Rethinking the priorities of educational communities

by: Seiko Kanda

“Me regalas un pan con ave-palta, por favor?”

“Give me a chicken-avocado sandwich, please?”

It was my morning routine to buy this typical Chilean sandwich from a kind, elderly lady in a tiny mom-and-pop store. The happiness that 1,200 pesos ($1.70) bought me on my way to the Enseña Chile office did not simply come from the nourishment the sandwich provided, but from the daily interactions with the shopkeeper that made me feel like a local.

MGA student Seiko Kanda holds an avocado and chicken sandwich on a sidewalk in Chile.
Pan con ave-palta (avocado and chicken sandwich)

Chewing off a piece of firm bread on a chilly winter morning, I sometimes found myself wondering how a decade could turn a Japanese high school student—who was interested in little else other than playing soccer—into someone standing on exactly the other side of the earth, spending his summer days thinking about the high school students of this long, beautiful country in South America?

STUDYING HOW SCHOOLS IMPROVE

Enseña Chile, a non-profit promoting access to high-quality education for all children, works to address many of the challenges facing the Chilean education system today. Chile’s market-oriented educational system, formed by its military government in the 1980s, has contributed to an inequality of educational opportunities among the country’s youth. According to an OECD report from 2017, Chile had the fifth-strongest association between socioeconomic status and student performance among all 72 PISA (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment) participating countries.

Colegios Que Aprenden (“Schools That Learn”), a consulting branch of Enseña Chile, believes that school leaders who pursue the higher academic performance of students are falling into a common pitfall. While underperforming schools are concerned about the academic results of students, their efforts to increase students’ standardized test scores often turn out to be ineffective because the school communities do not have a cultural environment that supports students’ academic success. Colegios Que Aprenden encourages these school leaders to invest in creating better school cultures (e.g. implementing effective feedback loops in schools, sharing common ideas about teaching, facilitating the professional development of teachers), which serve to bring about greater academic achievement among the students.

Partnering with Colegios Que Aprenden, our i-Lab research project visited a number of struggling Chilean public schools. Mukhlisa, Frank, and I interviewed multiple school leaders and teachers to identify how they prioritize different ideas for school improvement.

An interview activity sits on a wooden table with tea and cookies.
Materials for an interview activity

While we learned in one of our MGA classes last semester there were theoretical “primordial elements” of school improvement established by researchers in the United States, we still had the following questions: To what extent was this research on school improvement applicable in the Chilean context? More specifically, how might the findings of this research compare with what we would find by asking individual school leaders and teachers what they think would enable them to reach their goals as educators?

Our findings from over thirty interviews we conducted with school stakeholders revealed that both teachers and school leaders in Chile tend to value a close relationship between three elements—a culture of respect, collaboration among teachers, and shared common visions. Our data indicate that the specific strategies for school improvement are better implemented when the school employees feel respected and when they possess a shared vision through actual experience of collaborative activities.

SCHOOL AS A SUPPORTIVE LEARNING COMMUNITY

Colegios Que Aprenden encourages all employees within an educational institution to learn continuously. A school that learns calls its members to build a culture of respect, to collaborate better and to share a significant objective as a school. A culture that promotes learning among all its members is what enables everyone in the community to continue maturing.

One afternoon, I had the opportunity to stand in two K-10 classrooms in a school on the outskirts of Santiago. While leading a class on Japanese history, I reflected on how crucial it must be for teachers to feel supported and cared for by school leaders—or more precisely, by the school culture—in order to be able to fully engage in their students’ lives. Teachers can support students only when they themselves experience similar support from others around them. This may sound banal and idealistic, but considering its potential for positive impact on each student’s life, it ought to be pursued by all educators.

MGA student Seiko Kanda gives a Powerpoint presentation to a classroom of K-10 students in Chile.
Giving a class on Japanese history to K-10 students

As the project went on, I recalled my past experiences in which teachers in my life (including my family and friends) accompanied me and how they personally cared for and encouraged me to grow, forming me to become who I am today. It has been the countless encounters with people whom I respect and by whom I feel respected that has brought about the change that the soccer-loving Japanese high school student experienced over the past decade. Each person who has cared for me—directly or indirectly—has opened doors to new discoveries and new steps in my life.

These faces that I recall are also individuals who need to be respected and supported. We all need to belong to a learning community in which members respect one another—and support one another—in order to be able to learn and to grow. This objective to build a learning community is radically process-oriented, and it is crucial for any educational organization to attain its goals.

MGA students and representatives from Enseña Chile share Japanese cuisine at a restaurant in Chile.
Last lunch of my i-Lab project team with Colegios Que Aprenden

A call for action driven by humility and honest self-reflection

by: Pawas Manandhar

I have gone over this blog in my mind for a long time. How should I write something that is true to the difficult conditions of people’s lives in Timor-Leste without trivializing the work that they have already achieved? How do I talk about the resilience and ethic of the Timorese without patronizing them and exotifying their struggles? Should I even try? Is it even valid for me to claim some or any knowledge of their lives given my privilege as someone only passing by?

