At the UN, Aiming for a Development That Benefits All

By: Angelina Soriano Nuncio


I am a lawyer by training. I studied law after being inspired by the Model United Nations at my high school in Monterrey, Mexico. In Model UN I discovered the international stage where countries contribute to a joint aim: peace and development. I dreamed of understanding and influencing international systems in order to improve them. 

For that reason, I pursued an unconventional path for a lawyer: a focus on social justice and development issues from the perspective of integral human development, which prioritizes human dignity. Thanks to my experience as a master of global affairs student at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, this dream has come true.


The Right to Development

I have been working with Prof. Diane Desierto and Ijeoma Oti, a Notre Dame law student, in the preparation of the United Nations’ Draft Convention of the Right to Development. The right to development demands human-centered policies and participatory development processes that enable adequate living standards and full enjoyment of human rights. This convention in particular provides a framework for states to pursue broader development beyond economic growth, as self-determined by their people.

MGA student Angelina Soriano  and Notre Dame Law Student Ijeoma Otti outside the United Nations Office in Geneva.
MGA student Angelina Soriano and Notre Dame Law Student Ijeoma Otti outside the United Nations Office in Geneva.

In March 2021 we attended a meeting with the Expert Group of the Right to Development at the United Nations Office in Geneva, where the draft convention was finalized. We arrived on a sunny Sunday and walked through the city before our full schedule of meetings. Every time I visit a developed country and experience its quiet stability, walk on good-quality roads, and admire its apparently perfect infrastructure, I feel uncomfortable. I cannot stop thinking about the challenges I have seen in other less developed countries, including my native Mexico. My mind often grapples with the complexity behind the world’s inequalities. 

And yet, as much as Geneva seemed close to perfect, I saw a sign on a city bus encouraging people to report gender-based violence—an indicator that violence and oppression are present even in developed countries. The sign also served as a reminder that the work I do, along with my classmates and professors, to overcome disparities is worthwhile. The next day, I saw how our utopian dream could become a reality.


Inviting Diverse Voices

We met with the Expert Group of the Right to Development in one of the buildings of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was fascinating to listen to discussions as experts knitted together the concepts and ideas proposed by member states, civil society, and UN agencies. What I enjoyed most was seeing the impact of integrating diverse voices and experiences in decision-making. Diverse backgrounds and regions were represented in the expert group, including proposals from indigenous people. This inclusiveness affirmed my commitment to becoming a development professional who always considers the needs and interests of historically underrepresented populations and brings their voices to decision-making spaces.

A meeting with the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development
MGA student Angelina Soriano and Notre Dame law student Ijeoma Otti with profesor Diane Desierto during a meeting with the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development.

Promoting Human Dignity

The focus of my research and practice has been how development policies and programs uphold human dignity. Through my work with Prof. Desierto on the Convention to the Right to Development, I am learning how international treaties provide a framework for national policies and systems that foster human-centered development. Such development corrects the imbalances of power between elite institutions and the people, especially those living in the most vulnerable conditions. 

But we all know that having an international treaty is not enough. It is important that human rights and integral human development are researched and taught beyond the fields of international development and law. What if professionals in business, social sciences, engineering, and design were taught the principles of human rights? What if professionals from diverse disciplines took responsibility to transform the systems that sustain inequalities and hinder the full development of all people? 

Members of the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development
Members of the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development with Ambassador Zamir Akram (third from right), chair-rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Right to Development.

On the same day we were in Geneva, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. I could see how this event posed new diplomatic, humanitarian, and development challenges to the international community. The ominous consequences of this situation—along with parallel situations in Afghanistan and Yemen, among other countries—filled our work with urgency, as the very right to development of millions is hindered every day. 

For now, I am hopeful that next May, UN member states will vote in favor of this convention, which provides a new legal framework that urges governments to ensure adequate standards of living for all. 


Angelina Soriano Nuncio is a master of global affairs student in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from Mexico, she holds a bachelor’s degree in law with a concentration in leadership for social development.

Top photo: Master of global affairs student Angelina Soriano Nuncio outside the United Nations Office in Geneva, housed at the historic Palais des Nations.

I Watch Live Genocide in Ukraine, My Home Country

By Anna Romandash


Editor’s Note: In this reflection, Anna Romandash, an award-winning journalist from Ukraine and a student in the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program, shares her perspective on the horrific human cost of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


I grew up in Ukraine in the 1990s. I never saw the Soviet Union, but I heard stories. They were so bizarre that I could never picture them. 

My parents told me about their childhood, and even though it had similarities with mine, it seemed surreal. I could not imagine living in a gigantic military empire where food was scarce, but guns were plenty. 

Ukraine in the nineties was very different from that reality. Yes, it was poor, and yes, it was transitioning from a colony of a corrupt and merciless system to an actual democracy. But the transition was going forward. It did not move as fast as we all wanted, but it got there. 

In thirty years, Ukraine went a long way. 

Cities which were once blocked by the Iron Curtain turned into bustling megapolises, colorful and shiny, full of possibilities, dreams, and aspirations. Villages modernized but kept their traditional look. Everything was growing and going somewhere. 

