you work in a headquarters or think-tank position in a western country, you might feel very detached from the work you’re supporting. And no matter where you live or work, you’ll likely spend a lot of time wondering if the work you’re doing is making any difference.

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

For Americans, I generally recommend considering the Peace Corps. There are plenty of very fair criticisms of the agency, but the perspective on development that comes from living (usually) on your own in a small community, and focusing on relationships with local people is hard to get elsewhere. Some other countries have similar opportunities, such as JICA in Japan, but for others, I would generally suggest looking for an experience where you’ll be removed from the ex-pat community and the hordes of voluntourists, and where you can stay for more than a year. In addition to fieldwork, hard skills like nursing and engineering are always in demand, and proficiency in programs like Stata, Access and Salesforce are useful for a lot of jobs. Lastly, being able to write well and give good presentations are crucial, because almost any position will involve those two things.

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  1 comment for “Jennifer Ambrose, Research Analyst & Editor-in-Chief, AidGrade & WhyDev

  1. Larry Gilbert
    March 13, 2015 at 3:34 AM

    Jennifer,

    Very interesting suggestions from you with that experience to new volunteers. Keep up the good work and be careful.

    Take care.

    Larry

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