Last week, my friend some broke big news. “I got a job offer in Burkina Faso working on women’s public health for the year,” she announced. “Should I do it?”
Usually, I would say, “Of course you should go!” But in this case, I hesitated.
My friend is well-traveled and a successful advocate in women’s leadership and political participation. She has a huge network of friends and family that she cherishes in the U.S., and she leads a very hip life. Not to mention, her career goals are in politics, not public health. I know she could make it anywhere, but this just seemed so out of character.
It is a rare occasion when I would think twice about recommending travel to someone, but as a friend, I wanted to advise her fairly and honestly. I’ve had many colleagues take these types of development positions, and I’ve traveled in both the best parts and worst parts of the world myself. And while any opportunity abroad sounds adventurous and exciting, it’s very important to weigh the pros and cons.
If you’ve been presented with a job opportunity in a less-developed country, here are the most important questions you should ask yourself before you make your decision.
1. Are you ready to deal with a totally different culture and understanding of the world?
For my friend, networking will be very different in Burkina Faso. Forget DC happy hour at cool bars—it’s more like singing songs at a dilapidated moonshine shanty.
But that’s just the beginning. When you move to a new country, you have to assess what the realities of life will be like on the ground. What will your daily life be like? Are you prepared to deal with issues like no or slow internet (which means no social media), unreliable electricity (or none at all) and different standards of safety? And there are other issues out of your control, like the expectations of women. A friend stationed in West Africa would me call crying because she was asked to eat separately from the men, and she couldn’t negotiate out of this cultural expectation in her village if she wanted to be taken seriously. Places like Ouagadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso) are rapidly changing, but they are still working to build infrastructure in politics, rights, and basic needs.
Moreover, are you OK with not being able to leave and get in your comfort zone quickly? You won’t be able to catch a plane home—and in some cases, even a bus. There may be great trips to go on, and more cosmopolitan cities nearby where you can get a taste of home. But it’s more than likely that you’ll find yourself walking five hours to the nearest bus stop or having to ride on the roof of a van with some chickens. (Not a joke.)
Most workers who are there are in long-term international development careers and are used to working in these conditions. But if you’re just there for a short time, it can be very hard to get used to. Consider whether this lifestyle sounds exhilarating to you—or if it sounds exhausting.
2. How will it affect your relationships?
Depending on where you go, internet may not be accessible and cell phone signals may not always be efficient. And it’s important to consider how that will impact your personal and professional relationships back home.
Even if you can stay connected with friends through Facebook, they probably won’t come out and visit you, nor will you stay a priority in their networks when you get back. How will this shape your future, and how difficult might it be to re-establish that network you have worked hard to develop? Closely consider how this job fits in with your personal goals and how will it be viewed by future employers if you plan to come back home. Will it be impressive experience on your resume, or will people in your field not even know the name of the country where you worked?
3. What is driving you to go for it?
Be really honest with yourself about why you are considering the opportunity. Some people have always dreamed of being in the international development field working somewhere far away and completely different than what they know—and if that’s you, go for it. Others try to find these placements because of the tough economy, or because they’re not sure what to do next.
But I would never, ever recommend taking a position simply because you fear you won’t find a gig in your home country. Remember, locals and your organization will be relying on you to serve a purpose and deliver outcomes. If you’re only there to add new experience to your resume, the people in the community will sense your intentions. While you may learn to love it, you also might just be wasting your time and everyone else's.
4. Is it the right job for your passions and expertise?
Whether you love politics, the environment, or leadership, you should be sure that your area of expertise aligns somewhat with your post. While you will probably be expected to wear a million different hats, don’t accept a position in which you're required to build a water management system if you have no experience doing that. If you can't envision your skills being an asset on the ground, don't go just for “the experience”—you might end up doing more harm than good. Not to mention, in the long run, that “experience” won’t be an asset to your overall career goals.
The bottom line is, you have to trust your gut. If you can’t see yourself feeling good about your post in the field, either now or in the long run, or are unable to handle it when things get tough, then really start to think twice about the opportunity.
As my friend makes her difficult decision, I’m encouraging her to remain realistic, understand the risks, and think about her goals. Of course, whether or not she decides to accept this post, I will still be there to support her.
And whether I will be buying a plane ticket to Burkina Faso or a train ticket to DC to visit her, I will make sure she knows that a challenging development post can be the most rewarding job there is—as long as you're ready for it.