I love Ukraine. It is beautiful, and it is home. 

I never took for granted anything I had in Ukraine. I would often get mad at my fellow citizens, get annoyed with how things were managed, or with some popular ideas. But at the end of the day, I got them. I got Ukraine. I understood Ukraine better than I understood anything else. 

This is something people tend to have: a bond with those who live on the same land and belong to one nation. 

Ukraine is big and diverse, but the differences did not prevent me from understanding other Ukrainians — the same way other Ukrainians could understand me. 

And we all understood, or rather, felt the constant shadow over us. 


The Threat of Russian Expansionism

Russian colonialism was always looming somewhere in the northeast, always watching carefully when to strike. Even before actual military actions, we always expected Russia to interfere in some way — that fear is shared by the many nations who were conquered by the Russian empire. 

The West would always disregard claims, pleas, and criticisms that Ukrainians, Estonians, and other people from Eastern Europe would make about Russia. We were considered paranoid and cowardly, unwilling to accept that Russia is just a big neighbor whose influence is not a menace, and encouraged to accept that the Kremlin will impact our domestic and international policies in one way or another. 

The West explained to us, Eastern Europeans, that they get Russia better and that we should just let it go. We should not worry about Russia because its influence is logical given its size and location, and even though it is not a liberal democracy, it is still a trusted and reliable partner.

Classic Westplaining. 

But even I, who never saw the Soviet Union, knew what Russia’s regime was. It was only the West that still hoped to build healthy relations with the Kremlin, but nations whose histories were marked by hundreds of years of Russian colonialism knew better. 

Russia has interfered in Ukrainian politics since I can remember. In 2004, Putin did not like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the election of a pro-European president. This is when “gas wars” and “food wars” started. The Kremlin would ban Ukrainian imports and stop sending Russian gas via Ukraine to Europe while blaming us for stealing it! 

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and we watched in horror. 

It annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded parts of Eastern Ukraine where its puppet regime created fake republics. If it was not for Russian intervention, none of those things would have happened. 

Russia poisoned its former agents, killed opposition leaders, and threatened Ukraine — and the world — many times. Yet, the West was quiet about it. I assume they thought it was all big talk. 

So when Russia accused Ukraine of stealing gas, the West believed it, taking its word and blaming Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Georgia, the West just watched. No serious sanctions, nothing. Business as usual. 

Relations with Russia and the West actually improved after that.

Ukraine was bullied into accepting Crimea annexation, and Russia did not get a tough response over its involvement in Eastern Ukraine. The West made a collective shrug, and that was it.

This is the reality which brought us to this day. Now, the West is starting to sound the alarm. It cries about a mad killer leading the Kremlin and wonders how it can stop him without provoking him. But the truth is, Putin has not changed. He has always been like this: willing to kill, invade, and deceive to get what he wants. It’s just now he does it much more openly and on a much bigger scale. 

The West keeps on judging Putin according to its own standards. But they don’t work. We see that the collective security agreements are useless, and so is the UN. Russia is in the UN Security Council. This is a country which massacred people in Bucha. This is a country whose soldiers raped Ukrainian women and children on the territories they sieged. This is a country that claims that it has not committed any war crimes when the evidence is clear as the light of the day. 


Death and Devastation

While the West keeps on calculating the costs of leaving its comfort zone, I calculate the dead. Those numbers are impossible to confirm now, but locals report at least 20,000 killed in Mariupol. This is a city that Russians are continuing to siege and devastate. This is the toll of only one city. 

More than a hundred fifty children have been killed. 

Five million people have fled the country.

Eleven million displaced. 

Cities destroyed. 

And there’s more. 

The Ukrainian army liberated the area north of Kyiv in the beginning of April. They filmed what they saw in this rich and prosperous region after Russians left it, weeks after bloody occupation.

If you have not heard about it, Google it. The cities are Bucha. Irpin. Chernihiv. Hostomel. 

In Bucha, Russians killed every single male ages 16 to 60. They shot them and put them in a mass grave. Those men were civilians. Unarmed.

They killed the mayor and her husband. They tortured them before murdering them. 

When Ukrainian soldiers entered the city, they saw corpses everywhere. Russians went on a killing spree before they left. They killed all the locals they saw outside. They also killed people who were hiding in their houses. Some corpses had their hands tied up. They burned one boy alive. They raped a woman in front of her son, then killed her. 

I thought I would make a call to action here and ask you to speak up and demand your governments to help Ukraine. 

But it has been a few days since I cannot function normally. 

And I don’t know what to ask of any of you. 

I don’t believe Western governments anymore because they have no empathy as they allowed for this to happen. They rejected Ukrainian pleas for help. They refused to provide the arms we asked for. They are still buying Russian energy and financing the war against Ukraine.

I don’t know how I will be able to return to Notre Dame. I don’t know how I will be able to surround myself with happy young people who dream and hope. I watch the genocide of Ukrainians happen in real life, and the worst is yet to come. 

And I don’t have questions or demands for anyone anymore. The world has failed me.


