What am I worth to ‘Development’?

Hello blog world, it has been a long time since we connected – more than one year to be precise. Some of you know that this is because I was completing a Masters degree in Gender and International Development and I got distracted with academics. After spending my year primarily learning about the social, economic and political challenges across ‘developing’ countries from a book, I find myself reflecting further about going from reading about ‘development’ to doing it. Some of the common challenges that cross people’s minds in this industry are about how to put policy into practice, or theory into action; how to translate complexity of a specific context into a generalizable statement, actionable item or evaluative indicator. However, I find myself asking a different set of questions and having different conversations with fellow recent graduates regarding our (individual) role within development. More specifically, these questions are about our worth as recent graduates to this industry. We have been handed a set of powerful analytical tools, introduced to networks, developed important skills that are both tangible and intangible, yet I find myself still asking what is it worth? What am I worth?

There has been a common thread circulating Twitter and Facebook that I have read consistently over the year that has put forward some key points: that the volunteer internships, the high levels of education, the indebtedness is not translating into rewarding or sustainable career paths for youth. This post highlights how the current economy continues to fail for our generation. This was made in response to generalizations made about how our generation expects too much. In reality, the barrier to entry or cost of building a career in relation to our ‘passion’ is very high, possibly too high. For example, it is said here that we might have very high levels of education, but this is insufficient to find a job in that respective field. This draws my attention to the opportunities and experiences I have had to build a career related to my passions and forces me to reflect on my privilege and what this will translate to for myself. The question I have distilled from this self-reflection is at what point do I as an individual demand more compensation for my efforts?

Volunteering and volunteer internships have likely always existed in development as non-profits and government, who are major actors in this field, have tended to have limited funding. Currently, this is also translating into private businesses that operate for profit, such as banks hiring marketing interns, which might make less sense. This is not to say that there is no money in development. On the contrary, development is a multi-billion dollar industry where many directors, project managers, researchers, and administrators get paid a market wage equivalent to that of the developed world.

To undergo this self-reflection, particularly now when I have decisions to make following graduation on where to go next, is critically important. In 2013, I was offered several volunteer positions, two of which were ‘prestigious’ positions within the United Nations. All of which I ultimately declined with the hope for something that compensated me alongside all the benefits of unpaid work, but that actually paid me enough to cover my living costs per month. At the beginning of the year I had adopted a new principle: I would no longer work for free (be the change you want to see right?). I decided this because I do believe I have given my fair share of free time – completed several unpaid internships, gaining the equivalent of a local person’s wage in a developing country and self-funding all education and training – but also because I do not want my privileges as an upper-middle class, white woman from the largest city in Canada and who holds dual passports to further distort the market that requires you to do all of this. I think this system is distorted not because volunteer work is not meaningful or useful for those without a set of skillsets or experience, but because it seems to be a requirement for those even with experience and skills to offer. I think something is wrong when a recent graduate who has volunteer experience and $35,000 worth of training is still expected to work for free or is paid less than minimum wage for the number of hours they work. Financial compensation is important, as it is a basic necessity of life. At what point is this industry exploiting or actually widening social and economic inequality? At what point are they working against the principles of equality and poverty reduction that they are striving for?

Reflecting on the work I was doing with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Ghana, I do believe I got as much out of my experience as I put into it. Although I got paid the equivalent of a local person’s wage in Northern Ghana (and not Canada), the opportunity benefitted me in ways that were not predictable. Today I still feel like I am growing because of my experiences from working with EWB. Extrapolating further, I do believe that colleagues there are choosing to volunteer their time or take a salary that is below minimum wage for the hours they work because they feel compensated individually in other ways. EWB benefits because without these volunteers, it would not be able to function and do the good development work that it does. But I have to ask further: how are we contributing to the broken or distorted system? The system that under pays its entry-level staff? Perhaps, EWB is not the best example because it is a non-profit and the level of underpayment is consistent across the organization from the CEO to the field staff to the administrator, which is uncommon across many NGOs. Even so, what are the implications of this on ‘development’? I do not think it a coincidence that the majority of people working in non-profits are women and that this further reinforces the gendered income inequality. Nor do I think that the percentages of minority ethnicities are sufficiently represented, which affects the quality of the work. There are many reasons and the topic is complex, but before I digress…

Positively, it has worked out for me. I declined the ‘prestigious’ volunteer internship opportunities with the UN and it turned into a well-paid job doing the exact same work that was instead on my own terms. Moreover the paying job has been alongside a strong mentor who has worked to develop my self-confidence and self-worth. It has worked out for me so far because of my hard work, my strategic decisions, principles, partnerships and most of all – my privilege. My mentor has helped me to dream big and remember that I am worthy of being compensated. But I cannot help to think of those who also are, but are not so privileged.

