A couple of years ago I was asked to take part in a panel for a careers session with some SOAS students. As a former student there I feel I can call it a former colonial college turned rage against the machine that got me here type of institution. I loved it there, despite some things I was uncomfortable with. But the idea of giving other people advice triggered a lot of thoughts and ended up summing up a variety of reflections. I found them useful for myself. They may or may not be interesting or helpful to you, and I sincerely doubt they’ll be both. But still. In case I’m wrong, here it is.
“As a male, stale and pale individual, there is nothing our sense of entitlement and fragile ego like more than to talk about ourselves. But as much as a 15 minute monologue about how I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten to, laced with self attribution bias on how it wasn’t related to my ascribed identities, I thought I’d cut to the chase. I chose the wrong career. It took me years to figure that out. It took me some more years to change that. That was only possible because of privilege. Since I started moving closer to what I’m most interested in, I’ve loved it. And to love your work is pure luxury. That said, my previous career has developed skills and insights that have been hugely valuable. I just wish I had learned them in a setting that was closer to my heart.
So let me share with you the reflections built of a thousand mistakes, misjudgements and mostly, a sizeable chunk of listening.
I’m going to share my top 3 tips on 3 important facets that I hope will be helpful to you: 1) entering the humanitarian sector, 2) what to take from from SOAS out into that world, and 3) what you need to know about evidence, Monitoring and Evaluation. And why 3 of 3? Well, because 3 is the magic number. Yes it is. It’s the magic number.
So, top tips on entering the humanitarian sector:
1) humanitarianism isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s barely good. If you want a warm fuzzy feeling, work in a kindergarten. It’s hard and valuable work. Working in this sector is hard because impact is limited by systemic, pervasive and resilient inequalities. Real, long lasting, structural change remains elusive if not impossible. It’s hard because you will work in the business of suffering. But working in this field is also easy because if you do your job well you may be able to limit the suffering of people, whether that’s 100 or 100,000 people – but prepare yourself that 10 may need to be enough.
2) you will never make tons of money, so don’t delude yourself with early retirement. If you’re going to work for probably 50 years now, don’t settle. Find a topic you’re passionate about and then do it. You won’t be able to distract yourself with financial gluttony so don’t use it as an excuse to make safe and dull decisions. If you can’t find a topic you’re passionate about, ask, look, try. Finding those flaming orbs of enthusiasm can be the hardest part in all this so devote time and energy to it. Find a way to express yourself without ego driving your need for attention, purpose or reinforcement. But equally, the strongest people I know have opinions and values that they regularly express. The strongest organisations I know have people who feel free to regularly express themselves and their opinions. But I see more than coincidence in the fact that NGO is only one letter different from EGO. So explore your passion and dampen your ego.
3) the development and humanitarian industries have a wicked sense of irony. Every progressive or contemporary narrative seems to operate within Newton’s 3rd law. To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Flexible funding, designed to support adaptive, needs based approaches was swiftly counteracted by commercialised payment by results contracts. The localisation agenda sought to better distribute power and funding to local and national NGOs. After years of banging the drum it only got traction just as donors became even more risk averse. These problems will frustrate you. If they dont, you’re in the wrong game.
With me so far? So as a SOAS student, here are some things you should consider:
1) You will be surprised at how clued up you are with contemporary topics. The humanitarian sector is overly centralised, disjointed and resistant to change. That means that even reading Robert Chambers will inform you about current issues of debate in the sector. But be acutely aware of your own ignorance. Most of you don’t know what it’s like to be a recipient of aid and most of you don’t now what it’s like to deliver it. If you haven’t done so, read Paulo Freire to get a taste for the complexity of what I’m referring to. And without getting all Donald Rumsfeld, get smart about how ignorant AND informed you are… and get comfortable with always being a bit of both.
2) Trust the skills and approaches, if not necessarily the rhetoric, that SOAS teaches you – question everything, because everything has multiple facets, everything changes and has various interpretations… everything has influence and is influenced. See it all as complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. Always. And be a feminist. Even if it wasn’t just the right thing to do, feminist theory teaches us how to interweave social sciences like no other discipline has gotten close to. I’m not sure I believe in many absolute truths, but if there was one thing that I thought dogma ever sat kindly with, it was feminism.
3) Find people who can give you career advice. On what you’d like to do, what you’d be good at, how to get into them. More generally, use the brains around you. Our sense of academic ego often drives us to isolationist and therefore reductionist perspectives. Share, discuss, argue and see the value in both agreeing and disagreeing – and do so with fellow students, academics, with anyone. You need only look at social psychology or recent political trends to understand that the conversational separation of ideals serves only to polarise people further into buckets of self satisfied ignorance.
And finally, to get more specific about careers, round 3…monitoring and evaluation:
1) At worst, M&E is for sociological accountants. At best it’s for practically minded social scientists with short attention spans. Find the right organisation and you will be responsible for ensuring that listening, learning and analysis drive the production of knowledge for open access, accountability to people other than donors, and the adaptation necessary to provide more meaningful humanitarian response. Find the wrong organisation and you’ll be bean counting stats and twisting graphs that placate northern governments and billionaire philanthropists.
2) Evidence has massive political significance. The type of Evidence that is politically compelling is often unrepresentative. Our challenge, as a specialism, is to find better ways to articulate representative insights. That’s the most challenging and infuriating part. It’s why we need more than just bean counters.
3) If you can marry rigour with practicality, M&E is a quick way into the sector, to advance within it – and a great way to hit a technically fused glass ceiling. M&E people become influential in NGOs or they become consultants and researchers. They don’t run NGOs. If that’s your ultimate goal, use M&E to get in, then nudge sideways before you’re type cast. The most influential representatives of this sector form a sadly familiar little circle of people. Find yourself a decent sized organisation, ideally one you respect, and just get in. Once you’re inside you will have far greater opportunities to transition towards work that floats your boat. In the meantime, learn languages, get experience abroad and get some time either in a big or medium sized organisation where sideways moves are possible. But perhaps only do that if the most interesting jobs don’t work out or if it’ll get you closer to them.
I am happy to share more about me and how I’ve gotten here, and I’ll be around after for questions. But I hope you find some semblance of perspective or utility in what I’ve said. In return I only ask that you try to find a way to deliver meaningful work now within a system that allows for it in the future. Good luck.”