Cover image: A damaged high-rise building in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Julia Rekamie on Unsplash

Climate Change, Justice and Communication

by: Mohammad Farrae

Scientists all over the world are trying to create urgency in action in order to curb climate change. The recent report by IPCC does an amazing job of bringing consensus amongst scientists and governments globally regarding the current status of the issue. It has established very clearly that the challenges climate change brings are here today and they are much more challenging than previously envisioned. It is now a matter of taking action—collective action. 

In our current class on climate change and environmental policy, taught by Professor Dan Miller, we are grappling with the challenge of how to communicate the realities of climate change to policy makers and the public. There seems to be no silver bullet. How do you communicate about climate change in a way that brings people together and drives action, regardless of where they stand or what their view on the matter is? This question I feel is key and I will continue to explore this during my time at Notre Dame.

During the summer our i-Lab team interviewed over 35 people, asking them questions about climate change, equity and racial justice. Our research also explored how the issue was being communicated on the ground. We asked city officials on how they are attempting to listen to the voices of the most affected communities. We also heard some of the frustrations of civil society about the process. Even though centering environmental policies around frontline and marginalized communities is key to meaningful change, most government officials are still struggling to engage the local community members effectively.

Mohammad Farrae looking down at his phone outside the city hall
Looking for directions to the next meeting location. (Outside the city hall of Cincinnati)

Neighborhood associations, NGOs, and activists have bridged this gap partially. My research partner, Eduardo Pages, and I were in a key informant interview with one such civil society representative from the city of Cincinnati. During our discussion, they mentioned how sometimes people think of polar bears when thinking about climate change, and that fails to create urgency. They feel that there is a need to connect the issue of climate change to “quality of life and income”. 

For instance, the lack of trees and green space in certain parts of a city causes the urban heat island effect, where heat gets trapped by dense buildings and pavements. This directly impacts the quality of lives of folks that live or work in these areas. Organizations like Groundwork Ohio River Valley showed us how they have taken an alternative approach of connecting climate change to the present day. Engaging youth of marginalized communities via employing them to work on projects focused on making their neighborhoods greener, cleaner and more pleasant to live in helps in connecting “climate change” to today. The directly engaged folks not only benefit in terms of additional income via employment, but their lives improve as their neighbourhoods improve. This action-based engagement helps spread information about climate change in an effective manner, leading to meaningful change. 

A large barge in a quiet Ohio river
Barge in Ohio River. (South of Cincinnati)

Efforts to curb climate change effects also face headwinds from people that deny it exists. Getting everyone on board, regardless of where they stand on the “believe-in-climate-change” spectrum is crucial to success in any kind of policy implementation. A consistent element that came out of our research was that “health” seemed to be a common uniter. The topic of health has the power to bridge the gap in our current polarized world. Questions around how our health is being affected helps connect climate change to today’s air, water and food quality. 

For instance CO2 concentrations, global average temperature increases, and climate change might seem to be distant and unrelated to some individuals. However, other pollutants such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides or other particulate matter that degrade “air quality” have immediate adverse health effects and easily garner attention. These oxides usually come from the same polluting sources that also emit carbon dioxide, such as transportation, manufacturing and refining sectors etc. Focusing on reducing these chemical emissions and their impacts on people’s health today, can have the additional benefit of curbing carbon emissions. We saw in the city of Providence how some communities living near the port were affected by the poor air quality. Activists from these communities went door to door and asked questions like “does your child have asthma” eventually galvanizing the entire city to rethink its priorities.There needs to be more of a push to connect health to climate change and climate polluters to how they damage our health today!

A neighborhood in providence affected by climate change
Walking through the neighbourhood in Providence that is next to the port.

Ultimately, how people get to work, how they stay cool in summers and warm in winters, how their environment affects their health is all climate change. Are there opportunities that can be explored that can improve the quality of people’s lives? Can these interventions simultaneously increase incomes, improve health and safety and lend a hand in curbing climate change? To me, those are questions worth exploring! By empowering the people most affected by climate change to share their opinions and engaging in effective communication policy makers can move quickly towards effective policy planning and implementation. There is a need to build consensus so everyone can unite behind such policies and collectively move towards a better future, urgently!

Top Photo: Mural in downtown Cincinnati by Detroit-based artist Louise “Ouizi” Jones.

The African American Dilemma

by: Bryanna Beamer

The first time I put my foot down on African soil in Ghana, I wanted to cry. Feeling the heat that borders on oppressive with not a single hint of breeze may not be everyone’s idea of paradise, but I loved it. Now I’m here again, in The Gambia this time, enjoying the sun as my dark skin absorbs its rays.

Rewind to 20 years ago when Africa was little more than another name on a map, my parents worked hard to make sure that my brother and I had every opportunity not always afforded to people of color. One huge step in this process was packing us up and out to the suburbs of Philadelphia. 

My school district was extremely diverse, and I am only now just realizing that my circle of friends looked like a cheesy brochure promoting diversity. I got the odd racial joke of being called an Oreo, and my family and I made a game of seeing how many Black people we saw when we went to dinner, but I lived my childhood blissfully ignorant of present-day racism and prejudice. 

And then there was college.

