You start by knowing what you care about. International Development, as a single topic, is almost impossible to access. It’s too big, and it’s hard to think about the theory without an example to work from. The best way to start learning about it is to look at one or two issues that you feel passionate about. Those issues could be child labor, maternal health, improving agriculture, or a hundred other topics. They key is to choose things you’re excited about, so your research is interesting to you.

Then, you start reading. You start with textbook-type stuff; the basics. Articles in the mainstream media, on blogs and from advocacy groups, that sort of thing. Wikipedia is a good starting point, since every article has a bibliography.  Once you’ve mastered the basic concepts and vocabulary you go deeper, reading journal articles and blogs by people who do the work.

Once you have your vocabulary down and you’ve got a good grounding, then you track down some people to talk to. If you’re serious about either donating money or working in international development, people will talk to you. No one wants to waste their time, but if you know your topic well, then talking to you is a benefit, not a time suck. Make a listen of things you can’t seem to learn from your reading, and start asking people. The easiest people to talk to are advocates and educators. It’s their job to talk to people and make them care, and they’re used to answering questions. Bloggers are good sources, too. If you ask an interesting question, they can always use the answer as a blog post.

Now you know enough to be a really good donor, and give your money in the most effective ways possible. You can stop here, if you like. You can also keep digging. There’s plenty more to read: project evaluations, technical handbooks, proposal drafts. Forums and list-servs.

This is what it looks like in practice: I wake up one day and realize I want to know more about financing for basic education. I begin with my trusty friend google, which sends me to the World Bank, UNICEF, and ODI. Now I know that major players seem to be the World Bank and UNICEF, so I read more from their sites. I also read up on education financing in the US, because that’s a context I’m familiar with.

Once I’ve done enough reading to feel like I can hold my own, I make my list of questions. In particular, I am wondering about global budgets for schools vs. stricter line-item budgets. I also wonder if per-capita financing works, and I am wondering if charter schools are a viable option for the developing world. So, I look for some folks to talk to. I ask on twitter – can anyone recommend someone to talk to me about basic education financing, I want to be an educated donor. And I start looking at the names that repeat over and over in documents I read. Maybe I’ll send a polite email to Liesbet Steer. Maybe I’ll get in touch with the Global Campaign for Education.

At that point, I am ready to be an educated donor, and I can really look at how my own skills could be part of improving financing for basic education. (in my own case, I discovered that being a specialist in health sector financing takes you a long way in understanding education sector financing.) Now I’m in a place to look at job, volunteer opportunities, and ways to give my money and really make a difference.

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