Our Integration Lab project with Oxfam is primarily evaluative—we have travelled to Timor-Leste, and further still to an enclave called Oecusse splintered from mainland Timor-Leste and surrounded by Indonesia. We have collected stories through interviews with fifty participants in Oxfam’s Saving for Change (SfC) project and key informants within Oxfam, other civil society organizations, and the government in the span of two weeks. However, I am not naive enough to think that we have alleviated or assisted the people we accompanied (for only two weeks, at that!) to the extent that they want or need. It is with great trepidation and self-evaluation that I even start this blog. Furthermore, this blog is not a criticism of the entirety of developmental work and the organizations that are continuing to do good. This post is a call for all burgeoning and hopeful practitioners in the Keough School, many of whom will undoubtedly get jobs in high positions, to start their careers with honest questioning and reflection on their privilege and power and how that impacts the interactions that we have.

OXFAM’S SAVING FOR CHANGE IN TIMOR LESTE

Our project aims to assist women’s economic empowerment through SfC implemented by Oxfam’s local partners. The challenges these women (and men) face are immense; our work aims to see how we might better assist in the implementation of this program and whether this can be scaled up to include vocational training, financial literacy, or access to markets. We also looked at the possibility of structuring a multi-country program around women’s economic empowerment with interest from Oxfam in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. We hope to inform Oxfam (both the US and country offices) through our research while also being acutely aware of the limitations of our study, given the short time frame. There’s also the matter of power dynamics—as representatives of Oxfam, we were in a position of power given the majority of our interviewees were beneficiaries of Oxfam’s project.

Oxfam, to its immense credit, employs local staff and funnels its programming through local organizations that already have a presence in the communities that they help. It is also one of very few organizations that aims to be involved in advocacy on such sensitive issues as gender equity and sexual violence. Local partners, even when fully stretched in terms of funding and personnel, were available to help and assist our little project. The Oxfam office in Oecusse is entirely run by local Timorese staff while the office in Dili, the capital, has only three to four non-Timorese staff. This integration of local knowledge, staff, and expertise gives me hope that development work occurs at the grassroots level and is not entirely funneled through outside organizations often in the Global North.

A traditional house in Oecusse, Timor-Leste.
A traditional house in Oecusse, Timor-Leste.

It is hard not to notice the influence of INGOs, aid agencies, and international governments in shaping Timor-Leste, one of the youngest countries. For nearly 400 years, the Portuguese had a colonial presence in the country, only for the Indonesians to occupy the area from 1975 to 1999, after which the UN ushered in democracy by organizing the first election in 2001. The agencies that have worked here since the country’s independence in 1999 have done immense work in assisting to forge a country that is well-equipped politically and socio-economically, but there is still a lot to be done. All of this, however, could not be achieved in a such a short period of time without the will, ingenuity, and work of the Timorese.

REFLECTIONS AND THE NEED TO QUESTION

While we can all celebrate the UN and the various other organizations in attempting to better Timor-Leste, can we also not simultaneously question the problematic nature of the powerful in co-opting the course of an entire country? I fully admit that this is reductionist; that the people who are coming in for development are not the same as those that colonized and brutalized this country, but it must also be acknowledged that the countries who come in now and have the capacity to extend this “help” are also the ones who predominantly benefited from the colonization and exploitation in the first place. Is there nothing problematic with colonizing a country for 200+ years, stripping its resources, undermining and oppressing its people, leaving it barren with little to no institutional capacity to build itself up and then having the audacity to come back in with supposed aid and expert advice?

In today’s political climate—with the rise of religious populism, toxic nationalism, and many Western countries’ flirtation with heavily-right leaning political parties—it is often considered taboo to question the inherent power structures in the world. As master’s students, we are taught to question everything, and yet, I have found that this only applies up to a point where the answers, or even the questions, start making us uncomfortable. Questioning development does not mean that you do not appreciate the good things that have been achieved; however, given the current polarization of people’s beliefs, I can see why criticism is mistakenly equated with hostility towards development.

HUMILITY AND SELF-CRITICISM

The Keough School has given me the chance to analyze development work as a practitioner, and it would be a disservice to myself as well as the people who we aim to accompany if I did not reflect deeply on this. Self-reflection on what one is doing, especially given the privilege one holds and understanding how that privilege and power was attained, should be a prerequisite if we are to continue to practice development work.

MGA students work at a table in the i-Lab with a representative from their partner organizationMy team and I planning our project with a representative from Oxfam in the i-Lab.

A little bit of humility goes a long way. You are not going to change the lives of the people with just one product, report, or evaluation. Knowing one’s limitations and approaching others with humility is a simple notion, though rarely practiced. Mixed together, there needs to be a reevaluation of what one’s final product really is. Is our report or product really adding something insightful that others before us have not already noticed or reported on? Through humility, reflection, and active listening, we can attempt to build on what has already been achieved and produce something useful.

There is a need for more evaluative projects, like Oxfam’s, where participants are given an equal voice to raise their concerns free of pressure. Only through honest and critical self-reflection can we practitioners truly move forward.

