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!