18 March 2020

My UEA Story: Max Baiden

A Career in Charity 

When I first finished my degree in the summer of 2014, all I wanted to do was travel around the world and volunteer wherever I could. I did not really mind where I went, as long as I was on the road and helping a few people along the wat. My heart was always to work in the field in development after several expeditions to Rwanda, South Africa and India. 

However, plans always change and my head won the battle that told me to ‘secure a real job’. After six months working in Jarrolds and nine months at a tour operator, I decided that I should try and find my way into the sector I had studied for three years.  

Enter Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), a Private Sector Consultancy Firm specialising in overseas development programmes focusing on Economic Growth, Governance and Environmental work. DAI is one of the largest suppliers to the Department for International Development, contracted to undertake programmes up to £60 million in value, working at both the institutional and community level to help build more equal societies worldwide. This was a totally alien world to me; I had always thought development was undertaken by INGOs, Governments and Multilateral organisations. To learn that there were private sector implementers in the world of International Development completely altered my perspective of the sector.  

The work was incredibly intense but very rewarding; I started as an Associate Project Manager, immediately finding myself thrown in at the deep end, discussing themes as varied as the use of alternative wood fuels in Bangladesh to the monitoring of water points in Tanzania with senior advisors as DFID. My role was largely operational in the first instance; designing short-term assignments on behalf of DFID, finding experts to carry out the work and managing the projects. Six months later, I was asked to run the entire contract. This meant learning about the entire portfolio of projects (we usually had up to 40 assignments running at one time!) and understanding how to resolved complex technical and operational issues that would arise on a daily basis. I was pleased to be given such a huge amount of responsibility so early in my career and was supported well by senior colleagues within DAI. 

Whilst the work was stimulating, I did struggle with an office role (bar the occasional client engagement trip to East Kilride and Whitehall to meet with DFID). I yearned for work in the field and to understand and see first hand how our work impacted beneficiaries on the ground. Fortunately, I got offered a chance to spend two weeks in Nairobi, working in a small team assessing a climate change research programme. My skills from my degree at UEA came in handy – a lot of semi-structured interviews, reviewing data and working alongside beneficiaries to understand how effective the programme had been. The assessment was hugely successful and gave me a sense of achievement as I was able to see how the project I had helped design back at my desk in London had made a difference to the people on the ground in Kenya. 

After Nairobi, I was asked to take over the management of two very different programmes in Ghana; as assessment of the national cash transfer scheme and a governance programme in Ghana, which is working with local communities and oil & gas companies along with the Western Coast to design appropriate CSR interventions. The latter programme is at a fascinating point of transitional funding from public bodies is starting to run dry so the programme has to raise funds from other means. Increasingly, this has meant helping the team in country to focus on moving towards a sustainable future and to leverage cash from more local sources. For me, this meant spending more time in country and again, being able to see the impact.  

Working in the Private sector was not what I expected and has certainly changed the way I think and question certain aspects of the International Development sector. Interestingly, I was only a year but my career when the media started to focus on consultancy firms as ‘fat cats’ exploiting profits in the sector. However, in reality it is simply not a fair accusation. As the spend of aid transitions to more hostile environments from clientele that are demanding more form their implementing agencies, the cost of delivering sustainable ‘beneficiary-led’ programmes is only every going to increase.