Feelings in the field

by: Abeera Akhtar

“When natural disasters strike, they hit poor communities first and worst. And since women make up an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line, they are most likely to bear the heaviest burdens.” – WEDO and Oxfam America Fact Sheet


My Integration Lab (i-Lab) partner, Theresa Puhr, and I reached Cambodia in the first week of June to temperatures of around 38°C. The heat combined with the humidity was more than any of us had expected. We soon learned that while summer in Cambodia had always been warm, this year was exceptionally hot, and the rainy season had not seen much rain. The culprit is no stranger to any of us anymore: climate change.

For our i-Lab research project, Theresa and I are spending the summer in Cambodia working with Oxfam to understand how women’s economic empowerment (WEE) programs work and how they can be used to challenge gender dynamics in the household and expand smallholder women farmers’ access to markets. Climate change was never something that explicitly came up as we prepared for our time in Cambodia, yet it is a reality that we could not ignore once we were here.

Though Cambodia is still recovering from the socioeconomic devastation left by the Khmer Rouge, it has certainly caught global attention for its rapid economic growth rate of 7.5% per year. As Cambodia moves away from its dependence on international aid and imports, its focus has shifted to building its natural resource industries. With a largely agrarian economy, rice is one of Cambodia’s main exports, and there is a push for the country to become the largest organic rice producer in Asia.

Green rice fields in the Pursat province of Cambodia.
Rice fields in the Pursat province of Cambodia

Most of the women farmers we have met are between the ages of 40 and 60, since much of Cambodia’s youth have migrated to cities or other countries to look for better economic opportunities. Farming is clearly a labor-intensive job, even more so because these women cannot afford machines to automate any of their work. In our interactions with them, we learned that organic crops provide a premium price, and we sensed their desire to learn about advancements in farming techniques so they could access this market. Yet changing the traditional techniques that they have grown up with is not easy. And while the process may be slow, Cambodia expects to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to rice production in the near future.

HOW CLIMATE CHANGE HOLDS CAMBODIA BACK

Despite all the optimism around increasing rice production, each interview with the women farmers brought forth several challenges still facing the industry. Out of many, one in particular stuck with me: the changing seasonal patterns.

Cambodia has two seasons: the dry season, which lasts from December to April, and the wet season, which is from May to October. Given that rice requires a lot of water, it is a staple of the rainy season. Due to the lack of rainfall this year, many farmers have lost entire crops. While every stakeholder we met with—from development partners to the government—acknowledged climate change as an issue, just like the rest of the world, they are struggling to respond to it. And as Cambodia fast-tracks its development, climate change has become a bigger reality.

PEOPLE BEFORE POLICY

As students of the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program, we talk a lot about policy recommendations, how they might be implemented, and their implications as a whole. However, in these discussions about these major problems, we often lose out on how policies affect individuals and fail to fathom how far-reaching their consequences are. I truly felt this as the private sector individuals in Cambodia talked about how European tariffs and demand from China affects local rice demand—yet, the woman we met had one purpose: produce rice and sell it to make a decent living.

MGA students, an Oxfam representative, and a translator stand in front of a large tree in Cambodia.

As every interview and focus group we have participated in talks about the changing weather and how it has affected crops, I am filled with a sense of dread. Given the current trajectory of climate change, the future looks bleak. Cambodia, along with the rest of the world, is not alone in being unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead. If we were to come back to meet the same women in five years’ time, how will climate change have affected their livelihood? Would the government have stepped up to deal with the problem? Even more so, will the needs of smallholder farmers, particularly women, be heard? Organizations like Oxfam are trying to ensure progress in this area, but with a problem that big and so many lives at stake, the real question to ask is: Are we really doing enough?

Giving a human face to hard data

by: Dominic Scarcelli

With our time in Guatemala quickly coming to an end, my Integration Lab (i-Lab) team and I wanted to meet with some of the people we had talked to earlier in our fieldwork to discuss what we had learned. We invited a few past interviewees to dinner to listen to their thoughts on how we could turn our insights into actions. What surprised me first about this dinner was how most of our guests already knew each other. The conversation nearly immediately turned to questions about family and recent events in each other’s lives. What also surprised me was how they reacted to one another when they introduced themselves and shared a little bit about their organizations.

Colorful houses on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
View from the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

As we went around the table, there were lots of nods from participants who had previously worked together. This all changed when we arrived at someone whom no one at the table had worked with before. As she described the work of her organization, I could see everyone else at the table lean forward, listening intently. I could see the beginning of future collaboration before anyone even said a word.

BUILDING COLLABORATION IN CONTEXT

My i-Lab team and I have been working with Community Empowerment Solutions (CES) in Guatemala and Ecuador to improve collaboration between NGOs working in the local communities. Learning about these people’s experiences with collaboration—their successes, their challenges, and their ideas for how to make it easier for organizations to work together—helps us work with CES to develop a system to facilitate future partnerships.

MGA i-Lab students plan their projects on a mirror with bright-colored sticky notes.
MGA i-Lab students practice design thinking while planning their project

And so we set out to meet these people and listen to their stories. Putting into practice the skills we learned from our work in i-Lab, we interviewed people from organizations in different communities across Guatemala. We ended up speaking to representatives from more than thirty groups, which we entered into a spreadsheet as a collection of standardized characteristics and categories to make our eventual analysis easier.

