Abbie talks about her varied and rewarding career in international development - which has taken her to Sub-Saharan Africa - and explains how you can build the experience, skills and qualifications to enter the field.
Name: Abbie Huff-Camara
Company: US government-funded programme on community policing
Industry: Charity & Not-for-profit
Job role: Deputy Regional Programme Coordinator
Length of time in role: Almost 3 years (engaged as a consultant)
- BA English & French (Royal Holloway, University of London)
- MA International Development: Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction (University of Manchester)
A-Levels: English Literature, French, Geography, General Studies
1. What was your very first job?
When I was 13, I got a Saturday job and started working for a local newsagents. I was a sales assistant and so my role involved mostly selling newspapers, food and groceries. Except for the odd holiday here and there, I worked every Saturday morning until I went to university at 18. I learnt a lot from this job – but mostly communication skills since it was a customer-facing role. Working from an early age alongside my studies also taught me the value of money and gave me independence.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
When I was at school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to have a meaningful career – that helped others or made the world a better place, as cliché as that sounds. I knew however I didn’t want to be a teacher as my parents (both being geography teachers) had put me off! I however loved languages, especially French, and so I decided to study French at university to see where that took me.
3. How did you find out about the industry you currently work in?
Whilst I was in my second year at university, I got involved in Raise and Give (RAG), a student society that was committed to raising funds for different causes. I absolutely loved campaigning and raising funds on the street and on campus for different charities, such as Oxfam and the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Through RAG, I travelled to a remote village in Vietnam to take part in a 4-week volunteer project. Our main objectives were to build an irrigation canal for the community and teach English to the local children. It was a huge challenge since I had never carried out any manual labour before and despite having some teaching experience, working in the village was significantly different as the pupils were of all ages and abilities.
Overall, it was an extremely eye-opening experience which has since driven my desire to make a difference to those who are not as fortunate as myself. From then on, working in the international development sector or for a charity has been my lifetime goal.
4. How did you get to where you are today?
I would say a mixture of academic study and practical experience (including through volunteering and internships) got me where I am today. Following my volunteer experience in Vietnam in 2009, I then decided I wanted to volunteer back in the UK with one of the charities RAG supported, called StreetInvest. StreetInvest are a small international charity that support street children around the world. During my internship, I supported the team by doing research, translations and general project support tasks. I quickly learnt that if I wanted a career in the sector, that wasn’t a basic administrative role, I would need a master’s.
I therefore then went onto to do a master’s in International Development in 2011, but I continued volunteering on the side – this time with Oxfam, in their Manchester office – providing general office support, doing research, campaigning, etc. I also did some pro-bono work for StreetInvest whilst doing research for my master’s dissertation in Ghana.
From there, I was lucky enough to land a role with British Council on their competitive graduate scheme in Kenya in 2013, working on international development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. In this role I had mostly worked as project manager, advisor and researcher - on a variety of themes including good governance, civil society, gender and education. I also was very involved in business development – which involved supporting proposal development for new projects and programme. I continued work for the British Council in the UK, for their work globally, with a focus on gender in 2015, and then in Senegal from 2016-17 as the head of programmes managing a small project portfolio and project team.
In summer 2017, I began working as a regional programme coordinator on a US-funded community policing programme in West Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal. Having experience working overseas, or “in the field”, I was keen to further develop my skills and work in-depth on one specific programme, rather than lots of different ones. I wanted to be closer to the ground, and closer to the impact of the work.
5. What is a typical day like?
Every day is different! If I’m not attending a project event or away for work, my role is mostly desk-based. As long as I’ve got an internet connection, I’m good to go. As part of my role, I jointly coordinate project activities in four countries (Senegal, Mali, Niger and Tunisia). This involves providing technical advice, guidance and support to teams, providing strategic insight, project planning and design, research, monitoring and evaluation as well as technical and financial reporting.
As such I spend a lot of time on WhatsApp, Skype or on the phone and now on Zoom, speaking to teams, partners and key project stakeholders on past, present and future activities. On a regular day, I’ll be reviewing documents and giving feedback, and replying to emails. I also spend time doing research and analysis, as all our work is guided by the context in which we work, and our stakeholders’ needs.
6. What’s the best thing about your job?
It has to be seeing the fruits of your labour – hearing about or seeing the impacts that your work makes to people’s lives and communities. The project I currently work on is a dialogue programme, that seeks to improve local security by building relations and trust between police and citizens. When I hear that because of the project, citizens now feel able to contact the police in times of need, when previously they didn’t interact with them out of fear, or that engaged citizens involved in the project saved a robber from getting a brutal beating through mediation – it makes it all worthwhile.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Maintaining a good work/life balance. When you work in this sector, and you are passionate about what you do, it can be hard to clock out. Of course, occasionally you do need to work late, or work over a weekend to meet an important deadline, but I’ve learnt the hard way that if you don’t have some kind of work/life balance, it can really affect your productivity levels and can lead to burn-out in the long run. I’m sure this is true for many professions these days – but when you’re living overseas for work and working across multiple time-zones for a cause you really believe in, it can be difficult to disconnect. I’d say it is definitely one of the biggest challenges for people working in this sector.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
My first recommendation is to get some practical experience as early as you can – by volunteering overseas or interning with charities. Small charities in the UK are always looking for additional support. In some cases, this might be a foot in the door that will lead to a paid role, but it can also help you get an idea of the different types of roles that exist (from communications, to project management to finance).
