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"The opportunity to work with a smart, driven and impact-focused team has always kept me fascinated."

We are thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with our longest serving employee, who has been with the company for a remarkable 22 years: Matt Uzzell, ASI’s Director of Economic Development & Business Growth. As a valued member of our team, we are eager to learn more about his experience, the early days and what young international development workers should look out for in a company. 

Tell us about the beginnings! When and why did you start working for ASI? 

I joined ASI in 2001 having read Anthropology at Durham and International Development at the SOAS University in London. I was disillusioned with academia and was looking for an organisation that would provide me with the opportunity to get involved in tackling difficult problems.

ASI had grown out of requests from governments around the world for assistance with economic policy advice, regulatory support and such. At the time I joined it was effectively still a small start-up: two founders; three managers; a part-time accountant; an intern; and an office manager – I was employee number 9.

Despite ASI’s modest size, its impact was outsized –  working to support water and settlement negotiations in Palestine, driving economic reforms across Guyana, Ghana, South Africa and India, all the while championing innovative, unorthodox and pragmatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems. ASI was achieving real impact.

What were your first impressions?

I was hooked from day one – I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I’d ever met, working with a group of people that had zero interest in surface stuff or affectation – the currency that mattered was ideas, intellect and effectiveness. The strategy director was as interested in the views of the most junior member of staff (me) as the views of his founding partner. The caveat being if you didn’t know your subject matter and hadn’t thought through your position…you’d be dust. This was exciting, terrifying and pleasing in equal measure.

It’s only in retrospect I realise how lucky I was to find ASI. This was an organisation that treated everyone the same – whatever their experience, title or expertise – the special sauce was always applying intellectual rigour to a problem, considering practical solutions, no matter how unorthodox and then making it happen.

In the 22 years you have been working with ASI, what have your most memorable moments been?

I could list interesting experiences in fascinating places, but for me ASI has always been about ideas and impact. This is what attracted me and what has kept me.

From day one, I had a completely blank slate to look for opportunities where I could add value, achieve impact and drive growth. I intentionally adopted a proactive attitude to working with everyone I could. One of the advisors close to ASI was a Communications Adviser named Steve Masty. He was quite brilliant – innovative, inventive, creative, charismatic but also chaotic, endlessly distracted, easily bored and terrible at anything approaching effective administration. I realised by working with Steve, I could harness his intellect and shape a communications offer we could deliver. This proved remarkably successful, allowing me to win ASI’s first major communications strategy project in Tanzania, quickly followed by multi-year World Bank communications projects in Botswana, Bulgaria, Nigeria, and Trinidad.

Whilst growing our comms offer I also started working across a number of other sectors – I’d won a project to develop an Infrastructure Strategy for Rwanda and was supporting a number of programmes in South Africa and India focused around infrastructure policy, regulation and financing. Each presented opportunities to address tangible problems, figure out how to do things better and get stuck into the cut and thrust of actually making it happen. Again I was working with some of the smartest advisers and I found myself energised by our ability to effect clear, sustainable and tangible impact.

The quality of people seems to be a recurring topic!

Absolutely! From my early days with ASI I’ve worked with some amazing people. I’ve worked with an energy consultant for over twenty years now, who is quite simply the best in the business, I’ve worked across the water sector with some of the most passionate and driven people you could ever hope to meet and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people in many other sectors, for example the climate finance sector, that are really shaping the world today.

What does ASI have that others don’t – or in other words: how did you survive a work marriage of 22 years with the same employer? What’s the secret?

This is an interesting question – ASI is not the same organisation it was when I joined. Over the years we’ve evolved, adapted, grown, contracted and expanded again. ASI has made mistakes, learnt, changed and reinvented itself again and again.

If I was to look for the golden thread that runs through everything, I would say it’s the focus on ideas, intellect and impact. ASI has always had an ability to identify and attract the best and brightest – be they staff or associates. We’ve always valued curiosity, rigorous analysis and innovative thinking. For me, the opportunity to work with a smart, driven and impact-focused team has always kept me fascinated.

A second major factor for me has been the type of work we do – a quick skim of our portfolio should make it pretty clear that we tackle the difficult problems that others shy away from – this could be countering violent extremism in Somalia, building support across African finance ministers for a unified position on climate finance, addressing the massive challenges of a rapidly urbanising world or looking for opportunities to maximise the effectiveness of investors across Africa.

What were some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the sector? How did ASI or yourself adapt?

The sector changes constantly, in part this reflects government donors and their current political agendas but as important is the ability of the sector to learn and adapt…in short, to better understand what works and how best achieve impact. I’ve consistently found the best way in which to deal with challenges is assembling a diverse team that is able to bring a range of experience, expertise and energy. This may sound blindingly obvious, but I’ve always built teams that compliment my own weaknesses. There are some things I’m reasonably good at but much more that I’m not. Whether I’m developing a strategy, setting up a large programme or driving growth in a new market, I’ve always hired talent that is better than me in specific areas. This is a recipe for high-performing teams.

In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting trends in the industry right now? Where is development headed you think?

The climate crisis continues to grow. The world is nowhere near where it needs to be to keep below a 1.5C rise. Any serious government, donor or business that is not focused on this topic is asleep at the wheel. The demographic shifts we are seeing across much of the developing world will massively increase climate emissions, even whilst many of the same countries are already dealing with increasingly serious climate shocks. Green finance, green investment, ESG are necessary tools that, used effectively and transparently, will help us address, or at the very least, mitigate many of the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

What is the most important skill to have in the development sector you think?

For me everything comes down to people – getting to know a client, building a team, managing a programme is all about actively listening to people, figuring out what they need, and identifying how you can help. Sometimes this just means getting the right people in the room and getting out of the way at other times. It means unpacking the problem into bite-sized chunks, addressing the challenge in a sequenced and structured fashion and deploying the right resources at the right time.

Is there one thing you would say to a young person considering a career in international development?

First off – there’s never one thing – life is never that simple.  If you’re setting out in any career I’d suggest:

  1. Find an organisation that aligns with your values – hint: this may not always be the ones you’d think it would be. I’ve come across deeply hierarchical NGOs and flat strategy consultancies. I’ve come across accountancy firms that lead the market in championing inclusivity, diversity and LGBTQ+ rights, NGOs that are consistently more innovative and effective than some of the biggest strategy consultancies and so on, so it’s worth really looking behind the facade and finding out about culture and real purpose and how that aligns to your own personal and professional priorities;
  2. Look for organisations that are seriously working on the big problems – for me personally this would be climate change, infrastructure solutions and inclusive economic empowerment;
  3. Take opportunities that maximise your opportunity for growth – if you’re going to be effective you need to skill up. This means working with people from whom you can learn. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily need to be in the international development sector…you can learn in any sector and sometimes what sets you apart may be knowledge or experience from outside the development sector. Going straight into the development doesn’t necessarily have to be the only or right way;
  4. Look for organisations with a high bar to entry that hire the best and hold themselves to a high standard – as you will have gathered by now, the golden thread running through my time with ASI has been working with some of the best, brightest and most effective people in the sector. This has consistently created a multiplier effect delivering more impactful, sustainable and effective programmes and is fundamentally what has energised and motivated me along the way.

This interview was first published in our 2022 Annual Impact Report, which you can read here in full. 

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