HOW COMMUNITY STORIES ADD DEPTH TO OUR RESEARCH

We began the analysis process as we neared the end of our time in Ecuador. As we went through our data, attempting to find useful insights, I found myself not simply relying on our carefully-crafted coding sheet. I was just as often going back through long-form notes and reflecting back on those interview experiences more holistically, drawing inspiration from the experiences and anecdotes that made each conversation unique.

In our interview data, a lot of organizations highlight the importance of trust; however, in one interview, someone articulated what it means to build trust in a professional setting with a depth that no spreadsheet can convey. The person we spoke to described partnerships between organizations in the same way someone would describe a relationship: how much is too much to share on a first date, when to introduce that person to your family, when to move in together, etc. This wonderful characterization was barely reflected in our data, and certainly not in full detail, yet the concept was just as essential as that data to our work.

Keough School students walk and talk together during a sunset in Antigua, Guatemala
Walking and talking together in Antigua, Guatemala.

On the other hand, reducing these intimate interactions to a few cells on a spreadsheet, as uncomfortable as it may feel, is necessary. As we begin the second phase of our project in Ecuador, the thought of working through more than sixty interviews without any system of standardization sounds borderline impossible. But it is important to remember what is left out in that the process. A good analogy might not be able to be standardized or quantified, but it has changed the way we think about our problem and its solution. The way people talk or listen to each other at dinner may not have a place in a spreadsheet, but it has been just as meaningful to us as any trend we have found in our data. Those human moments that cannot be succinctly summarized or plotted on a graph have been essential to truly understanding the experiences of those people we have met.

Behavior: how small ripples of change can make waves across communities

by: Raushan Zhandayeva

“India is diverse and multifaceted. You can drive 100 kilometers away from Chennai and find yourself in a completely different context and culture.”

Local staff of Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter shared this truth during our first office day in Chennai, India.

The Terwilliger Center seeks to facilitate affordable and dignified housing through inclusive market systems. My teammates and I are working with the Terwilliger Center through the Keough School’s Integration Lab (i-Lab) to develop a methodology that would allow them to conduct behavior change interventions in the construction sector. We have been working in India and Mexico.

Our partnership with Terwilliger Center’s local offices in Chennai and Mexico City has proven to be invaluable. While we were able to share our knowledge of design thinking, behavior change, as well as civil engineering (thanks to our teammate Mayra and advisor Tracy), not only did we receive a technical education in construction practices in both countries, but also immense support on the ground. We had the privilege to interview, interact with, and listen to dozens of local families, construction workers, as well as multiple stakeholders of the construction industry. While design thinking tools, which we have learned about over the course of two previous semesters in the i-Lab, have helped us to develop a more nuanced understanding of the target group, the local expertise that the staff brought to the table made the collaboration most fruitful.

MGA student Raushan Zhandayeva brainstorms with teammates at a Terwilliger Center office in Chennai, India.
An ideation workshop session in Chennai, India, with local Terwilliger Center staff and our advisor.

HOW BEHAVIOR STUDIES INFORM DEVELOPMENT WORK 

Behavior studies, a field that attempts to understand human behavior through an interdisciplinary lens, is becoming increasingly popular across different sectors ranging from public health to product marketing. The development field is not an exception, as more organizations seek to incorporate a behavior change framework into their work. Realizing the potential behind this approach, the Terwilliger Center wants to be one of its pioneers in the construction sector, where this framework has not been used widely yet.

To make the behavior change interventions successful, one has to fully grasp the causes of the behavior, as many attempts at changing fail due to incorrect assumptions. Simply raising awareness about behavior or creating incentives is often not enough, as a behavior is often bolstered by an intricate network of psychological, cultural, and social factors that might be invisible to those outside of the community. This challenge is still at the core of many development efforts, as lots of well-intentioned outsiders attempt to implant solutions that might not only fail to work but actually harm the local community.

MGA student Raushan Zhandayeva interviews a household in Perungaranai
A household interview in Perungaranai.

Aware of this challenge to epistemic injustice, which we have learned about in classes at the Keough School, our team has been cautious in understanding our role coming as foreigners to a context replete with myriad complexities. I still remember one of our faculty at Notre Dame asking us, “Why and how as outsiders do you exactly want to change the behaviors that have been in these places for centuries?” Indeed, knowing the context is important, but even this knowledge might not prove to be enough. For any solution to be sustainable, not only do you have to know the context, you have to live through it. Therefore, while we read numerous reports to prepare ourselves for the trip, our textbook solutions will be overshadowed by the real experience we encounter on the ground.

SUPPORTING GRASSROOTS INNOVATION IN GLOBAL COMMUNITIES

Throughout these two months, our team has tried to remain cognizant of our role in the project: as an external group, we are not the ones to come up with solutions, but rather support the local offices in creating their own. Ultimately, our methodology is a process-oriented project, which we hope will be helpful to the Terwilliger Center with their future initiatives.

Colorful houses dot a hill on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Houses on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Context plays an important role in developing our methodological tools, as well. Similar to how dangerous it is to make a conclusion about any situation based on a single story, it is also dangerous to build any methodology based on one context and then try to apply it somewhere else. Being able to travel and to test our tools in two countries has only highlighted the importance of a comparative perspective.

