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Why to apply to ODI’s Fellowship Scheme: notes from current Fellows


Written by Ana Sanmartin Castillo, Madhav Lala, Andy Norman, Binura Seneviratne, Alberto Soriano, Abigail Chari, Sonali Swain, Teo Namandje

For over 60 years, the ODI Fellowship Scheme has been matching bright young economists and statisticians with governments and international organisations around the world.

The first three ODI Fellows began their work in 1963. Since then, we have graduated over 1,300 Fellows across 49 low- and middle-income countries. The scheme has a win-win formula: fellows gain invaluable experience working inside bureaucracies in a new country, while in turn host institutions are equipped with talented professionals to fill pressing skills gaps.

Here some of our current Fellows, at different stages of their fellowship journey, reflect on their experiences to date. From writing a speech for the president to training with the national boxing team, they describe the ways the scheme has enriched their lives both professionally and personally, and why to consider applying to be in our next cohort of Fellows.

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The 2023 cohort of ODI Fellows.

Ana Sanmartin Castillo (Ministry of Agriculture, Sierra Leone)

Living and working in Sierra Leone as a Latin American has been a unique and fascinating opportunity for me to engage in permanent cultural exchange and learn to navigate unfamiliar circumstances on a daily basis.

One of my most memorable experiences as an ODI Fellow was on my first day at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in Sierra Leone. The Minister entrusted me with preparing a critical policy paper for Cabinet approval and contributing to writing the Feed Salone Strategy, which was the government's flagship programme.

Collaborating with my colleagues at the Ministry and external stakeholders was crucial and inspiring, making me feel like I was part of the team. Although the task was incredibly intense and the responsibility immense, the experience was extremely gratifying because of the impact of the results we delivered.

While the journey as a Fellow is far from easy, that is exactly what makes it so captivating.

If you are looking for a challenging and rewarding experience that will shape your career, help you understand the complexity of development challenges from the ground, and push you to grow both personally and professionally, I encourage you to apply for the ODI Fellowship Scheme.

Madhav Lala (Ministry of Finance, Timor-Leste)

I applied to the ODI Fellowship Scheme because I wanted to work on economic policy challenges in a development context. I wanted to be integrated within a policy institution rather than work as an ‘outsider’.

As my fellowship draws to a close and I look back on the highlights of the last two years, I have indeed had several experiences that met these aspirations.

I coordinated and led the production of budget publications, wrote speeches for the Minister of Finance, became fluent in a new language, represented my Ministry in meetings with World Bank and IMF, produced the country’s GDP forecasts and developed original analysis on fiscal and macroeconomic policy.

However, I also lived through moments and experiences outside my work that I could never have predicted. Being exposed to a completely different part of the world and lifestyle gave me the chance to learn how to dive and free dive, hike up mountains, holiday in remote island paradises, train with the national boxing team and have my first ever amateur boxing fight in front of an audience of hundreds.

So, to any prospective candidate, I would say that that applying to the ODI Fellowship Scheme will give you a chance to have two years of personal and professional growth beyond any expectations.

Andy Norman (Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Uganda)

I am coming to the end of my posting in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development here in Uganda.

I can 100% recommend the Fellowship Scheme to anyone who wants to work on the frontline of economic development (and anyone who enjoys feeling radically out of their depth on a daily basis).

It’s a wild ride, and unlike any other job I can imagine. It's scary, difficult, satisfying, frustrating, uplifting, disillusioning, exhausting, energising and (every now and then) immensely rewarding.

It has given me unbelievable opportunities to work on real world problems facing low-income countries.

I have travelled across Uganda supporting ministers, contributed to key national policies and presented my ideas to Permanent Secretaries, helped change ministers' minds. I have even written a speech for the President.

No other job could have given me the opportunity to do these things.

Binura Seneviratne (Senior Economist, Government of Tonga)

As an ODI Fellow serving the Tongan Government over the past year, I can say that this experience has been the most enriching and fulfilling of my professional career.

The ODI Fellowship Scheme has provided me with unparalleled opportunities to immerse myself in a new culture and gain a profound, first-hand understanding of development economics.

Working as a Senior Economist in the Economic and Fiscal Policy Division, my responsibilities extend beyond my job description. While I contribute to crucial reports on budgeting and GDP forecasting, I also engage with a diverse array of stakeholders, including development sector officials, multilateral organisations and foreign embassies. These interactions occur at both professional and personal levels, allowing me to forge valuable connections and leverage them for positive change within my workplace.

