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Alanna Shaikh

Director of Communications, Outreach, and Public Relations for AZ SHIP Abt Associates, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2012-present

Career Trajectory

Blood and Milk ( and UN Dispatch (www, International Development Blogger, 2009-present

Abt Associates, Regional Monitoring and Evaluation Director, QHCP, Tajikistan, 2010-12

UNDP/UNAIDS, HIV Consultant, Tajikistan, 2010

GiveWell, Research Consultant, Remote/Tajikistan, 2010

ZdravPlus, Technical Consultant, Tajikistan, 2009

MacFadden Associates, Country Assistance Coordinator, Washington, DC, 2007-8

International Medical Corps, Senior Desk Officer, Washington, DC, 2006-7

Project HOPE, Deputy Chief of Party, Uzbekistan, 2004-6 Abt Associates, Country Manager, Turkmenistan, 2002-4

Academic Background

Boston University, School of Public Health, MPH (International Health), 2001

Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service, BSFS (Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service), 1996

How do you define your cause?

I am totally obsessed with global health. And I realize that's a big field to claim as a cause, but I am honestly interested in almost everything about global health.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

I've wanted to do this as long as I can remember. I remember being in 9th or 10th grade and already thinking I wanted to work in international development. I'm from Syracuse, NY, and I was heavily involved in Model United Nations. That put me in a group of other internationally minded kids; I am one of those people who gets to live her childhood dream.

How would you describe your field?

In the absolutely broadest sense, it's about trying to help everybody in the world reach a healthy and happy standard of living—about giving people the opportunity and potential to live fulfilling lives.

I don't see a lot of overlap between international education and exchange and international development. It seems to me development is about trying to support the poorest of the poor and finding a way to give opportunities to people who didn't previously have them. International education and exchange goes the other way, where it supports up-and-coming leadership in other countries. . . . So, I guess in that sense, it actually is a part of international development because it's building capacity. The poorest of the poor are not getting involved in international exchanges, but on the other hand, there are an awful lot of foreign leaders who have studied in the United States or elsewhere overseas, so exchanges do have an impact on international development by affecting the leadership.

How would you describe your career path?

I wandered around doing a lot of vaguely international things. And then I started my public health degree, and that snapped me on course. I had a global health-related internship while I was doing my master's degree, and then when I finished my master's I moved to Uzbekistan as an intern with a global health agency. I was offered my first paying job while I was there. I've been rolling happily along on a global health track ever since.

That international experience in Uzbekistan was the key that opened the door. That was the job that's gotten me every job since. I hate advising people to pick up and go somewhere without a job and find one, because it's risky. I've talked to people for whom it didn't go well. But that international experience is what makes people look at your resume twice, what makes you stand out from the other candidates. It's what proves you're really passionate about this line of work.

International development is an unbelievably competitive field. And I understand why. I absolutely love my job, and I can see why other people would want to do it. But because it's so competitive, the internships, initial jobs, or overseas experiences that you can line up in advance from the United States or your home country are insanely competitive. We're talking 10 selected out of 1,000 applicants—and that's for an unpaid fellowship.

Where did you "start" and how did it help you get to where you are today?

I was an intern in the Office of the President at the American University in Cairo, and I realized a couple of things. I found I was really well suited to living overseas and that I loved it. I also realized that I didn't want to work in university administration. When I looked at the jobs that interested me, pretty much every position required the master's degree in public health. So the internship helped me both to learn what I was good at and figure out what I wanted to do next.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?

Abt Associates is a USAID (US Agency for International Development— see chapter 10) implementing partner. Right now, I'm working with a health sector support project in Baku, Azerbaijan. We work to support the Ministry of Health of Azerbaijan to provide better health care. That includes training trainers, training physicians, supporting the government in making better health policy, and helping the government develop information systems in order to track health care spending and health information itself.

It's office work. The management team is either in our office in Baku or in meetings with either USAID or different Ministry of Health departments. I personally do a lot of writing for the project. The project ends soon, and I'm involved in drafting our close-out documents to codify and present everything that we've learned so that we can pass it on to the Ministry of Health to use when our experts aren't in-country anymore. I also oversee all of the reporting to USAID and the internal writing for Abt Associates. And because I have relevant experience, I provide technical assistance and support to the maternal-child health team and the monitoring and evaluation director.

