Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Applicable Learning Experience

     University is often criticized for being too based on theory without any practical skill sets being developed. I often feel that this is true and we need to remember as future development practitioners that we will need tenable experience to be used by NGO's, governments, firms, or even as entrepreneurs. I've recently written a paper detailing the aspects of a development project that has recently been completed, analyzing how it has used development tools, LogFrames, economic and statistical models, built educational institutes, and fostered the growth of civil society. It is a combined African Development Fund / African Development Bank project, took the environment, citizens, and vulnerable peoples into consideration and appears to have achieved its goal of alleviating poverty (46%-40%). The project, is a 200km road in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. After studying the facets of the project in detail I've become more aware of what I can and cannot do, and feel all the wiser because of it.

     Before we consider the flaws of the many large regional institutions, we need to realize what skills we have to bring to the table. Do we want to fly across the world to 'help' dig boreholes or build schools we aren't trained to build; or do we want to contribute to projects that have concrete results in lower poverty rates? I'm not suggesting we all lace up our dress shoes and apply at regional banks to act as a consultants, but I do believe we must work where our skills can be used best, and where we can learn from experienced practitioners. I personally know where I will be able to apply my skills best and how I want an organization to train me; it is something that has been gained through experience and everyone will be at that stage eventually. While we don't have professional development classes, we have tools at our fingertips to provide us with information about what it is really like in the development world. Speak to your development professors who have years of experience and can tell you about their successes and mistakes: this is where the real strength of our program lays.

    We all cannot build roads by ourselves, nor can we build schools or provide advanced agricultural assistance, but we can learn from those around us and in a (hopefully) short period of time will be able to understand the many aspects of a project or program. Where are your strengths? if you don't know yet, don't be worried; it'll come to you. How do you want to be used? I suggest just make sure you get used in such a way that you gain maximum benefit.


African Development Fund, Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport through the Public
Works Department (DTP). (2009). Project Completion Report (PCR)

Bendjebbour, A. World Bank. Africa Development Fund. Mauritania Trans Maghreb
road project: Akjoujt-Atar
: 2000. Print.

Traore, B., Leke, M., Joottun, L., & Nzau-Mutetea, G. K. Infrastructure Department,
Central and West Regions. (2003). Appraisal report: Rosso boghe road
construction project
. Islamic Republic of Mauritania: African Development Fund.


  1. Thanks for this great post. I often get frustrated when I hear people encouraging us to work on our weaknesses, but I am more of the opinion that we should 'go put our strengths to work' , to use the words of Marcus Buckingham from his book entitled just that. Like you say, we all have skills to contribute. I also sometimes get the feeling that 'international development' is just seen as, as you suggested, building a school or helping to construct a well, and that people lose sight of the vastness of the issue and the breadth of ways in which we can help.

  2. Man, this was an awesome post. You are so correct it's unbelievable. While of course, I'm sure we would all love to be out in the field actually building these roads and seeing results, it is simply not practical for us to being doing this. I'm not one hundred percent sure what my strengths are and look forward to trying to find them out in the placement. One thing is for sure, I will give it my absolute best in whatever I do.
    Bailey brought up an excellent point there, International development is NOT only about building a school. I am personally interested in sustainable agriculture and even though it's not a traditional development exercise (teaching english, building a school or a well) it is definitely just as important than anything else. If not more with the amount of subsistence agriculturalists in the developing world (maybe a bit biased)
    Thanks for this man!

    1. Ya I'm interested in it as well; cities around the world are growing and need new and creative ways combined with traditional ways to have enough food. I have strong hopes that everyone in the program who actually sticks to it will learn a tonne, and gain some very useful skills in the meantime.

  3. Yes, but of course nothing is as easy as it seems and Occam's razor still leaves a sticky end. Weaknesses are good for inspiration, contrasting strengths and bringing them to mind. Strengths guide with hope, which is as important as inspiration. However, I agree with you on how misguided some projects out there are... the people behind it even imply that they work, before short or long term results are known in that particular country. Before the buildings collapse because of lack of architectural knowledge, or a culture slowly dies from a new language strangling an old. Strengths and weaknesses are words dreaded by some in job interviews, but they are both more important in endevours. You made me want to read that report... Any more examples of using strengths?

    1. Not too many Dasha, the report mostly just shows the difference between the anticipated results and the actual results. Its pretty impressive what a difference a paved road can make for an entire region.

  4. Great Post!

    I believe that it's important to use the time at university to explore our fields of interest by regularly taking steps back and scrutinize the benefits and importance of each course taken. In the heat of the moment many course objectives may seem irrelevant to what we as students believe that we'll be doing in the future, but perhaps that exact knowledge might get you the dream job further down the road.

    One can only gain real practical/professional skills outside the academic environment. While some courses perhaps offer some nitty gritty knowledge, most of them don't. And that's fine. It's just a matter of looking at things in a bigger perspective. In most cases, all experience - both inside and outside of the academic world - is equally important in the big spectrum.

  5. I think recognizing your strengths and weaknesses is an important part of learning. And I agree that we should work in fields that utilize our strengths. I also think that we ought to continually work on our areas of weakness, because we may need those skills in certain aspects of our lives and work. For instance, budgeting and statistics are not my favourite, and I can sometimes struggle to understand all the components... but I work on it, because I know that in the future, those skills will be needed if I am to be effective in my work as a development agent. I think if you look at the history of international development, you will see there are many examples of people who focussed too closely on their strengths, neglected areas of weakness, and their organizations failed - financial failure being the most widely broadcasted by media.

    1. yeah, that or corruption which is probably a result of financial failure as well. Just because you're not good at budgeting now doesn't mean you won't be in the future. Next year, when you're out there in the real world, noone will ask you an R2 value or a precise probability: but you could most likely give it to them anyways.