My choice was between a HBCU and a Pennsylvania state school in the middle of farmland. In the end, I couldn’t ignore the money. State school it was. I have never regretted my decision, but I was definitely a black speck of ebony in a sea of ivory. 

So, when I graduated and joined the Peace Corps, I told them I didn’t care where they put me, but it needed to be Africa. 

The first workshop that Bryanna helped lead. The participants were instructed to select an adjective about themselves that began with the same letter as their name. Most of the people in the group didn’t understand what bookworm meant. 

I spent the next 2 years in Ghana where I was different, but not obviously so. I was a Black person in a Black country. People assumed I was one of them, and I loved it. There were challenges—Ghanaians had a lot less patience with me compared to white volunteers when teaching their culture—but I was finally among what felt like my people. 

And then there was grad school.

I knew I wanted to work in the international field, but the international aspect was missing from a lot of these international programs, so Notre Dame in all its homogeneity it was. 

I love the Keough School, but its demographics don’t spill out to the rest of the University. I have found myself more racially defiant than ever, wearing my Nah- Rosa Parks shirt with my fluffy halo of hair all the while secretly wondering how Black is too Black for ND. 

Now how does any of this relate to my time in The Gambia right now?

Well, this time, I feel lost. 

Before college, I was just an American kid. In college, I gripped my identity as a Black woman tight. In Ghana, I was able to celebrate being around Black people. At Notre Dame, I played the woke Black American. Now, I am acutely aware of how American I am because here, there is no Black and white America. It’s all America, and America is white. 

Where does my Blackness fit in? Do I subscribe to the American identity I grew up with, or the African identity that is my history, no matter how distant and forgotten?

I’ve done 23&me, so I know that my DNA test says I have a lot of West Africa in my blood (along with a significant amount of European but who would accept that), but I can’t tell you generations back what my ancestors did. I don’t find it a privilege to live with my parents until I marry, which apparently should have happened already. Even my name, with the Br, is hard to pronounce here. 

And I LOVE personal space, a concept severely missing here. 

Bryanna feeling cool, calm, and collected in a Ghanaian market in 2017.

It’s not that these differences didn’t exist in Ghana. I was just so excited to be around Black people that I minimized them. 

And now I’m confused. 

I’m too Black for America and I’m too American for Africa. 

And it’s only worse when I hang out with the white expats. Visually, I can pass for Gambian so when I go out, I feel the Gambian eyes linger on me a little longer. It’s like I’m too similar for them to understand that I’m not like them, and by not acting like them they see it as me rejecting their Gambian culture. 

So for all of you who look like TV’s version of America or know the origins of your people, make a little effort to appreciate that privileged knowledge and comfort in knowing exactly who you are. We don’t all have that luxury. 

Top Photo: A decidedly not personal-space friendly lounging area at the beach.

Reparations for Colonialism

by: Sarah Nanjala

“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.”

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Sarah Nanjala at the Grand-Place in Brussels surrounded by Gothic buildings
MGA student Sarah Nanjala while on her visit to Belgium over the summer of 2021.

Old historic buildings, tall gothic cathedrals, ancient marble roads, magnificent Flemish art coupled up with modern infrastructure, and the smell of dark chocolate were just some of the scenes that welcomed me to Brussels, Belgium in the summer of 2021. During my five-week stay in the European country, I was treated to infinite doses of an incredibly rich culture that immersed me in a highly intriguing moment of history. As I made my way through the touristic streets, I would be taken aback by the magnificence of the Art Nouveau architecture surrounding the city. My online research of the city did not do me any justice and I often found myself sidetracked by the hundreds of pictures I took. As much as I wanted to enjoy the present, I did not want to miss anything and, as such, took pictures of everything—from gargoyles to landscape, food, performances, street art, and artifacts. 

Among the fascinating places was Grand Place, which had some of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. These buildings date back to the 14th century and stood boldly in defiance of time. As I walked through the structures while feeling the walls with my fingers and closed eyes, I imagined what it was like 500 years ago—what the lifestyle and culture were, and how did they dress and interact. I was curious: was there hunger, wars, and crime, and was there mass travel as is today? Just by the sheer age of the ground I stood, it hit me quite vividly that history has proven to be a double-edged sword, sharing our successes as well as our failures and all preserved in monuments around us.

As a student from Africa visiting Europe for the first time, it shocked me to see so much of African culture in Belgium. During my second week, I took the train to the Africa Museum, an ethnography and natural history museum located 8.5 miles outside Brussels. The museum focuses on the Congo, a former Belgian colony, and other parts of Africa such as East and West Africa. While en route to the museum, I knew I would be interacting with African culture, however, the magnitude of the traditional artifacts on display was unexpected. I started the tour with much excitement, embracing the African culture and appreciation, but this feeling soon turned into shock and then anger. Why were there so many African traditional artifacts in a museum in Europe? 