One of the first things I tell people who are interested in this field is international development work is office work. I know I had a romantic notion of what international development was when I started university. When people tell me, "I'm not suited for office work, but I want to work internationally," I tell them, probably the best thing to do is to go to medical school and work with international populations in the United States. It still has that intercultural experience, you're still doing good for an underserved population, and it will get you out of the office. But when you turn on CNN and see people wearing scrubs and handing out food to refugees in refugee camps, well, first of all, most of those people are local staff, and second, they still go back to their tents in the refugee camp and spend six hours writing up their reports about everything they just handed out.

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

The key to networking is to think about it as being generous from your heart. It's not about meeting people and what you can get from them. It's about what can you do for them, how you can help them. If you're working in development because you care about altruism, then looking at your network in that way is a good place to start.

At some point you're a student—the key is to work that. Being a student is a special time in your life, and people respect that and find it interesting. You can actually e-mail people and say, "I'm a student and I'm really interested in your field, your organization, and your job. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and ask you some questions?" But be targeted and specific. When someone e-mails me and says, "I'm very interested in global health, can we do a phone call?" that's vague, and I really don't know where to start with that. But if he says, "I'm thinking of applying for jobs in Azerbaijan and I was hoping you could tell me what it's like" or, "I'm thinking of applying to Abt Associates, can you tell me if they're a good employer?", that's useful. That's something that catches my attention and makes me want to talk to them.

Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?

There are a few people I think of as mentors—although I think they mostly think of me as a friend. They are predominantly older women who are on career paths that I would like to follow. They are people I go to with questions and for advice.

One mentor—I call her my "Once and Future Boss"—I have worked for more than once in different positions. We always keep in touch when I'm not working for her. She is a very helpful resource. Another is someone I met because she came on a field visit to Uzbekistan when I was the country director for a project. It took time for me to realize that somebody so many levels above me was interested in me as a person and wanted to keep in touch. I remember she came in October and she sent me a Christmas card that year.

That's when I realized, she wants to keep in touch, I should keep in touch too!

Do you consider yourself a mentor to others?

I have one person who actually came to me and said, "Alanna, I don't know anybody else who works in global health. Can you be my mentor?" She also asked, "What can I do for you in return? How can I make sure it's fair?" And I told her, "that's silly, I'm happy to be your mentor, you don't have to do anything in return." But because she opened that door, when I do need help with something, something that somebody in their twenties would understand, I e-mail her and ask for help.

There are also different people that I've supervised who think of me as a mentor. It's not formal—they've never used that word—but we keep in touch. We talk frequently and, similar to the older women I mentioned, I do think of them as friends. But they are friends whose careers are more junior than mine.

How have you maintained a healthy balance between your work and personal life?

It cuts both ways. On the one hand, in the field of international development, I've found that employers are often more willing to compromise with you and are open to unconventional working arrangements. For example, I have an eighteen-month-old son. When he was born, he and a nanny actually came to my office with me. On the other hand, the time change is a killer; when you're just getting ready to leave work, people in Washington, DC, are just waking up and sending you e-mails.

For me, I mean, I don't know if it's a balance or not, but it works for me. Unless we're on an urgent deadline, I leave work on time and I go home. I don't stay late at work for minor things, and, until my kids go to sleep, I don't work. If I leave the office at 5:30 and get home at 6:00 and the kids are in bed by 9:00, wanting that one three-hour sliver to myself doesn't seem unreasonable.

You're very rarely going to have a perfectly balanced day, but it's like nutrition: you need to look at your whole week. Is your week reasonably well balanced? You have to remember that the balance is larger than a single day.

What lessons have you learned as your career has evolved?

Sometimes you make a big plan and it works; you have to stand and stare in amazement that you actually pulled it off. On the other hand, sometimes something you think is the best plan ever, you don't know enough to see the problems with it. So we are best served by figuring out what we love and making our choices based on determining the next step.

There is a difference between loving the organization and loving your job. You can be working with a fantastic organization doing fantastic things, but if you don't like your day-to-day activities, you're not going to be happy there. People confuse the organization with their specific position. As a rule, it's more important to look at what your average day is going to be like.

Any final advice?

I don't want to discourage anybody, but it is genuinely difficult to get your first job in international development. Usually, you end up working for free. That's bad in a lot of ways and has social justice implications that I don't like, but I can't personally fix the system. So I want to at least warn people that it's coming. You should think about your motivations and what really is interesting to you about this work. If there is anything else you can love as much, maybe you should do that.

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