Diving deep into culture and context

by: Christine Germann

As a student in the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program, I genuinely appreciate the diversity of my cohort: their nationalities and cultures, their personalities and perspectives on issues such as religion, freedom, development, peace, justice, and social responsibility. Both in class and out, numerous opportunities exist to dive deep into the “whys” lying beneath each individual’s theories and understandings. These engaging interactions have been instrumental in helping me to learn how to seek out the contextual meanings behind the research during my Integration Lab global partner experience.

Partnering with Catholic Relief Services’ Emergency Response and Recovery Department through the Keough School of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, my team is researching opportunities to advance financial inclusion with forcibly displaced populations and host communities, specifically by looking at humanitarian cash transfers. To better understand the lives of refugees, transnational migrants, and those who live where these groups settle, we are spending one month in Bangladesh engaging with those affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis, and one month in Uganda examining the same data points with South Sudanese refugees and locals in and around the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.

Rohingya camps in the Ukhiya District of Bangladesh.
One small section of the massive Rohingya camps in the Ukhiya District of Bangladesh.

The complexities encompassing the situation in Bangladesh require a similar deep dive, looking at the “hows” and “whys,” which in turn will drive the search for solutions. We are speaking with those who live out their daily lives surrounded by humanitarian aid organizations, food aid trucks, and those who are forced to engage in the scramble for resources such as water, land, and employment. In both refugee and host community populations, a multidimensional problem unfolds which includes layers of governmental policies, social status, goods and services markets, and corruption. The context of these dimensions is key to our understanding and to finding pathways forward for the beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance.

Bamboo lumber on a yellow truck.
Bamboo for building shelters.

The topic of cash assistance is foremost on our radar as we investigate its potential to advance the well-being of those in crisis. In the realm of international development, cash has become the preferred method of assistance, though in-kind goods distribution is still far more heavily utilized. Cash assistance allows those in need to prioritize their own needs and allocate the funds to that which most greatly benefits their family.

Outside development circles, I often hear criticisms that giving cash leads to misuse of funds and the directing of funds toward luxury or illegal goods. However, this is not substantiated through research. Check out this video, “10 Things You Should Know About Cash Transfers,” which does an excellent job of explaining the benefits and dispelling the myths of cash assistance.

Rows of colorful spices in a local market in Ukhiya, Bangladesh.
Bulk sundry items in the local Ukhiya community market.

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: BANGLADESH

As we sit and listen with those people who are in most need, I am a student to their teachings. They give their opinions to us honestly and offer insightful solutions.

Focus group discussions with host community members and with Rohingya populations give a community perspective to our research. Likewise, our individual interviews allow us to get to know the effects of the crisis on a personal level with business men and women, homemakers, and those simply struggling to survive. For example, one woman, who happened to be a widow, spoke of her hopes for the futures of her four daughters, her desire to provide them a good education, and for them to find good husbands. These motivations for her financial decisions would have remained a mystery to us had we not taken the time to get to know her.

Being welcomed into their homes, sharing a cup of tea and a biscuit, and then asking about their personal finances seemed awkward and intrusive at first. I quickly developed a sense of respect for the participants’ openness and humility and realized it was not only important for me to hear their stories but equally important for them to be able to share them. There is a beauty in that exchange that is sometimes joyful and sometimes wrought with emotional pain, but it is in these freely offered discussions where we find the fundamental reasons for the choices we make.

Christine and her research team gather for a meeting outside.
Our outdoor venue for focus group discussions with the host community members.

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: UGANDA

As we continue to contemplate the data gathered and the interactions experienced with the Bangladeshi people and the forcibly displaced Rohingya groups, we are quickly moving forward in learning about the daily life and financial needs of refugees in East Africa. The thinking behind the policies demonstrates a state of reciprocity that is apparent in developing nations in Africa, specifically in the social cohesion of community members. Relying on family and friends as a network of support is a must where state social safety nets are not common. This is how I see Uganda welcoming the refugee; welcoming them as neighbors and facilitating their integration into a functioning community and economy and remembering how, in the recent past, Ugandans also sought refuge in neighboring countries in times of crisis.

WHY CONTEXT MATTERS

The varied responses to the refugee crisis in Bangladesh and Uganda are different not only because of local cultural practices or because of religious factors, but also because context matters. Histories matter, resources matter, belief systems matter, and the hopes and dreams of the displaced matter. Similarly, when thinking of cash interventions and how to best support these and other populations affected by humanitarian emergency situations, context is of the utmost importance. Building relationships of trust and diving deep into the mindsets of those affected can enlighten our thinking and inspire true solutions.

Dancing in the rain: encountering the strength of community weavers in Nepal

by: Brian Hickey

It started pouring. My teammate Belen and I had barely started our descent from a one-hour, strenuous hike straight uphill when the rain came. For obvious reasons, we stuck out as foreigners among the local Nepali population, even more so considering our unpreparedness for the fast-moving rain clouds amidst the start of Nepal’s monsoon season. Nepalis around us put on their rain jackets, walked around with umbrellas, or simply ignored the rain. Instead of cursing our luck, Belen and I decided to embrace the rain and smile at the locals trying to stifle their laughter at us soaked westerners. As we continued our descent, we ran into a group of young women walking and dancing with no rain gear. We joined the women reveling in the weather conditions.