“Some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”

Because of colonization, the histories of Africa and Europe are forever tied and although more than five decades have since passed, the effects are enormous. From the religions we hold to the naming of our children, our education systems, and the languages we speak, they all have a hint of colonization. There have been negative effects too—economic instabilities, systemic racism, ethnic rivalries, degradation of natural resources, and widespread human rights violations that we see across Africa years after independence. These realities became very real to me with each room I entered and with every item I saw. It is no secret that most of these artifacts—masks worn by elders and warriors, traditional clothing and weapons, and musical instruments—were obtained during the colonial era and not in the most peaceful of means. In an announcement in one of the hallways, the museum acknowledges the questionable nature in which these artifacts were acquired. They confess that “a large part of Africa’s material heritage is housed in Western Museums or with private collectors” adding that “some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”

Two short and narrow ancient African coffins
African traditional artifacts displayed at the African Museum in Tervuren, near Brussels, Belgium. Some of the artifacts may have been taken by force during colonization but have never been returned.

This encounter raised several pertinent questions in my mind, among them was, should reparations be made to post-colonial states for atrocities made during colonization and if so, what forms should they take?

There have been numerous debates in recent years about whether European countries should return these artifacts as part of a reparations process. Countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Benin, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Egypt have, in the past, made appeals to have their artifacts returned. Some European countries have agreed to this but on conditions such as on a loan basis, as was with the case between Nigeria, Benin, and Britain. I must admit that there has been some form of acknowledgment of the need to reinstitute these artifacts, the question though remains—is that enough? It has been shown in research that former colonial masters enriched their countries’ economic and industrial strength through the resources they extracted from their colonies. In addition to natural and human resources, traditional artifacts are just among the many things that were taken.

The Africa Museum noted that it “is currently prioritizing provenance research to ascertain how objects were acquired,” noting that “the museum has an open constructive attitude towards the restitution debate.” Although this shows some willingness to have the debate on reparations, this intent needs to be translated into action.

On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.

Besides restitution of African artifacts, there has also been a push for reparations that match the level of atrocities committed during colonization. So far, only acknowledgments and very few public apologies have been made. An excellent example was in June 2020 when the Belgian king, Philippe, wrote a letter to the Congolese president acknowledging the “painful episodes” of the colonial era with its “acts of violence and cruelty.” In this statement, Philippe says that he “would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies.” The admission came as a shock as no Belgian monarch has previously made such a statement. 

The African museum surrounded by beautiful gardens
The African Museum, an ethnography and natural history museum located 8.5 miles outside Brussels. The museum focuses on the Congo, a Central African country and a former Belgian colony, and also extends to other parts of the continent including the Congo River basin, Central Africa, East Africa, and West Africa.

The debate on whether reparations or apologies should be made has been contentious. The main point of debate is the governments and individuals that committed these atrocities are no longer in power and that those who experienced colonialism firsthand are gone. It is from this argument that French President Emmanuel Macron in January 2021 said that there will be “no repentance nor apologies” for its occupation in Algeria but rather they are open to participating in “symbolic acts” that will promote reconciliation. On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.

But what form should they be in? Well, the first step is education that will allow people, most importantly policymakers, to understand and appreciate the need for it. This would call for an acknowledgment and apology for colonial atrocities. Secondly, reparations do not necessarily need to equate to monetary value (although common) but can also be in the form of radical and justice-driven change, as economist Priya Lukka notes

There is also a crucial need to make international laws more inclusive through decolonizing principles that obstruct reparations. This would pave way for racial equality and eliminate avenues for discrimination, more so on reparations. It is encouraging to see that there is an ongoing conversation on this topic, which is what is needed if we are ever to ensure justice is achieved for those who were colonized. However, for now, we can start with the return of these African artifacts to their rightful homes.

Top Photo: Statues outside the African Museum in Tervuren, Belgium.

Peace, Prayer, Poverty: Living the “3 Ps” of the Community of Sant’Egidio

by: Elizabeth Boyle

“The Community builds an unimpeachable record for integrity and good offices in the societies it comes to serve . . . Sant’Egidio practices nonpartisan social action that underscores its equanimity and commitment to the common good.”

R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred

The first time I encountered the Community of Sant’Egidio was not in a “usual” way for a Sant’Egidio member—by attending prayer or perhaps engaging in service, but rather by reading an academic article. As a peace studies undergraduate interested in the intersection of religion and peace, I encountered The Ambivalence of the Sacred, a seminal work by Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School. Appleby argues that the “sacred,” religious actors, and religious ideologies in general are not monoliths, but that each tradition and each person within the tradition creates their own response to what they view as the “sacred.”

Appleby also discusses Sant’Egidio, detailing not only the community’s vast diplomatic and peace work in Mozambique, Uganda, Algeria, and elsewhere, but also its activities with a wide range of vulnerable people such as the DREAM project for HIV/AIDS treatment within the African continent, services for elderly people, those experiencing homelessness, those with disabilities, abandoned children, and immigrants. I was immediately hooked, and the work of Sant’Egidio was never far from my mind as I completed my undergraduate studies and began to think about graduate work.

When I returned to Notre Dame in the fall of 2020 to begin the Master of Global Affairs program at the Keough School, I began seeking out opportunities for my six-month internship. I was introduced again to Sant’Egidio, this time in a new way by Professor Jerry Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. What began as a simple introduction soon led into an internship and then a full-time position with the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue as well as an offer to come to Rome and work with Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office during my six-month placement. 

