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The Future of International Development: A Place for Doing Good and Challenging Technological Work

By May 27, 2015

Author: Xinyi Duan, Director of Technology and Data Research at Liberty Asia, part of Share (Asia Pacific) Limited, Hong Kong.

Liberty-AsiaMany young people and recent graduates today have a profound need to do something meaningful for the world while developing their careers. I, too, have experienced it myself as a millennial graduate. While there is a deep drive to help others and the planet, when I graduated from Princeton, I knew very few fellow graduates that joined the international development field and almost no one went into a local NGO in another part of the world. To many of us, it seems the world of development is at once vague and impenetrable, filled with jargon about development indexes, poverty alleviation targets, and metrics and evaluations. More importantly, as young people looking to develop a promising future, it was not clear what we would get out of a commitment to the development sector.

Before joining an anti-trafficking NGO, I never thought about working for a non-profit or a development NGO. Instead, I have enjoyed great educational opportunities to learn a variety of interesting subjects and had experienced tech entrepreneurship. While I would readily admit to wanting to help on issues of social justice and inequality, I did not think there was a place for me in development field because I enjoyed working on areas involving data driven research and technology. The image of the intrepid aid worker handing out supplies in war-marred landscapes seemed far away behind the comfort of my screens in New York City. Nonetheless, at a recommendation from a professor, I took a risk and moved to Asia to try to apply some of my technical skills to the problem of human trafficking. The work I have done so far with Liberty Asia has shattered my own preconceived notions. With the support of and the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I have been able to design and implement a Salesforce based case management system across frontline NGOs to manage their client and case data. This not only provides the NGOs who are so strained for resources a professional tool to work more efficiently, but also provides the field with a source of data about trafficking that is from the frontline, in real time, longitudinal, and in quantity that would otherwise be impossible without the help of technology.

It is a solution that seems so obvious that since we have been working on the project, many have asked how this has not been done before. The problems with technology are almost never about technology, but about people. The reason this has not been done before is not that the technological possibilities did not exist, but that the right kind of people did not exist in development to take it up. Many of the most well trained or educated young people looking to develop their technical skills do not look to the development to grow their careers. They still view non-profits and development NGOs as a place to learn NGO-specific communication skills or front-line or community assistance skills. But for every field to move forward, it must contain a variety of skillsets and types of people. How can we expect to solve some of the world’s hardest, most devastating, and complicated problems with anything less? Liberty Asia’s Salesforce project is one example of a program that breaks the mold and attracts those who are technically inclined in specific areas like technology or data to join us and apply their skills to an important problem. Those who join us not only get to do meaningful work, but also learn to be incredibly creative Salesforce experts.

The anti-trafficking field in Asia is not unique; every development arena faces this problem and the world is begging for people to take on the challenge. The only issue is whether young people today, who are often technically talented in so many different areas at a young age, will want to take on these challenges. Like many people my age, I used to think that only when I am much older I would be able to make important decisions or direct meaningful projects at work; or that the only place to get respectable technical career development is in prestigious financial firms, tech industries, or big name corporates. I was wrong. My work at Liberty Asia has been the most significant work I have done so far—the most significant that I could have done at my age. Thanks all to our wonderful frontline NGOs partners who work tirelessly to assist vulnerable and victimized populations everyday, and thanks to organizations like Salesforce that now have generous and useful not-for-profit arms that give us the tools to help those frontline NGOs. Many technology companies like Salesforce have incredible willingness to contribute, but no one can create change from the outside alone. They need people who are technologically oriented, who understand the potential of the tools, and how to apply them to the problems from within the field. In return, this will be the most challenging and significant work one can do and I am hopeful that more fellow young graduates will take up the challenge.


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