Throughout our past month in Nepal, we have heard stories of resilience in communities recovering after natural disasters. We have listened to stories about individuals continually rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods four years after the devastating 2015 Nepali earthquake. We have heard these stories from grandparents who lost grandkids and widows wanting to serve us tea because we remind them of their kids who are now gone. I have witnessed the faith of the small Catholic community in Nepal reconstructing a beautiful church that was lost among the earthquake, bomb, and arson attacks. A community that passionately celebrates Mass and has formed a tight-knit parish family despite adversity.

A church in Nepal.
The Catholic church, once lost among the earthquake, bomb and arson attacks.

The person I have learned the most from in Nepal has been our translator, Ramchandra. Ramchandra is not too much older than me and is soon to be a father of two. He is a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to assist us in our research.  During one of our long talks about life and personal desires for future impact in our careers, Ramchandra began speaking about his efforts leading citizen initiatives in his community. Ramchandra, along with several other driven community members, was concerned by the distance people with debilitating diseases had to travel to reach medical care at a hospital. They are what bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “community weavers.”

Ramchandra and Brian Hickey, a Notre Dame graduate student, standing in front of a Catholic Relief Services building in Nepal.
Ramchandra and I at the CRS building.

Ramchandra’s group, the weavers, inspired the community to give out of their valuable income (some living in poverty) to build a center for the sick to have proper rest and support during their journey to obtain medical care at the hospital. While these community members do not know the majority of the people who will benefit from the new community center, Ramchandra is proud to know he does not necessarily have to run for political office or have a position with a large NGO to see a need and do something about it.

Ramchandra and his fellow community members highlight a theme we have consistently observed in Nepal: communities are banded together by weavers like Ramchandra who assist fellow citizens in their time of need. They rejoice as others rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Nepali locals working on a project together.
Nepali community members working on a participatory activity with Ramchandra.

LEARNING TO EMBODY THE WEAVER SPIRIT

This month, we are continuing our research with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) through the Keough School’s i-Lab in a state in India that has suffered from recurring cyclones, floods, as well as attacks on minority religious communities. With our work, we hope to discover the effects of communities constantly having to grapple with devastating human-made and natural disasters.

A morning sunrise in the mountains of Nepal.
A morning sunrise in the mountains during our fieldwork.

As Belen and I seek to develop a tool for CRS to help households reconstruct shelter after major traumatic experiences, we must keep in mind the importance of community weavers. We must ask how organizations like CRS can assist households and communities in rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods so that when the rain, or oth­er difficult times come, community members can continue to dance knowing a brother or sister will soon come with arms open wide to help. Perhaps, when we come home, we can also look at our community and neighborhoods in the United States and discover how we can develop as weavers like Ramchandra.

How to evaluate success in development work

by: Joshua Pine

Youthful optimism. Eager expectation. Passion to learn and to serve. As I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, these were the emotions that engulfed me. Having lived for nearly twenty years as an American in China, I had never traveled to Latin America before and was excited to broaden my global horizon. While I knew the exotic appeal of a new country, replete with street tacos and mariachi bands, would eventually wear off, I did not expect a sobering reality check to set in on our first day of work.

My team and I are partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, exploring ways to increase the quality of homes among low-income communities through market-based interventions. Drawing heavily from our training in design thinking from the Master of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, we set out the first day to engage directly with the marginalized communities we aimed to serve by visiting homeowners in Tláhuac, a poorer neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Without any background in Spanish, my assigned role during these visits was to observe our surroundings and take detailed notes. After the interview, my teammate would provide me with a quick summary translation.

Joshua Pine visits a household to conduct interviews about housing in Tláhua, Mexico.
Visiting households to conduct interviews in Tláhua, Mexico.

When we entered the first home, I began furiously jotting down every detail into my notebook: a two-story home with multiple generations living together, several pet dogs, a Wii video game console, a tile floor. No detail was too small, and I was ready to do my part in contributing to the project! As the day went on, however, my inability to understand the language began to weigh more heavily as a source of frustration. Whenever someone would make a joke and the room lit up with pearls of laughter, I forced a smile even though I did not know what was happening. As that first week continued, my enthusiasm began to wane as I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity and question why I was even here. How was I adding value to the project when all I was doing was taking up team resources by having someone translate for me? How could I fulfill my role as the team’s leader with regards to communication and design thinking if I couldn’t directly engage or empathize with those we were seeking to serve?

Joshua Pine stands by a fiber cement sample house in Mexico City.
Exploring a fiber cement sample house that is the new type of disaster-resilient material that our project is encouraging lower-income families to adopt.

As I was reflecting on these questions, I heard one of my favorite Christian worship songs—“You Say,” by Lauren Daigle—on the speaker in the mall we were walking through:

“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?

Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know”

These lyrics caused me to realize I had been evaluating my success precisely as the “sum of every high and every low” by asking myself whether I had individually contributed to promoting the goals of the project. This self-evaluation framework reflected the system utilized in academic classroom settings, where you have a fixed period of time (a semester) to achieve a set goal (learning the material), with frequent tests to ensure that you are making progress towards that goal. For my research project, I had a month to complete the first segment of our project in Mexico, and based upon my self-assigned midterm exam, I felt like I was failing.

PROCESS- AND TEAM-ORIENTED METRIC OF SUCCESS

As I discussed my feelings of frustration with my teammates, they provided invaluable encouragement and helped to point out areas where I had been able to contribute. Of more importance than this individual encouragement, however, was the realization that my metric for success had been based upon the fundamental fallacy that the success of the project depended on me as an individual.

Joshua Pine looks out at the Teotihuacan pyramids on the horizon.
Visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids.

A central question within design thinking encapsulates this form of communal recognition by encouraging us to always ask, “How might we…?” rather than “How might I…?” This seemingly simple insight was powerful in helping me view my worth less as an exam evaluating individual success, but rather as a relational perspective measuring my ability to add value to the team as a whole. Expanding the scope of “team” beyond my immediate teammates to include our partners in Mexico helped me develop a more communal, relational perspective. I did not need to solve the problem of inadequate housing in a month, but rather contribute to an ongoing process that had been happening before I arrived and would continue long after.

Rather than evaluating success within an individualistic, goal-oriented model, my experiences so far this summer have helped to focus more on a collective, process-oriented model of success wherein my goal is to help support my team and add value to an ongoing process.

Navigating Cambodia: Reflections from the first week

by: Theresa Puhr

While climbing through the ruins of one of the many temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park in the city of Siem Reap, I was taken aback by a large tree growing on top of the temple’s walls. It was striking—the tree soared into the sky at least 20 feet high, its roots sturdily straddling the wall. For the rest of the day, I continued to think about that tree. To me, it seemed to be a perfect metaphor for Cambodia: the ruins of the temples symbolized the country’s long history, while the tree was present-day Cambodia. Present-day Cambodia isn’t simply a remodeling of an old temple. Rather, it is a stark offshoot that is attempting to stay connected to its roots.

A tall tree growing off the side of a temple at Angkor Archaeological Park
Ruins from a temple in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The Khmer Empire emerged in the ninth century and ruled for five hundred years, bringing Buddhism and political and cultural development to Cambodia. This was evident at the archaeological park, where massive stone structures, full of intricate art, lay on top of human-constructed waterways. The area was bustling with tourists, and it was easy to get caught up in the awe-inspiring complex of temples.

However, small details remind you of Cambodia’s darker, more recent history. At several of the temple entrances, a group of musicians serenaded visitors with traditional music. They all had apparent physical disabilities—and signs next to their performance space confirmed this, describing how these musicians were all injured by landmines. While we ate lunch with our tuk-tuk driver, he explained to us that he was not a native of Siem Reap—rather, he used to live in the jungle, fleeing from the Vietnamese during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Remnants of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and its genocide of around two million people during the 1970s are ubiquitous in Cambodia. I see it on a daily basis—in the fairly young faces that surround me on the streets, in my struggle to figure out what Khmer cuisine exactly is since many recipes and culinary traditions were lost to the genocide, in the very visible survivors of the war who share their stories on the street.

At the same time, rapid economic development also dominates the landscape. High-rises are under construction, most being built by Chinese companies. Parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, are full of modern architecture and advertisements for Western luxury brands. These images of economic growth have brought to life everything I learned about Cambodia’s rapid rate of development in one of my macroeconomics class projects back in my first semester of the MGA program. Any observer can clearly see that Cambodia has made an impressive comeback over the last four decades. In reality, Cambodia’s development has only scratched the surface and has yet to reverse the damage done by the Khmer Rouge.

The city of Phnom Penh at night.
Nighttime near the center of Phnom Penh—this area is in striking contrast to the more populated areas of the city.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

According to official reports, the country’s poverty rate has experienced a massive decline and is currently sitting at 13.5 percent. However, poverty indicators that account for factors other than just income place Cambodia’s poverty rate at a much higher 35 percent. This is why NGOs like my i-Lab partner organization, Oxfam, continue to operate in the country.

Through the Keough School’s i-Lab, my team and I are working with Oxfam in both Cambodia and Timor-Leste to explore avenues to achieve financial inclusion. Inequality in Cambodia is growing: there are limited opportunities for decent work, and climate change threatens its most vulnerable populations. Thus, it is important to remember that, regardless of Cambodia’s ability to achieve remarkable economic growth in recent years, healing from trauma is a long and difficult process.

It may take generations for Cambodia to recover from its painful history and reestablish roots in its traditions. As our team works with Oxfam to improve the status of women by examining programming which addresses gender norms and researching market access opportunities in Cambodia, we will continue to be mindful of the fact that these goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Context matters, and we must not forget Cambodia’s complex layers of history and tradition in our work to address gender inequality.

Journeying in While Journeying Out: Cultivating a Reflective Practice

by: Parusha Naidoo

Photo at top: My classmate and I attending peace rallies in Nairobi, Kenya, on the International Day of Peace. 