From the outset, spending time with the community’s outreach to migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos was one of my priorities. Thanks to an internship and placement grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, I was able to join that project at the end of the summer.

Elizabeth Boyle in a red tent surrounded by migrants.
Elizabeth Boyle (center right) working with migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Since starting my work in Rome in June 2021, I have been engaged in assisting Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office with the Rome Initiative, the community’s support for the peace process in South Sudan. The Rome Initiative seeks to find an inclusive way to bring the non-signatories of the Rome Declaration into dialogue and full agreement with the government of South Sudan. No two days at Sant’Egidio look the same, but our focus remains constant: how can we “live out” the values of the Gospel every day by supporting the most marginalized people?

In the spirit of this mission, Sant’Egidio offers robust support for refugees and migrants, including through a program called “Sant’Egidio summer.” For the past few years, about 250 Sant’Egidio members, mostly from Europe, spend part of their summer holiday on Lesbos which is now home to about 7,000 refugees. In the camps, they operate an English school, a School for Peace program for children (from teenagers down to two-year-olds), a full-service “restaurant,” and other services.

Thanks to the Nanovic Institute, I was able to join this group of Sant’Egidio volunteers on Lesbos. Understanding the refugee crisis on the island and around the world is pivotal to the peace work that I am engaged in. When one works in diplomacy and politics, it can often be easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of high-level technical decisions and quickly forget that every poor decision or mistake that is made can result in yet another family ending up in a tent in the middle of a refugee camp with an uncertain future. 

I am incredibly grateful to have had this experience on Lesbos, witnessing and participating in the Sant’Egidio community “in action.” I look forward to sharing more about my experiences in my future posts.

Elizabeth Boyle ’20 is a student in the Master of Global Affairs program with a concentration in international peace studies. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she studied and worked on interreligious peacebuilding and received the Yarrow Award in Peace Studies. She has interned with Religions for Peace, the US Commission on Civil Rights, USAID, and the US Department of State. Boyle is also the recipient of an Ansari Institute Fellowship.

Originally published at nanovicnavigator.nd.edu on September 15, 2021. 

Top photo: The entrance to the Community of Sant’Egidio office in Trastevere, Rome.

A Day in the Field

by: Emily Kaplan 

6:30 AM: It is still dark outside because it is winter in Malawi, and we must set off early to make it to one of the fifteen communities we will visit in our six weeks of qualitative data collection with the i-Lab. The car winds down the switch-back mountain road and I close my eyes, trying not to puke or focus on the fact that dense fog barely lets us see 6 feet in front of us. I tell Cosmas, our driver, “you’re a hero,” for the first time today. An hour and a half later, we make it to the Chikwawa District’s Agriculture Office to pick up the agriculture extension officer who will guide us to the community. However, he informs us the bridge to the community is no longer operational . . . we must go back to Blantyre and take the dirt road. 

8:00 AM: So, we start our trek back up the switch-back road, through the dense fog, make a pit stop for roasted maize sold on the side of the road, arrive in Blantyre, and start our journey all over again on a different road. Little do I know, this is the longest, most bumpy, truly terrifying road I have ever encountered in my 26 years on this earth. I have never been tossed around so violently and I feel truly thankful for the invention of the safety locking mechanism on seatbelts. 

10:30 AM: We arrive at the community four long hours after our initial start time this morning with a moderate case of whiplash. As we get out of the car and I try to forget about the experience I just had, my research teammate, Lauren, whispers to me, “Look it’s market day.” Vendors from town and other communities have set up shop along the main road to sell fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, and chitenge (the traditional cloth wrap worn by women). Lauren and I pause our walk to the meeting venue to buy a fritter and when we look up from thanking the kind woman who sold us the perfectly fried pastry, the car is gone, our translators and facilitators have vanished, and we are left standing helplessly in the middle of the road—my minimal Chichewa language skills are not going to get us out of this situation. 

10:50 AM: After ten long minutes desperately trying to ask for directions and communicating with smiles and pointing, a child approaches us, and it is very clear we are to follow her. The 10-year-old guides us to the meeting location where 20 men and women of the watershed management committee wait for us; they laugh kindly at our mistake, welcome us to the correct location, and we thank our child guide. 

We apologize profusely for our tardiness. Our research facilitators, Micter and Moyenda, introduce us and the purpose of our visit. We are there to learn about the community’s relationship with natural resources and how they have sustained the interventions of a watershed management development project that ended eight years ago. 

The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement project, WALA, is aimed to help communities restore degraded watersheds through building physical structures and planting trees, amongst other things. This prevents flooding by allowing water to easily infiltrate into the ground and recharge the water table, allowing for longer growing seasons, lessening the impact of severe weather brought on more frequently by climate change, and increasing food security in the region. The community has so much to teach us about what they have been collectively working on, and how they sustain, modify, and add new interventions to the project every year to better fit their needs. The conversations take place in Chichewa, and because I speak a different yet very similar language from a neighboring country, I can understand a fair bit of what is being said. Later, I get the details from the extensive notes Micter and Moyenda take. 

