In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings, and it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just overestimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?

Is today’s emphasis on disruption a passing trend? Are we overestimating its significance? Tweet This Quote

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There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.

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We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business. Tweet This Quote

It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I would argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’ (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).

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Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people bypass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?

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So, what was missing? Well, I would have loved to see a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. I’d also love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.


This first appeared on Ken’s blog. You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • Victoria Geissler

    It is interesting to find out what development professionals think tools, skills and approaches the next generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. The results say that the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative, and constantly learning new skills. I agree with that, however, I would disagree with professionals thinking disrupters will not take a significate role in the future. I think that disrupters will play a significant role to our future by creating new business models, increasing positive impact to society, and creating new services and products.

    I also thought that it was on point thinking social entrepreneurs are predicted to work on global development. I would agree that resourcefulness, implementation and execution ability, flexibility and adaptability, ability to work in teams, and empathy are important. I do however think having the ability to have change making skills, collegiality, and identify pattern change is important and we learned about the importance of these skills in our field study this past weekend.

  • Meg Brindle

    Thank you, Ken – thoughtful/great review of the Devex survey. The survey reminds me a bit of the blind man and the elephant story. If a man feels the leg of the elephant, he thinks it is like a trunk; if he/she feels the trunk, it is perceived as a hose, and still another could feel the tail and believe the elephant is an automatic fly swatter. While the analogy is inadequate, as development professionals are not blind, they are products of their own training and environments. In the US and UK, the survey set is likely to emerge from well-intended, but bureaucratic cultured organizations. Couple that with the human tendency to want to replicate that which we know, one can see why disrupters were under-rated. Finally, the term disrupter could be misunderstood.
    I agree with your analysis and the comments by Victoria Geissler – the survey set is not inclusive of aid recipients. Given that disrupters are under-rated in this survey suggests we need MORE, rather than fewer disrupters in the future, eh?

  • Lisa Whitridge

    I agree that empathy is critical to working with others and perhaps equally listening skills. i do not know the term disrupters. Can someone clarify that for me? I also agree that flexibility and adaptability are important regardless of the fact that technology has forced these skills upon all business sectors.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks for the early comments, everyone.

    @victoriageissler:disqus – I agree on the issue of disruption. I’d say the development sector of today is just a little nervous of a future it doesn’t understand, and one where it may become less and less comfortable. We’re already seeing innovations around direct payments to communities in natural disasters, and this is already being resisted – primarily because it doesn’t work politically for so many larger development/aid efforts. With the question of social entrepreneurs, this is why I wrote my recent book – see http://www.reluctantsbook.com

    @lisawhitridge:disqus – This question also came up on Twitter. The report doesn’t really go into much detail on how it defines each of these ‘types’. For me a disrupter is someone who likely comes at the problem from the outside, with a totally new way of doing something, which revolutionises it. They don’t respect existing power structures, and aren’t afraid to shake things up.

    @meg_brindle:disqus – I totally agree with your comments (I’m glad you liked the article). I see ‘traditional’ development as being under threat, and this is a good thing. We always demand innovation, disruption and competition everywhere else – let’s have some in aid. See my book link in my comment above to Victoria – you might find it interesting, too.