Jack of all trades, master of one

Calling all generalists! Do you know a bit of economics? Know some social science / cultural anthropology? Do you have any experience in project management? What about marketing (proposal writing)? If you can answer yes to all of the above, have a love for adventure (albeit adventures that mainly happen in an office somewhere) and a desire to do ‘good’ then Development / Conservation needs you.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but, in development too much knowledge can be equally dangerous: specialists have a tendency to see the world through the lens of their specialism. A while ago a commenter on this blog complained of too many economists in development and not enough political / social scientists. I think we need all of them, but in small doses. We will always need specialist advice to help frame our thinking, but we shouldn’t get driven by it.

To take the example of economics: macro-economics can tell you a lot about what is happening (in broad generalities) but little about what levers to pull to change things. For that you need much more detailed micro-economics / behavioural studies to understand the interplay of different incentives. Apparently irrational behaviour is usually rational: you just have to find the right perspective to understand it. But it is true that too much development seems to be informed by top notch macro-economics and not enough bottom up thinking. A case in point: the patron saint of  the much criticised Millennium Villages Project is a macro-economist of impressive credentials (Poland, Bolivia etc) but no real field experience.

But the point of this post  is not too trash economists: a community development project which doesn’t pay any attention to basic economics is as unlikely to succeed as one driven exclusively by it. Tropical conservation often suffers from a similar problem: driven almost exclusively by biologists when most of the problems of tropical conservation are related to human behaviour. E.g. studying the behavioural ecology of gorillas might be fascinating, but is unlikely to lead to any useful insights to aid in their conservation. (An exception can be made for rare, under-studied species which are critical to project success.)

I have a Master’s degree which allowed for a certain amount of pick and mix in the eligible modules, but not as much as I think is ideal. Moreover, many of my classmates picked courses more focused on conservation biology to the exclusion of other disciplines. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a similar problem in straight development Master’s degrees with student choice, driven by romantic misconceptions over what development is about, leading to sub-optimal results and a bias in skill sets that eventually feeds through into project development: course conveners should take note.

So, if you’re a student interested in working in development project management then I urge you to learn at least a bit about as many different subjects as possible. It is likely to be more useful than a high degree of specialism, and eclecticism is more fun any way!

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by c-sez on February 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Spot on. And if you’re addressing students (grad or undergrad), it might also be worth adding…. while you’re getting that masters in intl development, go find a job that lets you ** manage something **. A Dominos. A bookstore. A coffee shop. ANYTHING. Manage people. Deal with under performers. Build teamwork. Count and reconcile cash takings. Order supplies. Understand basic end-of-month financial reports. Be held accountable to your customers, your staff and your boss. All this will be of stupendous benefit in a way that sitting at home spending 120% of your available time cranking out A++ papers on the post-WWII history of development theory will not.


    • Excellent point. Management is about the most important skill you will ever learn if you want to be effective in development. The best way to learn it? On the job! And by being managed yourself, seeing how other people succeed (or fail) in it.


  2. I agree with MJ about the limits of specialisation and with c-sez about gaining hands-on, real life experience. From my experience as a researcher at IDS/Sussex in the UK, I would like to add two points: First, in addition to disciplinary knowledge, it is (or at least will be) more important to engage with interdisciplinary knowledge of how to approach a problem in development and how to build reflective and reflexive attitudes and mindsets, rather than getting stuck in a ‘economists vs. social scientists’ debate. As Robert Chambers outlines in a very interesting paper (http://www.ntd.co.uk/idsbookshop/details.asp?id=933), there is a bigger picture of how the development industry works and how these behavioural patterns lead to ‘unperceiving poverty’ and missed opportunities to learn innovative and sustainable ideas from ‘poor people’. It seems more acceptable that a, say, anthropologist learns about econometric models than an economist attending a creative writing class. These are just examples, but they highlight the need to build reflective capacities for action-research or development management that challenge disciplinary boundaries. Second, from an academic point of view, specialisation is an important feature that current academia enforces-especially in post-graduate, i.e. PhD, research, as I have written in my latest blog post ‘Should I be doing a PhD in international development?’ (http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2011/01/should-i-consider-phd-in-international.html)


  3. I agree with C-sez. Exactly.

    Like the post.


  4. In addition to being a competent manager, a good generalist requires the skills to see what is living in communities that is authentic and that has potential, accompanied by a deep respect for what is local and indigenous. A subtlety of practice to give thoughtful and careful support where it is needed is sometimes the most difficult thing to learn.

    This requires that development practitioners, including donors, pay more attention to the concept of organisation itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organisation and social movements. There may be a growing body of professional organizational development facilitators in the sector, but I believe that it is the generalist discipline that needs to be more widely learnt and become more central to the practice of the sector as a whole, not just a small professional enclave.


  5. Posted by anthopper on March 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Really like your point. Avoiding Siloing seems incredibly important. Sometimes adopting a new method has unneccessary costs for people too invested in prior expertise, but the oft mentioned generalist is able to flex and mix an match. Anyways, great post.


  6. This is music to my ears as a historian working as a Project Manager in “Development”… I worked with a lot of engineers in rural Tanzania that wanted to “lift people out of poverty” and apply a “fix” to all the problems. “They don’t have water. Let’s dig a bore hole” without accounting for the myriad social factors that could inhibit such an undertaking (Farmers clash with pastoralists water use)

    Especially as a manager it is imperative to keep oversight and then employ the right type of specialists for the right type of problems. Good post!


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