The future of expats in a globalized development industry-Reflections on the Devex Career Forum

Last week DevEx’ Kate Warren shared three major points from the DevEx Career Forum:
1. The localization of aid movement has drastically changed career opportunities for both international and local national professionals.
2. The center of gravity in development continues to shift from the West into the South.
3. Organizations are looking at how they can restructure and staff their operations to achieve more value for money
These are very interesting trends with a seemingly clear overachieving overarching theme: The (expat) aid worker experience will become ‘cheaper’ – in terms of lifestyles, salaries and perks as well as a general ‘doing more with less’ theme.
But these three themes are also worth unpacking a bit more and putting them into a broader perspective of a global ‘development industry’ that not only comprises expat aid workers in large organizations, but different forms of services-from academic teaching and learning to service industries (e.g. entertainment and well-being) and professional services (e.g. international schools, counseling etc.).
These are important to keep in mind when we discuss broad shifts along phrases like ‘localization’ or moves into ‘the South’.
So let’s unpack the three themes a bit more:

Localization of aid: No passport, nationality or place of residency automatically creates ‘better’ aid workers
Most of us would probably agree that in many parts of the world local capacity is growing-often at an exponential speed. But we are also (still) looking at an often globalized elite- English-speaking women and men, often educated in ‘Western’ educational systems and in demand by many sectors that are likely setting up shop in the capital cities as economies grow and the new locations for global aid work become more interesting. The new young professionals may not receive the full package of international aid workers, but salaries will have to be competitive if you want to recruit good accountants, junior project managers, HR staff or ‘frontline’ staff that needs to travel a lot. The localization will also pose new challenges for HR and sub-sections of the development industry: If a 28-year old female ‘Northern’ citizen with excellent academic credentials, multicultural volunteering experience and experience in development applies and the other candidate is a 35-year old male ‘local’ citizen who has similar qualifications, but has basically spent the last 9 years in a relatively cozy program management job in the country next door without traveling much who is the ‘better’ candidate? And in addition to individual CVs and experiences new challenges will emerge as regional biases and local conflicts may replace older ‘colonial’ or ‘North-South’ attitudes and mindsets. But the field of global talent scouting will offer more opportunities for international aid workers.

The center of gravity: How ‘East’ in Bangkok, how ‘South’ is Nairobi and where is Istanbul?!
It may be the development anthropologist in me, but I find geographical terms quite fascinating in the context of the global development industry. It is true that some development shifts from the traditional hubs in OECD countries to emerging hubs in growing capital cities or world cities like Istanbul-a welcome development given how expensive London, Paris, New York or Geneva have become.
But development organizations also have a clear impact on culture, arts, business, tourism and many aspects of (urban) life as I have noticed time and again during my research in Kathmandu. For globally flexible professionals this is not the worst news as new opportunities for spouses, between assignments and outside the narrow confines of a regular development organization office job may be growing-from Think Tank and academic work, to art, culture, Yoga classes or boutique relocation advice. I predict that in many emerging centers of development gravity we will be witnessing a mix of globalized and globalizing activities from IT start-ups and media companies to INGO headquarters to international restaurants, niche travel agencies and small Think Tanks as development stretches traditional boundaries of ‘work’, ‘jobs’, ‘lifestyle’ and corporatized experience.

Value for money: More aid money for corporations in ‘the City’? More burnouts? More DIY aid?
The case of the ADB that Kate mentions in her post is a clear indication that ‘more with less’ will continue to be the mantra for many large organizations. But fewer (international/expat) positions may not necessarily mean fewer jobs in the development industry. Even today, large consultancy firms and other corporations are already managing substantial sums of ‘Northern’ aid budgets. Whether or not I like the trend probably deserves its own post, but my guess is that there will be more ‘non-traditional’ jobs related to international development.
At the same time, and related to the previous themes, is an increased focus on mental and physical well-being. Even is the development industry is essentially global, new challenges are likely to emerge when ‘local’ staff experiences stress, ‘regional’ aid workers return to their own challenging environment or ‘international’ staff experience stress because of lower salaries or fewer perks such as R&R and home vacations are cut back. This may create new ‘opportunities’ (I don’t want to sound too cynical, though…) for outside consultancies, but once it affects staff retention or recruitment we may see individualized contracts for example.

And maybe the decline of the traditional aid industry will foster a surge in DIY aid?

All in all, we have challenging times ahead of us-but it will be interesting to follow the global dynamics of the development industry between vocation, profession and lifestyle!

As always, thoughts, comments, links to studies are most welcome!

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