I have been offered a different position as a consultant for a large development programme doing work similar to what I was doing in Ghana, only this time I will be receiving consultancy-level wages. Despite my arguments to the contrary, the programme leadership has reminded me of what I am worth by refusing to under pay me, literally saying “do not underestimate what this is worth – what you are worth”. I see this as a good opportunity to take the well thought out and tested approaches of EWB and scale its impact, while at the same time giving back to EWB so they can continue to do the good quality work they prefer to do in other areas.

The aim of this blog post is to humbly, share reflections with fellow recent graduates, colleagues and to those working in development. I may not be living the dream yet (of having a stable job that I get excited about) but I am extremely happy and satisfied. I want to provide you with the same advice that was given to me: you are worth it! Remember to have principles, set standards that are unique to you and your needs, and stick to them. Dream big, and work hard!


4 thoughts on “What am I worth to ‘Development’?

  1. Siera : It was nice to hear from you . I am glad the last year went well in getting your degree. I have thoughts to your question.
    You are worth what you can do at the market price. Let me say from the start I don’t have volunteers in my organization they are paid or get common stock equity or both. However, if I was in an industry where I could get a volunteer to do as good a job or good enough vs. a paid person I WOULD ! In fact my legal role as CEO is fiduciary, which means I have a legal obligation to stockholders. NGO’s are no different. Your executive director has a fiduciary role to the mission of the NGO. If she ignores that and pays you money when she could have gotten a volunteer, she could lose her tax status in the country(s) the NGO has a protected non-profit tax status. I am not stating opinion, this is the law. If I paid you more than market value my stockholders can sue me for breach of fiduciary role.
    So knowing this what can you bring to the table? What can you add to the value of the company or NGO that a volunteer can’t? Does the company SEE the value? Will what you add pay for the money I am going to give you? YOU need to look hard at this. Some industries like education only pay administration a living wage. Fair? Maybe not but the people that donate to your cause, want to see their money go to whatever, not you.
    You have my deepest respect as a profession ,


    • Hi DJ,

      It is good to hear from you and I hope the businesses are going well. We should Skype soon to catch up as your work is always very interesting and I admire your entrepreneurial spirit and action. The points you raise are fair and quite true, however it is those points that I think are evidence of a distorted system. This idea that we are worth what the market price dictates is a foundational one, however if it was completely up to the market those with very few options would be abused or taken advantage of (in my opinion), which is why government’s try and set labour standards, minimum wages etc. And I would agree it is CEO’s fiduciary duty to its shareholders (I will take it a step further and say it is every member of the companies responsibility), but non profits are different. Non profits are different because they are not as concerned with profit as the bottom line and also the ‘shareholders’ or tax payer or donators have additional principles in mine which is usually a socially and or environmentally responsible one. I ask: At what point is this industry exploiting or actually widening social and economic inequality? At what point are they working against the principles of equality and poverty reduction that they are striving for? Volunteer Internships seem to be this little loop hole where they are not protected by the labour laws or regulations. I think it has been assumed that non-profits because of their social responsibilities would ensure the regulations, but is this the case?I guess what I am saying is – no, its not enough, particularly now when you have companies without these principles taking advantage of youth’s free labour..

      Moreover, it is reinforcing inequality where those who do not have the luxury or opportunity to get involved cannot and they cannot gain the experience or skills or qualifications needed to participate creating a distorted industry. You can see it happening…just look at the majority of those doing their PhD, working in non-profits or for a development firm, who are they? where are they coming from?

  2. I completely stumbled into your blog after sending you a message today, which means not only it’s a small world after all, it’s freakishly small if you are working on development issues. I was doing some research for my own blog post for World Pulse and here is what I have finally concluded:

    There are a lot of organisations that don’t have the money to hire full-time employees. If so, it’s fair to have volunteers/internships as long as they: a) receive local wage or living stipend; or b) are not expected to work as much or have the same responsibilities as a full-time employee.

    My main concern is that unpaid internships or volunteer work only favour those who can afford it, which is one of the reasons that the development/charity system has become so elitist. Not everyone can afford to spend six months at New York working for the UN with no income. Furthermore, this very twisted system of free employees is created in which those organisations don’t even have to contemplate employees wages or benefits into their budgets, when they should be the first advocating for employees’ rights and equal treatment.

    Having said that, I do believe volunteerism and giving some of your time to a cause is overall good, regardless of your chosen profession. I just don’t think it should to be a market.

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