Working in development economics: using finance skills to combat poverty

An introduction to an area to consider if you're interested in economics, the finance world, and development work

Interested in finance and poverty reduction? Here's an explanation of how they're coming together in the development sector, and what you have to do to get a job in this competitive field.

A brief history

International development emerged in the years following the Second World War. In 1913, there were just 59 independent states in the world but by 1950 there were 89.

As colonies gained independence, the poverty divide between the industrialised powers of Europe and North America and the largely undeveloped rural economies of Africa, Asia and South America on the other became obvious.

As the influence of a powerful US came to dwarf that of Britain and other European nations, it took the lead in determining development policy. The nation hosted the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference that was instrumental in the creation of two major development organisations: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Four years later, in his inauguration speech, President Harry Truman noted: "For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering [of the world's poor]."

For the next 20 years efforts to do so focused on stimulating the GDP growth of the world's poorer countries, mainly through aid and government loans.

However, in the late 1960s and 1970s it was realised that grassroots development should be promoted. The concept of human capital came to the fore, leading to investment in education, training and healthcare.

Results have been mixed. While certain areas of the world, among them south east and north east Asia, have enjoyed healthy economic growth and poverty reduction in the past 50 years, the economies of other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia, have remained stagnant.

The regions' differing fortunes can be attributed largely to the ability of countries such as China, Malaysia and South Korea to develop value-added industries, producing cars, electronics and other consumer goods. Meanwhile more than 60 per cent of African workers are employed in the agricultural sector with the vast majority of these being sustenance farmers.

A new era

One of the major criticisms of the international development sector is that it's remained dominated by large international organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF, expensively run mega-corporations with an outdated academic doctrine at their spine.

Many have argued that a more commercial approach is needed. Decades of aid and government loans have fostered a perception of sub-Saharan Africa and other regions as charity cases, a distortion which some claim has stunted entrepreneurship.

As the financial world has awoken to the potential for growth in frontier markets, the line between the development sector and mainstream finance has begun to blur. Africa in particular has become of interest to the investment world as firms have seen the potential for returns through the development of locally owned businesses.

Microfinance, meaning the provision of loans and capital to those denied access to traditional sources of finance such as retail banking, has enjoyed some success.

Such a shift is reflected in the way in which the destinations of graduates from development studies courses are gradually altering.

Traditionally, these students would head for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), think tanks and government policy makers, but the business and financial sectors, including investment banks and private equity firms, are increasingly beginning to value their understanding of the economic and political climates of developing states.

Getting in

Development jobs are difficult to get. Whatever part of the field you want to enter, one attribute is key: experience. Often it can be gained through internships in your area of choice, but unfortunately, any such work you do is likely to be unpaid.

For those looking specifically at development finance, previous experience in the financial sector is essential, and accounting or auditing skills, sorely lacking in the developing world, will also give you an edge over the competition.

Another important point to consider is whether it's worthwhile doing a development degree. Though a few universities now offer undergraduate courses in Development Studies and related disciplines, it's more common for students to enter the field at postgraduate level.

While a course is an expensive investment, it also looks good on your CV and can help get you an interview with a big organisation. But such qualifications are not essential, especially if you are able to gain experience in development or emerging markets finance from elsewhere.

According to findamasters.com, there are 55 UK universities offering development degrees. Those most respected by the development sector include those offered by SOAS, LSE, King's College London, and Cambridge.

The criteria for acceptance on a course will vary depending on each institution, with some schools giving preference to those with existing experience in the development sector.

Courses with a heavy focus on the economics of development will often require some previous study of economics, or possibly a good level of mathematics.

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