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Five questions with change-maker Alanna Shaikh

Monday, May 3, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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I’m excited about my next change-maker interview. If you haven’t come across Alanna Shaikh yet then I highly recommend that you nip off now and check out her writing. Go on, I’ll wait here for you.

Alanna impresses me because she is as sharp as she is genuine.

The thing is that when it comes to making positive change in the world we need more than good intentions. Well-intentioned but poorly researched ‘aid’ initiatives can do more harm than good and, because our first responsibility is to the people who we are supposed to be serving, sometimes development professionals have to risk pissing people off to say so. Alanna is willing to do this and for that, and many other things, I salute her.

1. What is it that breaks your heart? What fills you with hope/joy?

Almost everything breaks my heart. The depth of need and disaster in our world is staggering. People fill me with joy. Over and over again, I’ve seen people do the most amazing things out of compassion or a sense of justice.

2. What are you doing about it?

My base belief is that people will do tremendous things if you give them the power and the opportunity to do so. So I have based my life’s work on finding ways to make that possible. Most of my work is in health, because I feel like decent health is a necessary precondition to almost everything people need to achieve.

3. How did you get started doing this?

The really ordinary way. A master’s degree in international health, an unpaid internship overseas, and then, finally, a paid job that led to more jobs.

4. What do you do to take care of yourself?

Unless I am desperate for money, I don’t take work I don’t believe in.

5. Do you have any advice for someone who dreams of doing what you do?

International development is a brutally competitive field to get into. I’m not sure why, but it’s something an awful lot of people want to do. So my first piece of advice would be to think about why you want to do international development work, and figure out if you could get the same fulfillment doing something else. If your heart is set on international development, then be prepared for a lot of unpaid jobs before you find one with a salary. Beyond that, there is a lot you can do to help find work – learn foreign language, polish your writing skills, develop marketable skills like grant-writing, and travel as much as you can.

Development professionals like Alanna have amassed is a wealth of knowledge and experience about effective development – what works and what doesn’t work (see Alanna’s great post “Nobody wants your old shoes” for an example of the latter). If we want to be of service in the world then we can learn a lot from people like Alanna.

If you have questions for Alanna about getting into a career in international development or what makes good aid (including why sending shoes to Haiti or t-shirts to Africa are probably not examples of good aid), then you can join Alanna and I for a live chat on Twitter.

Live Twitter chat with Alanna Shaikh
Time: Tuesday 4 May at 17:00 UTC/GMT ( go here to find out what time this is where you are)
Hashtag: #zpchats (zen peacekeeper chats)

UPDATED: Thanks to everyone who joined the chat. If you missed it you can find the archive at Twapper Keeper under #zpchats – here is the link.

PS: If you’d like to join in but are not yet on Twitter or are new to Twitter and are not sure how Twitter chats work, then my ‘Zen Peacekeeper Guide to Twitter‘ might help.


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3 Responses to "Five questions with change-maker Alanna Shaikh"

  1. Emma says:

    I like the directness of Alanna’s writing. Thank you!

  2. thank so much for this interview/chat. very helpful information. also appreciate the link to her website and insights from Alanna. Will be exploring on….

    Something that struck me is a s follows: “International development is a brutally competitive field to get into. I’m not sure why, but it’s something an awful lot of people want to do.” Maybe it is so competitive because there is not enough funding to offer all the people who really want to do this line of work? Which is sad…that means there are more people willing to help and change the world but must think of ways on their own instead of via organizations that are limited in hiring or funding.

    Great stuff, marianne.

    Much gratitude,


  3. Alanna says:


    You’re absolutely right about why jobs are in such short supply.

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