A Conversation with Helal Ahsan-Ul-Haque, Senior Director, ESCA
What is your role at MEDA and how long have you worked for the organization?
When I first started working at MEDA, it was as a country director in 2017 and now I have been with the organization for 6 years in August. Currently I am the Senior Regional Director for MEDA’s Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa operations.
Can you share what you studied in school and how you entered the international development field? background into your career that led you to where you are now would be helpful.
In my undergraduate classes I studied civil engineering. Thereafter, I got a Fulbright scholarship to go to The School for International Training in the United States. It was a very unique university as it focused on blending both academic and practical experiences together. I did my master’s in international and intercultural management. My subjects were very interesting such as project planning and design, project management, research methods for NGO leaders, and culture and diversity. These four major subjects were so helpful because they were directly linked with my development profession and then that significantly contributed to future shaping my knowledge and understanding in the development field, while also helping me to know how to articulate my development vision and measure the impact of development work. So, after I received my master’s in international and intercultural management, I did a post-graduation diploma in NGO leadership and management which was also very relevant.
Can you recall your first project experience? In what role did you enter this experience? What project were you working on and what was that journey like?
My first project experience was in 1985, and I was working in Bangladesh on the Rural Maintenance Programme (RMP). I started off as a field engineer for the project and moved up to the Program Advisor role which was the top position in the organization for national level staff. The project focused on creating job opportunities for rural, disadvantaged women – mainly women who were divorced, widowed, or separated. The project initially targeted 60,000 women and the goal was to provide them regular jobs for maintaining rural earthen roads. During my time as part of RMP, I believed that we should be aiming for a lot more impact than working only with 60,000 women. I then was part of designing a new project within RMP that was referred to as IDP – income diversification projects. For this aspect of the project, we thought it would be a good idea to put a job tenure of four years and introduce forced savings of 20% of the women’s fortnightly salary and keep it in a separate bank account and after the 4-year program, this 20% was generating around $200.00 during the 90s, and that it would be used as startup capital. From there, we designed and provided business planning and management training. This was a 3-month training package and after receiving this training the women could start using the $200 as a startup capital. As the 60,000 women graduated from this four-year cycle, another 60,000 entered to the project. We started this new program in 1991 and continued till 2006 and rolled over 200,000 women. This was a very innovative approach that was appreciated by many researchers from academia, donors, and development actors. In 2006, the government of Bangladesh took over this project and it is still operational under the government. By the time I left the project, I was the head of the program. I also replicated and implemented this program in Pakistan. I can humbly mention that my Pakistan project won “Best Mobile Product and Service for Women in Emerging Markets” award at the GSMA Mobile World Congress.
During your project experiences, what were the hardest challenges you faced?
My biggest challenge was to get out of “delivering my job” mentality. I put all my efforts into talking to the clients, understanding their issues, joys, sorrows, and accordingly facilitating solutions from them rather than imposing them.
As international staff, my hardest challenge was adapting to different cultural environments. When I started doing development work in South Asia, specifically in Pakistan, the food and culture were in my comfort zone because of my religious identity, but the language, culture, and context were different. What I learned is that when you work as an international staff, you must first understand that you are not there to dictate or give solutions because the local staff know their context better. You can provide different options to them based on your experience, expertise, and maturity, so that whichever option is the best fit for their context they can choose from or adapt. I always believed that as a leader my role is to set strategic directions and expected results but should provide space and authority to my colleagues so that they can define the processes. This has significantly helped me gain acceptance and respect from them. Also, my colleagues felt empowered and satisfied with the results.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of working internationally for projects?
It has been so nice to be able to directly interact with clients, listen to their stories, understand their lifestyle, how they’re living, and their home conditions. It gave me a sort of broader understanding about the social fabric and social context. That has really helped me build my own development values and in the 38 years I’ve worked in this field, I have only one thing that I always remember in whatever work I do, which is that I want to see the smiles on the faces of our clients. That is my biggest motivation and as I said, 38 years back when I started talking to clients and understanding their happiness, sorrows, and the social barriers they’re facing – that incredibly helped to build me as a human being and be a part of this development journey.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about working in international development? What is the reality of working in international development?
I have lived and worked in 7 countries: Pakistan, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Jordan, and Bangladesh. I have also facilitated a lot of interns from North America and from local contexts. What I saw is when the international students start their career as an international worker, they face difficulties because they don’t come prepared enough. I think one of the major challenges is to understand that country, and it is not only about understanding the people, culture, and language but also the legal aspect. The country’s dos and don’ts are very important to understand, and I have seen two perspectives from working with international staff – both as their subordinate and them as my subordinate. I saw what is called an authoritarian approach of international staff and that they would try to create acceptance of their position by demonstrating why they are better than the national staff members, which was the wrong approach. In reality, it is important that before you come to the country, try to study and understand the environmental context, culture, food, and language basics. The simple things, such as knowing how to say “good morning” gives off respect to local staff and helps them to accept, embrace, and respect you when coming into their country. It is very important that when you start in international development to keep in mind that you are not there to dictate them or demonstrate that you are superior. You start as part of their community or family; you are helping them develop or even learning from them. When you learn from them and help them to develop, it becomes reciprocal respect and acceptance.
What would you recommend to anyone wanting to enter the international development field?
Development is not a profession, it’s a passion, so if you really want to be a part of the development field, don’t take your job as a profession – just enjoy the role. If it is your passion, you will value it properly and you will enjoy the job you will be doing. You’ll feel like you aren’t doing a job or working, you’re doing something for that community and that God has sent you. This work is not only for your livelihood, but to give back to the world as return to your creator. So, if you take that value in your development profession, then you will really enjoy your job and I can guarantee that when you enjoy it, your career progression will be more joyful. Another aspect is a philosophy you should have within your career planning and within your career journey. During my journey, I’ve learned that as you move in your career from one position to another position – do not carry over your baggage, meaning that when you move from, for example, project officer to program development officer, don’t try to still do your project officer role because you are not allowing yourself to flourish and take responsibility if you are still carrying out responsibilities of your previous role. You need to leave that work for the next person who enters the role, because if you do not leave that position behind, you won’t be able to move forward to the next opportunity.