August 25, 2022

What qualities will make and break development professionals of the future?

Development is changing. Factors of economic disruption, geostrategic competition and growing inequality are becoming more complex by the day. Combine this with the changing structure of development organisations themselves, and the debate is turning to consider what exactly impactful development looks like.

In light of this, we asked the experts what to look out for in development professionals of the future. What qualities do they need to manage the complex challenges that development presents?

Rachel Mason Nunn
Senior Manager, Equity Economics

The development sector is often thought of as a Birkenstock-wearing, left-leaning group of nomads. But the stereotype might be due for a change.    

First, we must avoid seeing development as an ideology, with only one correct pathway to progress. Fragmentation of development thinking has intensified over the last decade. Economic and political ideology have a place, but as development professionals we should be guided by our own standard of evidence first and foremost, and not prescriptive models. It is possible to be values-driven without tightly holding onto a particular political or economic ideology. As a sector, being dominated by one end of the political spectrum will undermine our cognitive diversity. Flexible thinkers, driven by evidence, will make better choices.

Second, the idea that the development sector can’t be commercially-minded will only undermine our sustainability – and our impact. Impact-investment and for-purpose businesses are gaining momentum, proving that the private sector can and does create commercial and social dividends. So too can the not-for-profit sector. We should reject the idea that profit is bad, and instead embrace emerging business models. An appreciation of contemporary economics will help with this.

Third, we can’t be the digital laggards. Development has been slower off the digital transformation starting blocks (for example in digitising systems). An appreciation for how emerging technologies might transform development is essential. As is a willingness to help bridge the digital divide by taking risks and piloting new approaches on our programs.

Evidence-driven, commercially-minded, digitally-savvy development professionals are the way of the future.

Rachel is a social development specialist and strategic adviser at Equity Economics. Previously at the World Bank and EY, she has extensive experience in the development sector and is also the founder of one of Australia’s most successful not-for-profit podcasts, Good Will Hunters, tackling the big questions in aid. Rachel is a dear and long-time friend of the Lab, we enjoy her wealth of knowledge on strategy development, program design and implementation, and institutional strengthening.

Ellie Hewitt
Impact Research Manager, Oaktree

The development sector is constantly evolving, therefore development professionals of the future need to understand and respond to these changes to effectively combat the increasingly complex and important problems we face. 

The global community are at a junction where the traditional non-profit sector meets the private sector. Development workers of the future will need to think innovatively, strategically, and be much more business-savvy to enact change that unites all sectors. Development workers will be made by their ability to deliver positive outcomes for all stakeholders, offering a clear return on investment at a social, developmental, environmental, and economic level. 

As localisation initiatives increase, foreign development workers will need to constantly step back and empower locals to take the reins, practising humility and actively shifting power. They will be made by their ability to be acutely aware of the ongoing impacts of colonisation and the need to be culturally responsive whilst creating positive change. 

With the stakes as high as ecological devastation, development workers need to consider the multi-dimensional impact of their work. Professionals will be made by their ability to be reflective. We must learn from our past mistakes and do things differently than we have done before. 

And finally, given that positive and sustainable development is a slow process, impatience could be the downfall of many development professionals. But on the other hand, there is an opportunity to harness this attribute for good - taking drastic and immediate action to utilise all of the tools and resources we already have that can end global poverty in all forms.

Ellie leads youth organisation Oaktree’s Impact Research team and is currently exploring how the pandemic has impacted youth in the region. With an educational background in international and community development and experience working in more than 10 for-purpose organisations, Ellie thinks about development from many angles. At the Lab, we know Ellie to be passionate about shifting the dial on equality and equity by making justice, development, and social change everybody's business.

Anna Gibert
Independent Development Consultant

The cardinal quality that will make or break development professionals of the future is whether they grasp the implications of this fundamental reality: no significant and sustainable process of social change ever happened through ‘professionals’ managing ‘development projects’. Martin Luther King did not have a Program Logic; Mahatma Gandhi did not have a MEL framework; Emmeline Pankhurst did not track the progress of the suffragettes against End of Investment Outcomes. Yet so much of the ‘development industry’ has bought into the illusion that externally devised, professionalised and projectised conceptions of how change happens will determine economic and social transformation in foreign, sovereign countries. 

Development occurs when intrinsically motivated local leaders mobilise coalitions that push against the status quo – often at considerable personal risk – to delegitimise existing systems of power and resource allocation and legitimise others. This is not a 9-5 check-in/check-out job; this is the deeply personal passion and long-term commitment of reformists who are prepared to contest the deep-seated politico-cultural reasons behind why poverty and inequality continue to flourish.

But if external development professionals – those sitting in donor agencies and international consultants like myself – realise that they are not the main players in others’ nation-building processes, an opening for a useful role appears. Because then their eye will be trained on identifying the local, organic green shoots of reformist action – in communities, churches, schools, government departments – and they will be ready to better direct donor resources and expand the influence of these real drivers of change.

Anna has over two decades of experience in development in the Indo-Pacific region. One of the many hats she wears is Strategic Support for the DFAT-funded Vanuatu Skills Partnership and Balance of Power initiatives, using her flair for facilitating locally-led reform, leadership incubation, and driving gender equality. At the Lab, we enjoy Anna for her enthusiasm, wealth of expertise and deep commitment to changing how development is done.

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