Their notes describe how this community felt a need to go above and beyond the watershed management interventions because this project was the first time an NGO was willing to make the trek into their community. They collectively felt that this was their only opportunity to reap the benefits from the resources and expertise the project gave them. They understand they are geographically isolated, so were truly grateful and appreciative for their first and thus far only opportunity to solve some of the problems the community knew they needed to address. 

Most of the other communities we have visited thus far during our field work, those situated along the paved road or just an easy 10 to 15- minute ride on a dirt road, have had multiple projects from multiple NGOs over the past decade, often working simultaneously. Some communities were inundated with NGO projects to assist with issues surrounding health, nutrition, education, or natural resource management, while isolated communities have few such opportunities. How can this disparity, based simply on geography, be fair? 

2:00 PM: We are sincerely impressed during a tour of the watershed infrastructure, which is maintained immaculately. We see massive stone bunds, contour trenches, and swales. The sheer amount of physical labor that went into the construction of these elements is astounding. It really is incredible to see what a community can do when they come together to solve their problems and make sure they have a sustainable future. This community is so hidden away from urban society that getting to it is time consuming and physically painful, but to be able to see the progress and get a sense of the lifechanging outcomes that result from a single development project really makes me understand the important role that NGOs can play in a community’s development. 

3:00 PM: Before we leave, we are asked to sign the community’s visitor book in which I see the names of the Catholic Relief Services Country Director and a United States Congressional Representative. They visited the community in 2019, before the pandemic. This community and all they have done in sustaining and replicating project interventions, since the completion of WALA, is an excellent example of how development projects succeed in changing lives through effective natural resource management thus leading to poverty alleviation and food security. 

3:10 PM: We say our goodbyes and are informed that the bridge we had previously thought was not operational is repaired, so we can take the “shorter and better” road back to Blantyre. Looking back on this moment, I realize I have never been so boldly and confidently misled by a stranger. Boy were we in for a treat. If I thought the road coming into the community was the worst I had ever been on, then this road out of the village made the last feel road like the miniature roller coasters for kids under the age of 5 at the theme park. At no less than seven points in the ride, I think the car is going to flip and tumble down a mountain slope. There are not one but two bridges, and the car cannot even make it over the first one, so we actually drive through a river. I do not know much about cars, but I know they do not normally drive through rivers. This is the point in the day in which I tell Cosmas, for the second time, that he is a hero. 

6:30 PM: We make it home a full 12 hours after leaving that morning, our brains bursting with information and adrenaline pumping through our veins. The people we met and the watershed interventions we saw today opened my eyes to the good that can come from development projects. But realizing the inequity in the way NGOs allocate resources, based on the level of ease of transportation into a community, makes me ponder the ethical dilemma of doing what is easy rather than doing what is right. This is a message that I have always held close and I will continue to take with me as I enter the sustainable development field after graduation. I am grateful to have had such an eye-opening Tuesday. 

Why Am I Here? Reflections from Haiti

by: Abigail Ginzburg

It is hot, the breezes are few, and I am staring at my assigned tasks on our team checklist, realizing again that I have nothing left to do. I am with my Integration Lab  (i-Lab) team in Haiti, studying people’s relationship to chronic poverty. Of the four of us, only one is Haitian.

My Haitian teammate does the bulk of the work. During community visits, he registers participants, co-facilitates focus group discussions and participatory activities, conducts key informant interviews, and takes notes for all activities. Back at our hotel, he reads the notes for the rest of us to transcribe, explains their context, and highlights particular insights. Beyond activities directly related to research, he also handles local logistics, coordinating with the hotel, facilitators, recruiters, drivers, and the partner organization. He organizes our fun excursions. And, of course, he constantly translates for us blans (foreigners).

An interview between two men in an empty classroom.
Haitian teammate conducts a key informant interview.

My non-Haitian teammates handle more of the support work for community visits: prepping the materials before we leave, recording the group discussions and participatory activities, handing out refreshments, and taking photos. During data processing, we take turns transcribing and coding notes and recording insights. One teammate confirms the schedules for our next community visits and another repacks our supplies.

My unique contributions are as follows: I track and distribute all the project money and I upload photos and documents into Google Drive.

Without our Haitian teammate, this project would be impossible. Conversely, my presence is optional. One teammate already helped track the money in the first two weeks; the rest is exceedingly simple.

So, why be here? What use am I? My anxiety is perpetual.

My teammates’ answers:

  1. You are good at financial tracking.
  2. Having a fourth person makes data processing easier.
  3. Simply witnessing the participants’ testimonies, their living conditions, and life in Haiti will make you a better practitioner.
  4. Everyone contributes what they can: your skills will be most useful during the spring and fall semesters, so it is okay to be doing less in the summer.

These answers are all true and kind. The first two show that my presence makes my team’s lives easier but that the project could still continue without me. My anxiety remains. 

The third answer tries to shift the focus onto individual short-term benefits and long-term communal ones. Alone, this is unsatisfying. I am grateful to have experiences that will make me a better practitioner. However, I am uncomfortable with benefiting more from my time in Haiti than Haitians do. The argument that they may benefit later from the results of my team’s research circles back to the question of whether my presence is necessary. If the benefits could be realized without me, why be here? My anxiety remains. 

