Year One of Working in International Development: Key Takeaways
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
An overview of my first year working in International Development, including an insight into key events and conferences I've attended along the way.
By Paula Owino
“I dream of the realisation of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent." - Nelson Mandela
When I decided to embark on a career in African Development, these sentiments by the late Nelson Mandela aptly captured my views regarding the continent. After one year of working within the international development sector, not only do I still strongly believe in these sentiments but I am also more aware of the challenges we face in order to achieve sustainable socio- economic development across the continent.
Through attending various high level development focused events this past year, I have been able to engage with key debates, issues and themes regarding how best to tackle all things Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) oriented. Aside from being one of the major buzzwords within the international development community at the moment, the SDGs are a set of 17 global goals set by the United Nations in 2015 to be achieved by 2030. Coined as the ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’, the SDGs are inherently multidisciplinary as well as extremely ambitious. Given this, it is easy to understand why institutions and organisations are interested in giving their opinion on how best to implement the SDGs.
As the representative of 1303 members from across the world, The Africa Club at the London Business School were keen to have their say on the topic. In partnership with the Royal African Society, Dalberg Group, Uhusiano Capital and Devex, the Africa Club hosted the ‘SDG Zero Hunger: Driving Agricultural Transformation in Africa’ on Thursday the 13th of September 2018. The aim of the evening was to bring together companies, investors and development actors to unpack the SDGs and their relevance (if any) to business and investors working in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) today.
It was clear to me that the decision to focus on the SDGs and their impact on the agricultural sector in SSA specifically, was important for the wider development debate for two main reasons. Firstly, more than 32% of the continent’s GDP comes from the agriculture sector. Secondly, the agriculture industry accounts for two-thirds of livelihoods in SSA. A large amount of these are smallholder farms. Therefore, the potential in developing the agriculture sector in SSA is crucial. Frequently used examples of ‘success stories’ can be seen with the South East Asian Tigers, each of whom managed to harness the agriculture sector to promote economic growth through the creation of forward and backward linkages.
The panellists included; Harries Davies, Senior Associate, Ceniarth Family Office , Jean-Marc Debricon, General Manager, Alterfin and Marina Garcia Investment Manager, AgDevCo. Moderated by Aly-Khan Jamal, Partner and Global Head of Agriculture and Food Security at Dalberg.
Whilst a number of key issues were put forward to the panel such as the importance of investing for impact versus value creation; the panel spent a significant amount of time evaluating the extent to which we can use the lens of agriculture to achieve the SDGs .Kicking off the debate, Mariana Graca confidently stated that SDGs are embedded in everything AgDevCo are doing on the continent. Mariana placed on emphasis on the fact that AgDevCo aim to deliver from a developmental lens. That is, every opportunity or investment that is brought to table must tick boxes that link smallholder farms to job creation.
Similarly, Jean Marc explained that the main driving factor at Alterfin is investing in rural microfinance, enabling local communities to develop sustainably. Harry Davies addressed the question by highlighting that Centriath Family Wealth consider sustainable energy access as well as financial inclusion to naturally align with the SDGs.
From the private companies represented in the room, it was clear that each have the SDGs implemented as an integral part of their programs and operations. Statistically, there is an overwhelming amount of data that highlights the importance of private sector investment including economic growth and poverty reduction.
However, evidence also suggests that more than private investment is needed in order to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Indeed, for most countries in SSA to make progress on all SDGs buy in from civil society and the government is just as crucial as it is from the private sector. A major obstacle of this ideal scenario stems from the lack of government resources, accountability and favourable business environments.
The necessity of a friendly business environment should not be understated. Policies that encourage business activities not only allow private sector actors to thrive but also create incentives for investors to continue investing in order to work towards achieving the global goals. The problem to achieving this arises because a significant number of developing countries score extremely poorly against the key development indicators. These include but are not limited to poverty, health, corruption and education.
Keeping this mind, I was thrilled to be invited and subsequently attend the World Bank Youth Summit in Washington DC on the 3-4 December 2018. The theme of the summit was “Unleashing the Power of Human Capital”. Defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as “the importance of people – their abilities, their knowledge, and their competences – to economic growth”. At its core, human capital is essentially about intentional investment in a country’s population.
The two day international conference focused on several factors that contribute to the development of human capital. As Senior Director of education at the World Bank, Jamie Saavedra spoke about the importance of education. His arguments were well presented and placed emphasis on the fact that education will continue to determine development status of every community globally. Withstanding this however, we are currently experiencing a “learning crisis” wherein we have an expansion of education but of all the children attending school 50% are not proficient in basic level Math and English.
The second topic of discussion that captured my interest significantly revolved around the role of technology in aiding the development of human capital. It has become a well known fact that primary school children today are going to be employed in industries that have not been created yet due to the pace of technological advances. What is crucial to this particular debate is that women and girls are not excluded from these initiatives. More effort needs to be made to encourage girls to take part in STEM subjects.
Engaging with these global issues at the World Bank headquarters added an immense level of gravity to the conversations I was having throughout the summit. Whilst efforts are being made towards achieving the SDGs we need to cognizant of the fact that for example, quality education is a necessity rather than an option and that gender equality across all sectors should be the norm.
Admittedly, I tend to be very sceptical about conferences focused on the developing world taking place everywhere else except the developing world. However, I felt the Youth Summit did a good job at ensuring that the attendees were as representative as possible. Resultantly, the debates were almost always informed, diverse and rooted in real life experiences.
As my first year working in this industry comes to a close , I can confidently say that I thoroughly enjoyed all the opportunities I was exposed to including the two I wrote about here. African development specifically is still where my interests lie and where I hope I can continue make a contribution to. Moving forward, I want to focus more on how to increase government buy in as well as further understand how governments can make better sustainable policy environments.