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Pursuing a Career in NGOs: Balancing Realism and Idealism

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Since many of our students at the University are either veterans or active servicemembers, their career trajectories are obviously influenced by their military experiences. Many of our students have been deployed overseas and have worked in many international locales. Whether they were in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions, those students may have encountered non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In many courses, instructors discuss the expanding role of NGOs, including a course I teach all the time: IRLS 402 International Law and Regimes. But the many theoretical discussions about the work of NGOs doesn’t give students a glimpse into the worklife within an NGO and the different career trajectories in this space.

Talking with an Expert in NGOs

I decided to interview someone who has bridged the gap between academia and NGOs for many years: Dr. Yossi Ives. Dr. Ives earned his Ph.D. in psychology from Oxford Brookes Business School in the United Kingdom and has written several scholarly articles and books.

Dr. Ives is also the founder and chairman of Tag International Development, an NGO involved in development projects in Africa and Asia. His work over the past decades has involved projects in multiple locations in Africa dealing with different aspects of civil society, and he is also a rabbi in a community in the greater New York City area.

Dr. Fuchs: Dr. Ives, tell us about your organization and its projects.

Dr. Ives: My organization is called Tag International Development and was founded in 2009. It has delivered more than 30 projects of varying sizes in more than a dozen countries.

Initially, the organization went for a very diverse range of projects in numerous countries, but we later decided to run a more focused operation. For nearly a decade, we have been active in Myanmar and Kenya with a focus on agriculture, maternal health, and youth life skills. Of late, our focus has been changing, especially given the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Dr. Fuchs: What kind of people work in your organization, and how would someone pursue a career in the NGO space?

Dr. Ives: Tag is a development organization, which means that it is focused on longer-term capacity building. Most of our work entails technical expertise, such as medicine or agronomy. A good portion of our staff had relevant experience and training, and they were often natives of the countries we were operating in.

However, we also have more general staff who gained valuable knowledge in the specialties we worked in, but whose main skills were in the ability to manage complex projects in an international context. There are unique challenges involved in working in developing countries, and there are particular sensibilities that are required when working with grant-making bodies.

For these roles, a good understanding of such realities is highly valuable, but this understanding often requires exposure to a real-world situation. That is why internships are so helpful, as they allow a newcomer to the NGO sphere to demonstrate an awareness of what the organization has to contend with.

Another thing to bear in mind is that projects being delivered in far-flung places are more prone to instability. Actors in NGOs need to be adaptable and flexible in their approach.

While funders typically expect to be presented with a fixed structure, the reality is that things rarely go to plan. It is necessary to expect the unexpected, to plan for contingencies and to be solution-focused. People who are wired in this way will do well in the NGO space.

Dr. Fuchs: What do you think is the skill set for a person in this space in the 21st century?

Dr. Ives: There is a major dichotomy when it comes to working in developing countries, and the most valuable people are those who can span this divide. I will call them idealists and realists. It is obviously desirable to have committed team members who are passionate about humanitarian work. Such people are likely to be more dedicated and motivated.

But international development work has no choice but to face often less-than-ideal circumstances, and naiveté is not an advantage. In developing a generation of leaders in the NGO world, we need to cultivate a strong belief in the cause, whilst engendering a firm grip on reality.

I always most valued those people who displayed high levels of enthusiasm for the mission, but who did not display a simplistic mindset about the nature of the work. From experience, job candidates tend to focus mostly on one side of this equation. I would recommend that they try to show their understanding of the complexity of the NGO field and that they are comfortable balancing the competing requirements of idealism and realism.

Dr. Fuchs: You just finished a book on international cooperation that suggests a new model based on knowledge exchange. Tell us about this model. How is it different from traditional models?

Dr. Ives: My book focuses on the emergence of Israel through the stages of development to become a highly advanced economy. From its early days of pioneering innovations in agriculture to its current dominance in many areas of digital technologies, Israel’s growth has been largely driven by know-how.

Israel faced immense challenges throughout its existence, and its success is owed to obsessive commitment to finding solutions to problems. The book describes dozens of striking examples of Israeli innovation from the national water carrier to a unique student mentoring scheme.

However, the book’s aim is to highlight the relevance of this expertise to developing countries. They are struggling with many of the same challenges that Israel faced, and they would benefit hugely from a more extensive exchange of knowledge. It seems clear that international development of the future will be driven by innovation, and in many cases, that will mean sharing existing solutions.

This type of sharing suggests a new model of international relations based on the exchange of knowledge, rather than historic relationships (e.g. such as with the British Commonwealth) or political groupings (e.g. non-aligned countries). I believe that we are at the beginning of this new era, and we should be teaching and encouraging this mindset so as to greatly accelerate the development path of poorer countries.

Dr. Fuchs: How are these models changing – or at least how should they change – the way policymakers view international relations?

Dr. Ives: It is likely that we will increasingly come to view the main two world groupings as those focused on a knowledge-based economy and those focused on a commodities-driven economy (as opposed to authoritarian vs. libertarian, or communist vs. democratic, etc.). Countries will judge the importance of their relationships with other countries based on their knowledge exchange profile. For example, India is keen on strengthening its relationship with Israel because of the potential for joint projects in such areas as space, pharmaceuticals, and defense, even though Israel is not an important consumption market for Indian products.

The world is paying close attention to the example of Israel as a recent and dramatic example of a country that shifted sharply towards a knowledge economy and how that has impacted on its foreign relations trajectory. This change could lead to a jettisoning of prior assumptions about what amounts to a sound basis for international relations in favor of relationships that put expertise at their center.

It seems that developing communities and countries that position themselves as willing and able to partner in a transition towards a more knowledge-based economy are going to be the more attractive places for development assistance going forward. There is a fair degree of fatigue with the old approach, in which vast resources were deployed with often little sustainable impact.

Dr. llan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University Law School. He has published a book, “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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