‘To make a dent in the universe’ – Alumnus on his Development Finance journey
To make a dent in the universe: That, apparently, was the late American entrepreneur Steve Jobs’ expression of the purpose for his being on the planet, as well as his exhortation to those who may want to follow in his footsteps. Being born and raised in Zimbabwe, a poor developing country, I can say my goals weren’t as grandiose or even as purposeful. My bachelor’s degree was in accounting (graduated in 2005 at the University of Zimbabwe) and like most of my peers, my prime goal on graduation was securing a decent job with good growth prospects. I fortuitously went the unconventional route and joined a small non-profit organisation whose focus was the development of media standards and promoting public information rights in Zimbabwe.
…my prime goal on graduation was securing a decent job with good growth prospects.”
This was not by choice as the prime jobs I expected to get after graduation were simply not available. I graduated at a time when the Zimbabwean economy was in unprecedented decline characterised by investor flight and job market contraction. In hindsight it may seem as though I navigated my career path with a clairvoyant ease towards a sure destiny, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, embarking on an atypical career path was more of a leap in the dark than it was inspired percipience on my part. Since accepting that the development sector was going to be my career for life in 2007, I decided to pursue a master’s degree to further strengthen my underpinning theoretical knowledge in development. Choosing the MPhil in Development Finance (MDevF) with the University of Stellenbosch Business school was a very easy decision as the degree offering was ideal for my career goals and to pursue the same with a world renowned business school was more than a plus.
The depth of the MDevF is something I cherish to this day.”
The depth of the MDevF is something I cherish to this day. I particularly enjoyed the course that focused on Economic Development Perspectives in Africa as it particularly focused on how African nation states pursue development and the underlying political economy perspectives.
I have since worked in various roles in the development sector, including private sector development, environmental protection, regional development, agriculture, basic services, capacity building and nurturing livelihoods, among others. What I can say for certain now is the work we do in the development sector is quite different from the detached, and vague idealism I envisaged at the beginning of my career. For starters, I learnt early on that in order to be effective, you must go beyond and expand your métier, in a manner that is foreign to most job roles.
I learnt early on that in order to be effective, you must go beyond and expand your métier.”
Multi-skilling has always been a necessity in practically all the roles I have assumed. There was always far more expected of me and those I worked with beyond standard job descriptions. Beyond this, the intensity of the work itself and the weight of expectations was and is always so great even with limited resources and myriad external pressures.
Being an accounting and finance professional, I always had to deal with restricted budgets and was constantly under pressure to maximise return on the resources we had to work with. Complicating matters of course was the fact that return in the development context is not a simple set of inanimate quantifiables. Return is furtherance of the mission, which in most cases has to do with attainment of broad, often subjective metrices that cannot always be quantified in financial terms.
I was surprised to discover that instability is a constant in the development field…”
While those in rock-and-roll corporate careers only ever have their boats rocked by the occasional recession or financial market crisis (as with the COVID-19 crisis now), I was surprised to discover that instability is a constant in the development field, with funding challenges and the resulting shift in priorities always looming. Job security, it appears, is practically non-existent. This may appear contradictory considering the importance of mission and potential for transforming entire societies.
With the foregoing one may wonder why I have practically committed my life to development work! To borrow the cliché so beloved of sports stars, I do this for the love of the game. Specifically, the work we do is its own reward. When you see the actual impact on the ground in some of the most far-flung places on the planet, you realise it is all worth it.
…the work we do is its own reward.”
Contributing to improved livelihoods for many vulnerable families in remote Samangan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Ghor, Herat, Logar, Nangarhar and Herat (all provinces of Afghanistan) warms my heart. It gives me a sense of purpose and brings alive the management accounts I so love to prepare, present and analyse.
In addition to appreciating the results of our work on others, I cannot think of any other field of endeavor with so much impetus for personal growth. My work has taken me to many countries across the globe, from Southern Africa to the bustling metropolises of Europe and even to the most troubled hotspots.
The people I have met in these different places may as well be living on different planets in terms of their exposure and differing worldviews but there is never mistaking the human element, the goodwill, the resilience and the constant desire and pursuit for a better life even when it seems like the situation is hopeless. I have learnt that most of the people in some of the worst socio-economic situations are there merely by accident of birth and circumstances much like my own circumstances being Zimbabwean.
The past 15 years of my development career have brought new challenges and grown my core capabilities as a development finance professional in the process. Oscillating between the struggle for economic empowerment, justice, equality and respect for societal traditions and values we must always be circumspect. To achieve mission objectives, we must win the trust of those whose lives we seek to affect while at the same time not coming across as though we seek to upend cherished cultural mores.
This has also forced me to accept that development work is not just about ticking boxes, it is about directly affecting people’s lives…”
Working with some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, I have found my own visions and aspirations bound with theirs. Traditional arms-length detachment so prevalent in other careers is a luxury. This has also forced me to accept that development work is not just about ticking boxes, it is about directly affecting people’s lives, and because of this, the mission itself truly isn’t static, but dynamic, responding to disparate external environmental factors we could never hope to control.
One of the biggest challenges I have encountered in my work is that of intersectionality of challenges being addressed. You could not effectively deal with improving livelihoods in say Afghanistan, without addressing the thorny issue of gender imbalances. This complicates interventions, especially on limited budgets and the cultural milieu within which development practitioners operate and has often required a delicate balancing act to address.
Finally, I would be disingenuous if I did not highlight one of the biggest pitfalls of my peripatetic career choice. The toll and impact on personal relationships of this peripatetic line of work is immense. In effect most personal relationships are inevitably reduced to virtual relationships.
Few other sectors have been so effective in nurturing growth, resilience, and self-reliance among the most vulnerable.”
I yearn, often, to share a cup of cocoa with my three children who I see a few times a year. Despite this, I believe development work is some of the most important work out there. Few other sectors have been so effective in nurturing growth, resilience, and self-reliance among the most vulnerable. Based on what I have encountered in the last 15 years, I will say that there are not enough development workers today, nor are there adequate resources invested by those who can bolster this crucial field.
More about the author
Tonderai Mazingaizo is the Director of Finance and Operations for Afghanaid. He has been based in Kabul Afghanistan for the past 30 months working alongside Afghans to help provide tools and skills training that Afghans need to help themselves, their families and communities. Tonderai holds a Bachelor of Accountancy Honors from the University of Zimbabwe and a Master of Philosophy in Development Finance from the University of Stellenbosch Business School (Cape Town, South Africa). He writes in his own personal capacity and the views in this paper do not reflect those of Afghanaid