Our Analysis

Development Professionals of the Future

November 2022

In early November, the Lab brought together Pacific leaders, experts, Government, academics and analysts for a Situation Room to explore how our sector’s professionals can be fit for a future of increasingly complex challenges and changing development dynamics.

What inspired this? The Lab’s Intel question: 'What will make or break development professionals of the future?' sent ripples through the development community, so we wanted to dig a little deeper.

Why does this matter? Foreign Minister Penny Wong and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, have both openly addressed the development deficit in Australia’s development program. There is a new development policy on its way, as well as an internal departmental capability review.

Now is the time to not only think about the development capabilities we’ve lost, but to consider what capabilities we’ll need in the future to deal with the region’s challenges.

The Lab’s Situation Room combines ambition and pragmatism. Our starting point is that development is going to have currency for the Australian Government for the next decade, but the practice of development, how it is done and by whom is overdue for renovation. So while the concept of development writ large is not going anywhere, its practice is changing at a rapid pace. It’s about time we paused to consider what development professionals in the region and at home need to be as effective as possible.

Which brings us to our latest Situation Room, where we pose questions on the minds of the development community to a group of experts in the know.  Here’s what they said.

Bridi Rice
Bridi Rice

Question One | 'Screw technical knowledge, development is ultimately practical'. True or false?

'Have something to bring to the table!'

This question split the room. There was consensus that solid technical skills were essential for development professionals. Government participants generally placed a higher value on technical expertise, whereas Pacific leaders and development practitioners stressed that having technical skills to the exclusion of relationship skills and a 'can do' attitude was a recipe for a disaster. The room was stumped on the question of whether or not such ‘soft skills’ could be taught and kept revisiting this through the night.

Development Professionals of the Future

Question Two| What's distinguishing our new generation of development professionals?

'These Australians training to become diplomats are questioning what is their place and whether development is harmful.'

The Lab had recently co-convened the DFAT Diplomatic Academy’s Understanding International Development graduate intake course and we had a number of special guests in the room. Pacific leaders and development practitioners were inspired by what they’d seen: the next generation of diplomats and development professionals they encountered were keenly aware of their place in the world and the role development plays in the region. They described these grads as grappling deeply with what it means to be a bilateral donor amidst calls to decolonise aid, reckon with Australian Indigenous identity and the changing geopolitical landscape. A cheeky point was made that the Department might be better off if these young movers wielded a little more power.

Question Three | We run our humanitarian deployees through RedR training, but there's no baseline qualification for folks deploying into development situations. Is this a problem?

'Development isn't just some technical skill to be taught. It's a way of thinking, a different way of looking at things.'

There was a resounding ‘hell yeah’ on this. Participants agreed that individuals engaged in social change and development support had no place operating overseas without a baseline understanding of things like locally-led development practice and the role of religion and family in the region. A deep commitment to learning languages was high on the hit list of capabilities needed as well.

But deciding who the targets for pre-deployment training are (beyond the usual suspects of Government and development organisation staff) needed some thought. Development professionals of the future do not look like those of now – they will include multinational and localised workforces, people working in the philanthropic arms of corporates and a range of other actors who don’t identify as belonging to the international development community.

It looks like there’s some exciting stuff to explore here.

Development Professionals of the FutureDevelopment Professionals of the Future

Question Four | You're the CEO of a development organisation - what's your workforce wish list for 2025?

'There are huge positives to bringing together different disciplines. Foreign policy is a different way of thinking and seeing the world.'

The CEOs in the room sighed and agreed that more high quality staff were always top of the wish list. But beyond that, the room wanted well-rounded individuals, diversified workforces and people with the ability to work through the interplay between development and international relations. Government was concerned about attracting high calibre individuals whilst the NGOs and implementing partners in the room were more concerned about retention.

Question Five | It's not worth having a development industry capability plan. True or false?

'There's so much focus on the budget. But all of that money isn't going to go anywhere without thought and planning.'

Should Government establish a development industry capability plan? Defence has one, so why not? This question was a doozy. For some participants, the idea of cementing Australian development organisations at the centre of an ‘industry’ plan at the very time the world is looking to devolve power to local and regional organisations was an unacceptable level of hypocrisy. But for most, it was a no-brainer that the Government needs to forecast the development capability the region needs and signal to local and regional development organisations where its emphasis through the development budget will be. That way, Australia can be a high-impact and effective development partner. Most seemed comfortable with a Development Capability Plan or similar, which covered Australian and offshore capability, research, future skills and innovation. There was a firm view that this should grapple deeply with localisation and the value of locally led development at its core.

Development Professionals of the Future

Question Six | it's 2030 and you're interviewing potential graduates to work in development. What's the one skill that will put them above others?

'The next generation have to be much more comfortable with power.'

For regional leaders, the answer was being able to speak the local language. Those grappling with the big philosophical issues wanted people who were comfortable with big thinking and big ideas. Why? Because development is having a renaissance of a magnitude not seen since the days of the Marshall Plan. Development is the 'canary in the coalmine' – the level of interest shown in it by State leaders a proxy indicator for major global tipping points and we are approaching one now. For participants who agreed with this, there was consensus that development professionals of tomorrow must be interdisciplinary by nature, embrace complexity as part of their DNA and be ready to rapidly shift the current practices of the development industry.

Development Professionals of the Future