In our “Pathways to Careers in Development” series, we interview staff members about their journey towards careers in international development. In our second blog, we talk with Mujtaba Ali, Technical Specialist (Level II) in Environment & Climate Change, about what drew him to the international development sector, his thoughts on the sector today, and advice he can provide for future practitioners.
Can you share your journey of figuring out your post-secondary program, finding internships/jobs after school, and now pursuing full-time?
My journey to where I am right now at MEDA is interesting. I never studied development at school, but because of my upbringing and my passion for the environment, I felt that I was naturally prepared for development. Climate change is not local, it is global. Every country experiences it, and as a result, I felt I had the knowledge and understanding of those challenges and how we could address them from a development perspective. My love for the environment started after taking an environment course in high school. I was mesmerized but also horrified about how simple actions like recycling and composting can play such a massive impact from a global perspective. I never stopped after taking that course. I went on to study Geography and Environment Management at the University of Waterloo and then, from there, completed my Master of Climate Change degree also at the University of Waterloo. It was hard, however. I didn’t have much work experience coming out of my master’s program, which definitely set me back. But after volunteering at several places and doing internships, I did manage to secure several full-time positions over the years. When I joined MEDA as an intern, I lacked development expertise but was very passionate about learning more about this field. I felt it was the right decision, and it turned out to be a good one, as I am currently involved in such rewarding work every day.
Any advice for students contemplating development work or currently studying development?
Be prepared. The world is changing, and development is no different. When I started at MEDA just a few short years ago to now, the development field has changed quite a bit in terms of how we work with our clients, finance, investments, how gender work is approached, and how environmental concerns are approached and addressed. No sole person has all the answers to international development issues, but it is good to be well-versed on those specific challenges and also how they are being addressed. For me, I say opportunities such as the MEDA Convention are great places to meet professionals who are actively working in this field, talk to them and learn about what is the newest thing happening in development. It is also highly recommended to volunteer and travel; you can only learn so much by reading. Until you gain experience at an organization or a country that has development work underway, it is hard to fully grasp the challenges and struggles.
What is your favorite thing about working with MEDA?
My favorite thing about working with MEDA is how unique a job it is. We get the opportunity to be creative in how we integrate environmental expertise into our various projects and proposals. There is no single way to address the various environmental concerns of our clients. It requires us to think on our feet and to strategize solutions that will address our client’s needs while ensuring it falls in line with MEDA’s strategic direction. What is unique about MEDA is our focus on gender. As mentioned before, climate change is not gender-neutral; women and children traditionally experience climate impacts far more severely than men due to different cultural roles and responsibilities. We work closely with our gender experts to ensure that this perspective is taken into account in all our environment work.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Due to the various responsibilities and duties of the job, no two days are the same. I do prefer it because each day brings excitement and sometimes even mystery. My job duties require supporting the country project environment specialist with technical expertise, annual work plans, annual budgets, and ensuring execution of the specific technical component in contract deliverables. What makes it fun is that I am supporting five to six projects in various countries and continents. That means each project and country focuses on a different agrifoods sector, which requires different types of support. No two projects are the same. Aside from my direct technical support to our project environment specialist, I also contribute to MEDA’s New Business Development component. That means working on new proposals and concept notes and developing projects to ensure full environment integration of our core approaches. Finally, I also focus on thought leadership –engaging with potential partners, speaking engagements, and other external work to ensure MEDA has the global reach and our great work within the environment is promoted.
What is the biggest reward of your work? What is the biggest challenge?
This is a fascinating question. I think each person at MEDA brings a unique perspective and reasoning for why they do this work. Some are brought up in the international development environment, while others learn about the challenges and inequality. For me, I grew up in the Middle East and moved to Canada at a young age. Upon arriving in Canada and studying the environment, I better understood the challenges that climate impacts. They play a big part in our client’s life, but those impacts are not equally felt. Countries that produce the least amount of carbon emissions most often experience the harshest of impacts. At MEDA, I feel that is a challenge and the biggest reward combined.
Let me explain. The challenge really stems from the fact that the folks that we work with may not be aware of the various environmental and climate concerns impacting their work or environmentally sustainable technologies and practices that could be utilized in their work to increase efficiency and productivity. For those folks, it may be a risk to spend their hard-earned money on additional technologies and/or change the way they farm or conduct their business. What if it doesn’t work out? That is a big risk.
This is where the Environment and Climate Change (ECC) team at MEDA works hard to reassure our clients that the changes implemented will have a positive impact on their work. The biggest reward that comes out of this is when these technologies and practices are implemented and when they bear fruit. The joy in seeing the faces of our clients who have worked hard, taken that leap of faith, and seeing it bear fruit is worth all the work we do at MEDA.