Advice for Development Careers – 7 Points for Mid-level Practitioners

A few days ago, I received a call from one of my Ex colleagues. We both had worked together in a national NGO. He was asking about my advice for his career growth in development sector. Unfortunately, career counselling is almost absent from our educational and professional systems. Although internet has somehow filled this gap and now students and entry to mid-level practitioners and professional can access some websites, blogs and articles to seek some career advice. Moving back to the subject of the call of my ex-colleague, I have following points to share with all entry and mid-level development sector practitioners for their career growth,
1- Degrees are not sufficient
I have been working in development sector since last 15 years and with seventh organisation during this period. None of the organisations have ever asked about the marks, divisions, grades or subjects of my educational degrees neither ever asked for a copy/photocopy of my educational certificates and degrees. I even never was asked to share the details of my national and international trainings. Having a bachelor or master degree only helps us making eligible for applying any particular position or meet the criteria of being applicant. In contrast to the public sector, where degrees and their grades/divisions etc are considered as core criteria for the selection, development sector is much more similar to a private/for-profit sector where degrees are not considered as key criteria of promotion or getting a job.
2- Acquire skills, learn skills and improve skills
Now what is important if degrees are not considered as imperative to grow in the development sector, if one asks me, I would say “skills”. My advice to entry and mid-level development sector practitioners is that they should learn new and build their present skills. Important skills needed to grow in the development sector include communication skills especially the speaking and writing skills, presentation skills and project management skills. Selection and type of skills further depends upon the position/responsibility holding an individual in organisation and the plan to move forward. Set of skills required for community mobiliser, monitoring officer and project officer are different with some overlapping. There is a very straightforward logic in why building skills is important. For example, if one has a set of skills for the responsibility of social mobiliser, now she is planning to move at the position of project officer. Set of skills required for project officer is different from that of social mobiliser. Unless she doesn’t acquire that particular set of skills, she won’t be able to perform that duty and no one would take risk to recruit her for the position of project officer. Improving existing skills is equally important as learning new skills. Skills are different from that of knowledge, information or facts. We will be unable to call to mind our skills unless we won’t practice these on regular basis. To remember our skills and to improve these, we need to practice these again and again and most importantly share with others. There is a lot of material available on internet especially on the websites of donor organisations and international NGOs about the particular set of skills for different mid to senior level positions. Our competency within any particular skill further counts during our career growth. For example, every one of us is a writer but there is always a difference between the quality of writing of one person from the other. Some of the international donor organisations has defined the five to seven competency levels of any particular skill that help to understand the skills paradigm. So, to acquiring one skill, we need to evaluate ourselves on our competency level in that particular skill. I will further write a separate and detailed blog on it to explain the science of skills.
3- Be social
Development sector is also known as social sector. Another important key for career growth in this sector is that you need to be as social as you can. Meet as many people from this sector as you can. Plan for meeting new people and maintaining existing relationships. There is very visible tendency observed in development sector in Pakistan that recruiters prefer to recruit a known person. Majority of the recruiters in Pakistan don’t want to take a risk with a person with whom they are not fully aware of the competency in skills. Recruiters need results and expect good quality outputs even on the second day of joining the job. Short term projects, donors’ pressure and competition within organisations has forced the employers to hire staff with high competency skills that can deliver good quality results. In a project with a duration of 12 months, employers won’t take risk to recruit a person with whom they would spend two months to teach skills. If you think, you are skilled, start networking, explore opportunities to demonstrate your skills, and stay in touch. Being social will help you to be on the list of recruiters whenever they plan to recruit new staff.
4- Share ideas
If you are a new joiners or mid-level career development practitioner, you must have participated in different meetings and attended some trainings. You should have some exposure or experiences related to the implementation of projects, visiting field areas and meeting new people. Compile your observations and share your suggestions during meetings or discussion related to the development projects. Naming development sector as “development sector” indicates its key characteristics of being innovative, risk taker and doer. Share your ideas with your colleagues and seniors. If you receive any feedback, that will improve your thoughts, learning and clarity on the issues and ideas.
5- Don’t compromise on quality
Most of the projects in development sector are short-term comprising the duration of a maximum of one year. In this short duration, you will be assigned as part of project team to implement quite a number of diverse activities. Don’t panic and compromise on quality. One thing I learn during my professional career that due to compromised quality of the implementation of projects, skills of the project team are suffered first. When you are in time stress, think over on innovative time efficient strategies to implement the project without compromising the quality of project. If you are in resource-related constraints, look for some the mobilization of local resources. Discuss with project partners, communities, and other stakeholders. You sure surely find out the alternative strategies to implement the project. Remember, stress is not always negative. It also works as a strong push factor to find out new and alternate solutions, use cost effective and time efficient strategies and move forward.
6- Read, listen, discuss and write
Reading plays a key role in learning new skills and knowledge. I have learnt that I remember only those skills that I practice again and again and able to recall the knowledge that I shared with others. Similarly, active listening to those who are seniors, have knowledge and skills is equally important to grow professionally. Discussions with colleagues and seniors is key to improve and clarify the ideas and learn new concepts. If you think you are creative, innovative and have ideas, start putting them on paper. This will help you to further elucidate your ideas. I have learnt that whenever I start writing any new idea on paper, it helps me to think critically to learn about different aspects of that particular idea.
7- Join groups, take memberships
There are number of national and international development organisations who have created various groups for networking of development practitioners and professionals. You may join these groups through internet or by getting the membership of such forums. This will support both the new joiners and mid-level practitioner in networking and engaging with other like-minded people.

I am available at khalidsaif1@hotmail.com to share my experiences with the individuals who are keen to grow in the development sector.