For a limited time I'll answer questions from students, and encourage other long-term professional aid workers here in AidSource to do the same...

Ask away!

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Dear J,

Boxers or briefs?

It's one of those days en Geneve!

You know you shouldn't ask things unless you really want to know the answer... :D

You're a piece of work, Rizvi.

And are those seriously my only two choices?


To quote the scholar Homer (J Simpson) when asked by his son,

Hey Homer, boxers or briefs?

(Pause for thoguht)


Hey J. 

Thanks for opening up this discussion. I am a Global Studies major gearing up for graduation this May. I realize that I am still in need of skill and knowledge before entering the aid world. I’m looking into a MSW or possibly a dual degree in Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration. (The MSW would be macro focused. I’m very interested in development, organizing, planning,  policy, program evaluation and administration.) This question may be very specific but – how have you seen these degrees (MSW & MPA) useful or not useful for aid? What are your impressions of these programs in relation to aid and development?

Do you have any other suggestions in gaining skill, wisdom and expertise instead of pursuing grad school right out of undergrad? 

Thanks again for opening this discussion up!

Hey Melanie,

I'm going to direct you to this page for links to more in-depth discussions of what degrees are good, not good, worthwhile, etc. 

My general impression as a frequent hiring manager is that a very wide range of Masters degrees out there do more or less the same thing, which is essentially to land you your first "real job." My MA is in cultural anthropology, but for the majority of my career I have done exactly the same work as peer colleagues who held Masters Degrees in economics, administration, agriculture, even public health. Some degrees obviously help you focus on specific areas of the aid industry. But I guess my advice would mostly be to just not over-think it. Get a MA in something. Preferably something that is clearly and obviously related to the aid/development field. 

Many people take a year or two off to try different things out between undergrad and grad (I did, and it's how I got into humanitarian work). Some variation on the theme of internships, volunteer work, or a low-level "real job" is the way that most people go. And that's fine. I'd give two specific pieces of advice, though:

1) Intentionally limit yourself to no longer than 2 years. It's very easy to just keep extending out in the field, shuffling around low-level positions, having fun, etc., only to wake up one day to find yourself a Master's Degree-less 40-something being supervised by fresh-faced 20-somethings who have a fraction of your experience but who do have that MA. That's not my situation, but I've seen it. Trust me, you don't want to be in that situation. Spend a couple of years out wherever, getting a handle on the humanitarian world, but then get back and continue your education.

2) Resist the temptation to start your own NGO or to take a really senior-sounding job with a lame little fly-by-night NGO. You want to learn in the context of real supervision and mentoring from a competent practitioner. Most people know before ever going that "the field" is fun, "rewarding", etc. Don't spend your time between undergrad and grad confirming what you already know. You want to learn about the aid industry, how it works, get a sense for where you see yourself fitting into it, and gain clarity for what you want to actually do in the aid industry. This more than anything else will help you choose the best degree program for you (see above points).

a few quick tips..

a degree in "international development" is good but it's really quite general. if you specialize in a field more focused, you'll be better placed in the market. this, of course, means you should really be committed to the field you're interested in.

(1) learn key qualitative skills, particularly data programs

(2) ag is a growing field if you're interested in it.

(3) leverage the non-paying/internships you've had; it's about how you're able to transfer skills used in one position to others.

good luck!

Hi Melanie,

To directly answer your question, I have definitely seen the MPA qualification to be in demand, can't speak to the MSW but it certainly sounds useful. ;)

I echo what others have said about getting a bit of work experience (in the field if possible, but an HQ job is also good!) before going into a Master's programme.  Another option is to look for programmes with a work component - I think this is possibly the best way to get both an advanced degree AND work experience that will give you real skills that will allow you to be competitive in the job hunt.

I work for an organization that got approached to do a "send-discarded-soap from hotels-to-Africa" (need to be vague about which country) program, not unlike the Global Soap Project. I know that was a bit of a fiasco and received a lot of criticism, and we'd be doing some things differently - processing the soap in the African country, for example, and creating jobs where Global Soap Project doesn't. Shipping would happen in the spare space of other projects' shipping containers, and would still be cheaper than buying soap in country. We'd sell the raw material to people who make soap already, so that we wouldn't be putting people out of business. 

I just can't shake the feeling that something's still wrong with the sustainability of it. Soap is still available readily in this country, though it is more expensive than in Uganda. Right now, this country's soap is selling at about 3-5x what soap imported from China is selling, so the soap market is struggling anyway (mostly due to the price of palm oil being too high). But I'm not sure that the best solution would be to import this raw soap - maybe rather, find cheaper local solutions (coconut oil?) in country to help soap makers lower their prices?

The other issue is that the approacher wants whatever final soap maker to get the raw material for cheap in exchange for giving some away free (or really cheap) to school, which also doesn't feel right or sustainable.

I have the final sign off as to whether this program happens with our organization or not. If not, there's a 75% chance it will go to another organization, and a 25% chance it won't happen at all. I'm struggling with this one and would love any advice. Thank you J!

Ok, so I am neither J not an expert in soap-making, but if I were in your place, I might consider some of the following:

- Tell the hotels that if they want to reduce their waste, they should switch to liquid soap, and if they want to do CSR, they should look to support sustainable community development initiatives. Or even better, how about they buy soap from Africa and contribute to job creation?  Either way, "Africa" is not a dumping ground for western waste products and charities do not exist to enable hotels to have a cheap and easy out to a problem that is essentially caused by wasteful business practices. I echo your icky feeling about that, and it doesn't seem either rational or sustainable. Plus the free soap to schools thing seems like a weird conditionality to me and it doesn't seem right to put the burden of that on the soap-makers, when there is cheap soap available locally anyway.

- Have you done an analysis to identify whether the real issue affecting soap-makers is the price of inputs? If it is, are there ways that problem can be addressed locally, for instance if soap-makers came together in a cooperative could they get cheaper inputs by buying in bulk? If the cooperative can't produce soap at a low enough price to be sold to locals, can it be sold in hotels or shops in the capital? Can the group make enough to meet the demands of a local hotel or have a consistent supply in a supermarket? COULD locally-produced soap be sold to the hotels that initiated this project in the first place (in the gift shop or something?)?  If the issue is not the price of inputs, what else could help? (Access to markets, small business training, savings & loan training?)

- Coconut oil works and makes lovely soap. In East Timor there are several long-running cooperative groups producing coconut oil soap. I think the base ingredient is concentrated caustic soda which they buy in bulk. The soap is mostly sold to tourist shops, hotels, restaurants and in supermarkets catering for an expat market, because they can afford it, and a limited amount is exported to fair trade shops in other countries. They partner with local weavers to make cute "gift packages" too.

I dunno, maybe I'm just a cynic but this doesn't feel right to me.  But that's just my 2 cents! What do your staff & local programme managers think?

The point was/is to bring comments from other aid workers, like yourself :) So, perfect!

No easy answers here. Without knowing more of the details or the internal dynamics of your employing organization, this sounds like a classic case of "donor driven."

You're right to be concerned about the sustainability of it all, too. From what you've described it's not sustainable. 

What you can do really depends on the political economy of your employer. If possible, the best thing would be to give the approacher a solid "no" along with a clear explanation of why. Maybe they will simply go with another, less scrupulous organization (they're easy enough to find). But at least they'll have no excuse for not knowing that their idea is a bad one and why.




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