I have spent the past six months navigating through the streets, people, and places of Nairobi. To assure you (and my professors), this navigating did not entail abandoning my internship and research to become a matatu driver (although that may have made for more interesting blog material).

Instead, I say “navigate” because my daily journeys between my place of work, the grocery store, and my home necessitated the skillful maneuvering of my limbs between cars, boda bodas, and uneven or non-existent sidewalks. I also say “navigate” because I have been required to continuously reorient my personal and professional truths, often performing mental gymnastics as I stretched myself to see, feel, and think in ways that I had never been required to before.

So how does one make sense of these navigations?

Reflective practice

What I thought would simply be a supplementary aspect of my semester living in Nairobi and interning at the Life and Peace Institute gradually became the central component to how I made sense of the many worlds I found myself needing to traverse.

I spent my first few months in Nairobi largely frustrated that I could not follow a blueprint to aid me in my physical and mental voyages. I soon realized that not only did this blueprint not exist, but it was also impossible to pen down for the inherent reason that there was no one single version of the Nairobi I was experiencing. First unconsciously and then consciously, I found myself turning to the internal process of reflection as a way to name and make sense of my surroundings.

Reflective practice can be understood as a sustained and indefinite process of holding an awareness of both what happens around you, as well as within you. With no clear end and beginning, this practice allows us to untangle our observations, sit in contemplation of these observations, and potentially move towards action in response to the many things we see, feel, and think. In its simplest form, it is a two-way commitment: one to continued learning through a deliberate decision to be vulnerable and another to uncovering a kind of visceral knowledge we hold through mindful presence.

Mindful mobility

Nairobi is anything but one-dimensional or static. Rather, it is a place textured by multiple worlds that overlap, contradict, and co-exist. The most tangible example of this description can be observed in the spatial layout of the city, where Kibera – one of the largest slums on the African continent – is surrounded by Lavington, Kilimani, and Kileleshwa – some of the wealthiest suburbs of Nairobi.

Through my internship at the Life and Peace Institute, I was able to enter spaces of Nairobi that someone like me, the mzungu, would otherwise not have been expected to be found. Whether it was attending town hall meetings with community leaders in Mathare or Sustained Dialogue sessions with youth in Eastleigh, these experiences cultivated a sort of internalizing, which left me always “switched on.” By engaging with reflective practice, I was able to discern what my presence meant in these spaces, as well as the privilege of my mobility to traverse between the worlds of Nairobi’s slums and suburbs.

Eastleigh Nairobi Kenya
Participating in a peace action march in Eastleigh with Life and Peace Institute’s board members and community members to raise awareness of the need for better schooling support.

There is an immediacy of physical and mental presence that you cannot escape when you walk through the streets of Kibera or share a meal of sukuma wiki and ugali with youth leaders, or have someone you barely know invite you to their humble home in Kawangware to make chapatis on a Saturday afternoon. Through the sharing of meals and laughter, the stark realities of structural violence demanded an intimate solidarity that pushed me closer to the worlds I would otherwise never be exposed to, even if only for a few hours.

Mathare Nairobi Kenya
Mathare at dusk. This photo was taken on a visit to my colleague and friend’s home.
Closing the distance

Despite the close physical proximity of unequal worlds, Nairobi, like many cities, allows for distance and disconnect. This is because so much of the worlds we have created employ distance from the “other” so that we are not required to actively engage with the injustices we see. The distance allows us to not stop and see our role in both the atrocities and achievements of humanity. This distance dehumanizes us. Choosing to reflect means closing that distance and going beyond the dualistic thinking of victim and perpetrator, rich and poor, or peaceful and violent.

Reflection demands we see our agency and the structures surrounding us as a struggle against a world that would otherwise tell you to not feel, think, and see. The daily practice of capturing my observations and thoughts through writing prompted me to find the language for experiences I would otherwise not have been able to articulate. In some instances, it also forced me to step away from the sometimes clinical and technical phrases we can throw around when operating from the stance of a peacebuilding practitioner or academic.

But the power of reflection is not so much in the act of writing down words, but in the recognition that we cannot accept what we see in front of us and rather that we must journey internally and address the very questions we would rather not grapple with on a daily basis.

Nairobi Westlands
The daily commute: a short walk at the end of the day for me, but for many of my fellow pedestrians this was the first part of their long journey home.
Reflection as resistance

I have come to embrace reflective practice as liberatory and an act of resistance: going beyond the binaries, refusing to be detached, and humanizing the experiences of the worlds we traverse. It is an active decision to sit in the uncomfortable and difficult space of untangling an encounter that we would prefer to normalize and not acknowledge. Reflection is a practice of daily resistance that is demanded of everyone, regardless of professional inclination or geographical location.

It is the realization that things are not simply the way we see them to be at first sight. It is a practice that requires us to recognize we don’t in fact know it all or have a full grip on what it means to be a peacebuilder. Instead we must recognize that we are constantly learning and unlearning our ways of being in the worlds we traverse.

Reflective practice provided with me something. It was more than a map. It provided me with an internal compass to make sense of the many things I was seeing, feeling, and thinking as I developed within my vocation as a peacebuilder.