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!