Binura Seneviratne
Image credit:ODI Fellow Binura Seneviratne working with the Government of Tonga.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my role has been directly contributing to economic policy-making in Tonga. I also help build capacity with my colleagues, and in return, I have built up a great understanding of how a small island economy works. I have felt part of the team despite being a foreigner and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time. Moreover, the Fellowship Scheme has broadened my horizons, not only professionally but also personally, by granting me the chance to explore countries I may never have visited otherwise.

Undoubtedly, being an ODI Fellow comes with its challenges. It requires resilience and adaptability to thrive in diverse and sometimes demanding environments. However, for those who possess humility, an open mind, and a passion for development work and travel, I wholeheartedly recommend seizing this opportunity.

The ODI Fellowship is not just a job. It is a transformative journey that will broaden your perspective, deepen your understanding and empower you to contribute meaningfully to global development.

Alberto Soriano (Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, Pakistan)

I have only been in my position for one month, but so far I have managed to do quite a lot. I have had high-level conversations with ministers and secretaries, and met a lot of my colleagues.

I have also started working on a new project that aims at improving foundational learning and literacy in Pakistan. This is a country with a huge learning crisis: 28 million children are not going to school. That's the highest number in the world. Even if they are going to school, four out of five children are not able to read or write by the age of 10.

We need smart solutions and quick solutions. That’s what you will be involved in as an ODI Fellow.

You will be involved in high-level conversations and projects that will allow you to thrive, to expose yourself to a completely different scenario and culture.

You will have to learn a new language, new skills, deliver through others, and help others thrive in their own fields. I think that is why the ODI Fellowship Scheme is so special.

Abigail Chari (Ministry of Health, Malawi)

I have spent the last six months working with Malawi's Ministry of Health. My experience as an ODI Fellow has been incredibly enriching, as it has allowed me to actively participate in the implementation of various ministry programmes. This has granted me firsthand insights into the policy-making process and given me a deeper understanding of government operations.

Being stationed at the Ministry of Health has provided me with the chance to contribute to the advancement of universal health coverage. It has also opened doors for valuable interactions and collaborations with diverse individuals within the sector. The Fellowship Scheme has provided me with an opportunity to enhance my intercultural skills as I immerse myself in the vibrant community of the warm heart of Africa.

The ODI Fellowship Scheme stands out as a distinctive opportunity, which offers a gateway to global impact and personal growth. It provides a chance to delve into the heart of international development, contributing to solutions for pressing global challenges.

Engage with diverse cultures, expand your skillset, and forge lasting connections in a dynamic field. The Fellowship Scheme presents a great opportunity to make a tangible difference in the world while broadening horizons.

Sonali Swain (Ministry of Finance in Timor-Leste)

The ODI Fellowship Scheme has provided me with some of the most challenging but memorable moments in my professional journey. It has been a truly enriching experience, filled with a plethora of learning opportunities, both professionally and culturally.

As the first ODI fellow in my department, there were no standard tasks to be performed as such but this gave me the opportunity to work across a few different departments and to be involved in a variety of tasks, ranging from assisting in developing annual action plans for different line ministries to working on Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) frameworks, and sometimes simply developing very simple excel templates with my team to simplify existing data collection methods.

A major takeaway for me during my two-year stint was to not look for a set structure but to be more flexible. This changed my initial experience as a first-time Fellow in my department and gave me the opportunity to work more efficiently and across a wide variety of things.

It made me realise that sometimes focusing on bringing in efficiency can just mean enhancing basic skills within the team.

Teo Namandje (Ministry of Health, Sierra Leone)

My experience so far is really about being able to adapt to new environments. Sierra Leone is completely different from Namibia. It was quite a shock in terms of infrastructure. Freetown is a bustling city. The driving, the busy streets, the unreliable supply of electricity and water, the public transport. Wow! I had to loosen up and learn to stay composed in unfamiliar environments. This is one soft skill that I will hold onto.

I would say this is the most challenging and rewarding experience of a lifetime. I am enjoying working with my colleagues. It is the little things that make being a Fellow beautiful. Writing a simple letter, writing minutes, having lunch and hearing stories from colleagues about their origins.

Being an ODI Fellow, one gets an opportunity to learn every day. Anyone looking for this should definitely apply. A unique learning experience that one never gets when travelling for leisure.

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