In our “Pathways to Careers in Development” series, MEDA interviews staff members about their journey towards careers in international development. In the first blog, Kristine Lim, MEDA’s Marketing and Constituent Engagement Coordinator, talks with Katelynn Folkerts, Manager, Global Program Operations about what drew her to the international development sector, her thoughts on the sector today, and advice she can provide for future practitioners.
Where did you study?
I studied Global Development, with a minor in Economics at Queen’s University. This was an excellent program, and it set a good foundation for me in terms of how I think about and approach development. I know people always say experience sets the foundation, and it does, but I have also seen the importance of coming from a solid understanding of the history of development, and the types of mental models and power relations that continue to structure the sector. The reason that Global Development at Queen’s was unique is because they don’t start off with the question: “How do you do development?”, but instead, “What is development? Who gets to decide what progress is and how to get there? What are the intended and unintended consequences for different groups of people?”
It was very critical, right from the beginning. In my first year, we started with looking at the roots of the development sector in colonialism and racism. Even in my work today, it has taught me to operate with a few key questions in the back of my head. Things like, “Whose definition of the problem and solution is operating here?”, “Why is this the case?”, “What alternatives might we be missing?,” and “What are the impacts of this on people who are experiencing marginalization?”
Can you name the specific elements of your university program that set you up well? Or things future post-secondary students should look for in a program?
I think the thing that you should look for is that critical perspective. For example, it has been helpful to have the tools to analyze the power relationships that structure the field of development, especially between donors, implementing organizations and clients/beneficiaries. A lot of the answers to my big questions, like “Whose definition of the problem and solution is operating here?”, can be found just by looking at those relationships.
It is also helpful to have a program that will spend time helping students understand how poverty is created and recreated. In other words, poverty is not the default condition of countries in the Global South, but a product of dispossession and colonialism, elements of which continue up until this day. This helps you enter the sector without taking poverty as given, but asking why it exists in certain places or for certain groups. This can then help you (and your team) get at the root issues faster, giving you a better chance at supporting something that addresses those root issues. If you are not aware of the power relationships within this field, then it’s easy to just fall into the status quo, and even do harm.
Finally, I think it is also important to choose a program that acknowledges multiple visions of and pathways to development. Wellbeing means so many things to so many different people. Programs that center the voices of Indigenous people, BIPOC and other marginalized groups will help students better understand and support a wider range of ways we can live well. I mean, critically analyzing power relations and problems in the development industry is only half the work. Plenty of people are working proactively to imagine and build healthier communities and environments, and the systems to support them. I encountered many at my time at Queen’s, and later in Nigeria, Haiti and Indigenous communities in Canada. These are also people to take direction from.
Did you always want to work in international development?
No. I went into my undergraduate degree with no development experience, but an interest in international development. And like many of my other classmates, I got to year three of my program and didn’t really want to work in development.
Why did you not want to work in international development?
I was looking at it as an industry that basically runs on the challenges of vulnerable people, and can perpetuate the same power imbalances that are the problem in the first place. Like lots of money, influence, and ideas in the Global North structuring what happens in the Global South. And so, I thought, nope, I don’t want to be part of that. But after I completed that degree, I took a year off working for an organization that serves people who are experiencing homelessness. There I had a mentor tell me, “Well, you studied development. Why don’t you interview some organizations? See what assumptions they’re operating under, and whether you align with their values. Interview the organizations and see if they work for you, rather than trying to fit yourself into something you can’t get on board with.”
So, I did that. I met with the staff of a few Canadian-based NGOs and just asked them upfront, “You’re in a field that’s rooted in colonialism. How do you manage that?” Some of the could not explain what they do or why past their organization’s tagline, but some of the people I talked to were really reflective and aware of where the work they’re doing comes from – knowing its roots in colonialism, racism, and then actively working to dismantle that in the work that they’re doing.
When you reached out to the heads of Canadian-based NGOs, did you ever feel nervous?
I come from a faith-based background, so for some of the faith-based organizations it was easy. I would say I’m also a member of the church that supports this organization. I would ask them if they could have a conversation with me, or, I would draw on people who could connect me further. For example, the mentor who encouraged me to reach out to international development organizations gave me some places to start. From there, the people I spoke with would point me to others.
Fast forward to now – you’re in international development work, even after being apprehensive at first. What changed your mind?
Basically, I saw examples of good things happening, and an emerging sense of self-awareness in the development sector as a whole. I also worked with organizations that have maintained long-term relationships with the communities and local organizations they have been working with, and who have accomplished so amazing things. The sector still has a long way to go, but I think we’re seeing some promising changes. And at MEDA, with Dorothy’s leadership, I think we are starting to move in the right direction. An example is the North-South global shift. I think we are working towards a more robust, meaningful, authentic shift – but these things will just take time.
What is your favorite thing about working at MEDA?
MEDA was very interesting to me because it is trying to meet a key need that most people would articulate, especially young people. My work background before MEDA has not been in business or economic development – it has been in peacebuilding, specifically with youth. In my research and work within Nigeria and Haiti, the thing I heard repeated most often by young people is that conflict is more likely to happen because they have no jobs. That if they had jobs, if they were occupied all the time, then conflict, and the need for conflict would be reduced. I was really interested in economic development for that reason.
I also find our shift to an agri-food systems focus very interesting. It’s coming at the same time COVID-19 has made the vulnerabilities of over-reliance on imported inputs, export markets, global prices and conventional practices alike monocropping clearer than ever. We have the challenge of creating decent work at the same time as ensuring people have enough nutritious food and can purchase it in the areas where it is needed most. We also have the challenge of doing this in a global food system with strong actors and interests. Working in this space is going to require a lot more than only applying business principles to smallholder farming and perfecting vertical supply chains. It means looking at inequity in our current systems and taking measures to shift power dynamics that perpetuate inequalities and ecological harm in the Global South. And importantly, it means taking the lead from local partners impacted by these inequalities on how to go about doing this. MEDA is trying to move toward this, which is very encouraging.