International Development Expert
"Being young, female and black in a large organisation was not easy; I would always need to push myself – lean in – to open my mouth so that people would know I had something to offer, otherwise I would be overlooked, and it still happened a lot. In this way, I learnt three key lessons"
By Katie Capstick, Intern
8th September 2017
1 month internship, Action Aid, Kenya
EU Emissions Trading Scheme
Negotiator, UN Climate Change negotiations
Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation
Head of Policy and Partnerships, UNDP, China
Founder/CEO of Development Reimagined (1st ever Kenyan wholly foreign owned enterprise (WFOE) in China)
China Representative, China Africa Advisory Ltd
Degree: Economics with Development Studies
Master's: Msc Economics
What inspired you to become involved in the civil service, diplomacy and development work?
Being born and spending the first 10 years of my life in Kenya has influenced me a great deal, and in particular, my decision to try to “give back” through my career as much as possible. This was what directed me to choose to study Economics with Development Studies at university initially. In my second year at university, I then applied for a wide range of internships, just to check which one I would be suited to, and when I got a rejection from an investment bank and an acceptance from Action Aid in Kenya which I later undertook, I knew development was my right field. At the same time, I felt it was worth staying in the UK to pursue my career, as – certainly at the time anyway – the UK had a huge impact on international relations and affairs, and as an economist I felt my best efforts could be applied at the structural, policy level internationally. So, in my third year, and although I was still only a Kenyan citizen at the time, I applied for a fast-track programme into the UK civil service, and was accepted into it. But to my disappointment, I wasn’t able to get into DFID (the UK’s foreign aid department) as they were not taking new entrants at the time. But I soon realised I was in the right place working in the agriculture ministry, as I had the opportunity to shape the UK’s policy towards a sector that often accounts for well over 20% of employment in many African countries (although far smaller percentages of GDP for many problematic reasons). It was in this first job that I got my first taste of diplomacy – attending EU meetings in Brussels and seeing how the representatives negotiated various issues. I set my sights on this, watched and learnt, and waited for the right opportunities.
What are the main things you learned whilst working for the British Government during your early 20s?
I never saw myself as a career civil servant. I always thought I would go into the private sector or one of the international development organisations, but I actually found the work I had in government very motivating and important so I ended up staying there throughout my 20s. But being young, female and black in a large organisation was not easy – I would always need to push myself – lean in – to open my mouth so that people would know I had something to offer, otherwise I would be overlooked, and it still happened a lot. In this way, I learnt three key lessons. First, I made sure I knew my topic and specialism really well. I always tried to be an expert, and this was absolutely key in getting recognised, especially by senior management. Second, I kept my options open, and was always proactive about my career. For ethnic minorities in particular, our careers are never linear. For example, I was lucky enough to have the UK government pay for my masters which has made a huge difference to my career – but I had to search out and apply for the scheme. I always had to ask for promotions, I was never just offered them. Third, I found ways to bring myself into my career, for example through blogging about my work, which I started in 2011. This helped me develop my special style of leadership. People talk about authenticity, or portfolio careers – these are just ways of describing how your organisation can complement you as well as you complement it. I was spending at least 36% of my awake time working, actually a lot more… So I found ways to make it personally motivating, and that’s helpful in the civil service.
Why did you move to China and why do you think development work is so crucial in China?
I had always been interested in working in China, as every time I went back to Kenya from the UK, I would see something new which had been built or provided by Chinese actors, and was always intrigued as to how these had come about. So I was always on the look-out for jobs there and had actually told UK government colleagues working in China to let me know if anything came up. So when one of them sent me the posting for a 2 year deputy country director level role in UNDP China, I was excited. I immediately checked with my husband if he’d be happy for us to move – and as we had talked previously about the possibility, he encouraged me to apply. I did, got the job and loved it. It was a very important but very unusual role in UNDP and most aid organisations, as it was focused on influencing how China interacts with other poorer countries. Another colleague was to oversee UNDP China’s work which supported China in cutting its own rural poverty to zero by 2020.
But that wasn’t my job. My job was to propose a plan for the international work, which the country director agreed with. I felt we needed a two-pronged strategy: 1) to publish research, host events and so on to elicit new information, ideas and thinking about China’s international role, AND 2) to work practically with Chinese actors so that we and others could understand them better, and they better understand us and others. Of course, these two activities would be complementary. My team of around 15-20 analysts and project managers worked hard to make this happen, and we certainly played a very unique and welcomed role, which UNDP China continues to take forward and build on.
Whilst working for UNDP, what experiences did you learn from the most?
There were three key experiences I learnt from the most while at UNDP:
First, I learnt to work and motivate a multinational team. It was only when at UNDP that I realised the extent of the lack of diversity in the UK civil service - even though the UK is far ahead of other governments by employing non-nationals like I was when I first entered the civil service... I think everyone should have to work in an international team. It’s so valuable to have to adapt your leadership style to suit different team members. I learnt a lot about other cultures but also about myself.