Having this hands-on experience made it easier for me to get a job after my master’s– as I had a better idea of what recruiters were looking for, and what would be expected. Some fellow classmates who didn’t have any volunteer experience had to build that experience after studying so combining both really put me in a good position. Do-it.org is a great place to find opportunities online – or if there’s a charity you really like in your nearest town or city – be bold, and write to them directly to see if you could volunteer.
Another asset for the sector is speaking another language. If you want to work at big institutions like the United Nations, you’ll need to speak at least one other language fluently. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am now if I didn’t speak fluent French. I wouldn’t have even been considered for the British Council graduate programme if I didn’t speak French, and now I use French (written, reading, spoken) in my everyday job as the countries I work on are French speaking. Depending on where you want to work -French, Spanish, Arabic are probably the most versatile and sought-after languages.
Finally – my advice is to not give up. It’s a competitive sector, but don’t let it put you off. Unless you studied the subject at undergraduate, getting a master’s can be a real asset. If you are serious about the sector – I’d recommend you to do one. I did mine part-time so I could work full-time alongside my studies, which although tough, meant I didn’t need to get a loan. If you’re willing to put the work in, and you’re passionate – I’m sure there will be a role for you in this rewarding sector.
9. What’s the number-one most important transferable skill used or needed for your job?
Communication. Specifically, interpersonal communication skills (written, verbal and non-verbal). No matter what role I’ve had – even prior to my work in the development sector – this has to be the most important. Having the ability to connect with others (customers, partners, stakeholders, colleagues) to discuss, exchange, negotiate, influence and problem-solve is essential to my work. Being a good communicator can also help you navigate appropriately different countries and cultures.
In my current role, one moment I might be conversing with the funding partner, the next writing to a US Embassy representative and later that day, speaking with a senior level police officer or mayor and then writing to my colleagues in the six countries in which in the project runs. Every one of these stakeholders requires a different style and tone of communication. Openness is key, as well as having the ability to adapt your communication style, and show understanding by always putting yourself in other person’s shoes.
10. How did you develop your confidence at work?
I would say that my confidence at work has mostly developed through doing, and achieving results as well as receiving positive feedback from colleagues and superiors. There are days when I suffer from imposter’s syndrome even now, but I definitely lacked confidence (perhaps not visibly) in myself at the beginning of my career. I remember receiving some tasks from one boss, that were a bit vague and never knew exactly what was expected. I just used to do my best, trust my gut and wing it. 9 times out of 10 I got it right. Perhaps I was lucky, and I should have asked more questions, but you slowly learn to trust yourself when you receive good feedback.
I’ve been quite lucky in that my bosses have mostly always given me feedback for my work, but I’d encourage anyone starting out to actively seek feedback when you don’t receive it – it is great for confidence-building and for development. It also helps you know whether you are on the right path or where you might need to further develop your skills.
Speaking of imposter syndrome, I remember seeing Amy Cuddy’s Ted talk, ‘Your body language may shape who you are”, that encouraged young women, especially, to “fake it until you make it”. This really spoke to me and through the years, its advice has helped me prepare for many a presentation and interview. I’d recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of a confidence boost at school, university or in the workplace! It might even be helpful for that university place, or college admission.
11. What do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
When I first considered working in the charity sector, I didn’t think it would pay well. I honestly thought that choosing this career path wouldn’t mean much in terms of financial prospects. Of course, it varies from organisation to organisation, the seniority of the role and where you are based – but you can earn a fairly decent salary in this sector. Not everyone is a volunteer, I promise! I wish I’d known this sooner because this was definitely something that worried me, particularly when I was doing my master’s. I am not motivated by money but I wanted a steady income that would pay the bills and allow for holidays abroad.
12. Where would you like to be in five years?
Good question! For now, I’d really like to continue on the same path and further develop my expertise as a project manager and technical advisor on governance, security and civil society. If possible, I’d like to continue working on the same programme, or similar large-scale programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa– where you really feel like you’re contributing to real change on the ground. I feel like there is a chance I am likely to move to a more headquarters role in the next 5 years though – but it all depends on the opportunities that arise. I’m also hoping to train as a yoga teacher soon, so perhaps I’ll have my certificate then and be teaching yoga alongside my development work - all part of that work/life balance!
If you would like to follow in Abbie's footsteps, check out this guide to working in the charity and not-profit sector.