Second, although I had been a climate change negotiator in the past, and therefore had a representational and diplomatic role, my role at UNDP was much more ambassador-like, which I enjoyed tremendously. I realised that my strengths in networking and public speaking that I had had to play down in some roles in the past could be very useful as I became more senior and that motivated me.
Third, while we had many successes, I – and my team – nevertheless experienced a lot of frustration in making new partnerships and getting work done sometimes, because we were working in the UN. People talk about UN bureaucracy, but it wasn’t just about form-filing. Form-filing is fine. The delays came from the financial pressure the UN is under as a whole and therefore a whole range of interests which sometimes conflict on the ground when trying to negotiate new activities with new partners. I came away with a heightened awareness of varying interests, and a feeling that the UN, and UNDP especially, really needs a new business model… Maybe one day I’ll be able to help craft it.
You have just finished your maternity leave, how did this significant period in your life help you change your career path? Tell me more about the new enterprise you have set up now you are ready to go back to work….
I’ve just finished a year of maternity leave, which has been a great time to reflect on my career to date and also learn new lessons from being a mother. Being a mother has made me much more patient with what I can’t control, while simultaneously also giving me more courage – to just do what needs to be done, even if I am not sure I’m up to it, which means I’ve taken a lot of big decisions recently.
I’ve started a babies and toddlers nursery rhymes group at a bookshop nearby called ‘‘Safari Song Time’’, which is proving very popular because it fills a gap in the market for structured, low-cost, flexible and educational one-to-one time with the little ones that just wasn’t being provided in Beijing before. And it’s also multi-lingual, so hopefully encouraging future generations to grow up to be global citizens, one song at a time!
Second, and perhaps more in line with my previous career (!), I’ve opened a new international development consultancy – which is called “Development Reimagined” in English and in Chinese “睿纳新国际咨询”, which means fore-sighted and innovative. The ultimate aim of the consultancy is poverty reduction all around the world, so we of course have strong expertise in international development, but being here in China and with a wide network of experts across Africa and beyond, it is also designed to support governments, businesses and others from poor countries get the most out of their relationship with China, and vice versa – support Chinese ministries, businesses and NGOs to go out successfully and have a positive impact abroad. Fundamentally, because it’s flexible and responsive, it will fill those gaps in improving international relations that the UN and others are not reaching here in China.
It’s the first ever WFOE opened by a Kenyan here in China, which is exciting in itself, but I’m even more excited by the on-the-ground impactful work we’re getting to do and the wide range of Chinese and international clients we’re working with… I can’t wait for a year from now and to be able to share some of the development results we will have generated. It’s funny, in the past I always thought consultancy work would feel quite removed, but now actually doing it, I realise it’s not at all. Being asked to advise and actively support a huge range of organisations and businesses is very rewarding – as you see them engage with your publication or analysis, implement your new ideas and recommendations or grow because of an investor you’ve found for them…
I’m so glad that I’ve had the courage and the support from my husband in particular to do this, and so glad that former colleagues and friends are interested in working in and with Development Reimagined to make it a success.
We’ll be formally launching in September, and I hope as well as providing bespoke advice, analysis and practical support, we will be able to provide open publications, infographics and other public goods for people from all over the world to better understand China and vice versa. And of course, I’ll keep writing and blogging.
Do you think there needs to be improvements made with regards to the participation numbers of women in the civil service field and what advice would you give to younger women who would like to work in your line of work?
I’m now in the private sector because of my choice. But there are many talented women out there who would like to get into or remain in the civil service but feel it is too remote or they cannot progress. It’s even harder for black and/or other minority people to enter and remain in the civil service wherever they are. All around the world improvements need to be made to the civil service to make it more diverse. Not for diversity’s sake but because diversity leads to better problem-solving, better creativity and therefore ultimately better public services at home and abroad. I believe wholeheartedly in a globalised world, free for all people, things and money to flow where they want to, but without diversity in civil servants around the world, we will get protectionism and inequality. So I hope countries – including the UK and Kenya - will continue to adopt and implement UN targets to improve women’s participation in parliaments, for example, but also seek to widen them to address other diversity shortcomings and in other sectors.
Given these constraints, however, my advice to young women starting off their careers goes back to the beginning of this interview, and my first lessons in the civil service: 1) know your stuff, 2) keep your options open, and 3) find ways to bring “you” into your work. The second suggestion applies even more specifically to those women wanting to get into international development, because international development is more than just working at the UN, the World Bank or DFID. It is working in Chinese institutions, it’s working on trade and investment and migration, it’s working in sectors like agriculture, and so on. Development is all around us, and by keeping your options open, you can work in these areas, and take charge of your career to form a relevant narrative that will help ensure you get that experience in key institutions and then go use it to do even more good. That’s my plan anyway, and I think it’s working so far.