So we come to the fourth answer and the true crux of the issue. What does it mean to be a valuable team member? For me, it means sharing skills that nobody else can (or at least to be particularly good at something), doing my fair share of work. Broadly, I fulfill these requirements. I have data analysis skills that my teammates do not. I am particularly good with finances. I contributed a lot to the project in the spring and will do so again in the fall. And yet it is difficult to shake the feeling that because my presence is not crucial in this very moment, it is unjustifiable. Learning to be okay with not being a top contributor, learning to believe others when they say I am doing enough (even if the workload is skewed!), has been the most difficult part of the summer. 

I face a larger question—one that cannot be fully addressed in this post—about the distribution of benefit from field experiences. Field experience is valuable; the indirect benefits to communities hopefully do exist. Still, students gain more than the communities do, particularly in the short term: this experience leads to a master’s degree, which gives us power, access, and agency in the global development system. Meanwhile, the situation for our Haitian participants is unchanged. That balance is discomfiting, especially in a global affairs program, especially one dedicated to integral human development.

I will never be fully comfortable with gaining more from an experience than I contribute to it, and I do not want to be. That inner sense of fairness helps me be sensitive to potentially toxic dynamics on a personal, group, and communal level. But I do think finding value in my presence outside of how much I contribute at any given moment is just as important. My anxiety recedes. 

a woman reading a book on a beautiful day in the middle of the jungle
Me, reading a book during a focus group discussion

Author’s note: My team and I were evacuated due to political instability shortly after this blog post was written. We are all safe and well. In whatever way suits you, please send Haiti your prayers, well wishes, and moral support as the country navigates their current crisis.

Geographies of development: Reflections on climate justice within US cities

by: Eduardo Pagés

White Georgia marble rises tall over an ample green lawn. Chairs lie on this pristine patio, lush trees providing a refuge from the summer heat. Sitting on the grounds surrounding the Rhode Island State House in the city of Providence, I cannot help but marvel at the beauty and openness of this public space. In my hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I am more used to parks and fences, to government buildings and guards; where there are beautiful green spaces, there are also signs restricting them to certain hours, activities, and kinds of people. 

A large state house overlooks an empty green space during the sunset.
My Keough School colleague Farrae enjoying the sunset from the State House’s grounds in Providence, Rhode Island.

This thought process of mine portrays a logic long familiar to the field of international development and to policymakers in Latin America: there can be a tendency to praise the accomplishments of our neighbors to the north, including the United States and its ranks of prominent academics, while lamenting over what we supposedly have yet to achieve in the geographic south. However pervasive to this day, this perspective obscures the fact that there are other geographies that matter. 

I stand up from my chair and enjoy the protection of the shade trees one last time, then I begin my commute to Smith Hill, a Providence neighborhood less than a block away from the state’s capitol. I venture across a narrow sidewalk overlooking a plethora of lanes and cars. This neighborhood is split in two by I-95, an interstate highway connecting the entire eastern coast of the US. Once on the other side, cracked and abundant pavement greets me, and the thick smell of smoke settles into my nostrils uninvited. Under the hot sun, with few trees and thus hardly any shade, I begin to sweat. 

This artificial geography provides an example of vastly different living conditions among segregated areas, including lower climate resilience within low-income neighborhoods of color. It is now well documented that segregation efforts at both the federal and municipal levels have resulted in racially divided neighborhoods within US cities. The denial of federally backed mortgages to neighborhoods graded too “risky” to lend to was one of the main public policies used for such discrimination, as lending risk assessments were dependent on both the housing stock and racial composition of an area. As documented by Groundwork RI for the city of Providence, “neighborhoods of color and those with high numbers of immigrants saw property values drop or stagnate, and with that, resident- and city-led improvements to infrastructure also stalled.”

Overlooking cars flying by underneath the bridge .
The view from the bridge crossing I-95, fenced to prevent pedestrians and/or objects from falling.

Smith Hill and other areas that received Cs and Ds, the worst neighborhood grades, suffer from higher concentrations of impervious pavement, lower levels of tree canopy, and higher temperatures as compared to their higher-rated counterparts. The end result is what one can term a “climate injustice,” with neighborhoods of color more exposed to flooding and heat, and citizens who must thus bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences brought upon by climate change. 

Such injustices committed by this artificial geography within the supposed developed world make it clear that development is not so much about a transfer of knowledge or resources from the planetary north to “solve problems in the south,” but rather an issue of the “where” and the “who” within those spaces, as nation states and cities are far from being monoliths. The term “global south” should therefore be used to acknowledge the plight of marginalized peoples within the borders of wealthier countries. The Sustainable Development Goals recognize a need for global action on this topic, including within the US, by calling unto “all countries, rich, poor and middle-income, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.”

Investigating climate justice policy in the US

The Keough School Integration Lab’s first-ever domestic project is a recognition of this pressing global need. In partnership with the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, my master of global affairs colleagues Dara-Marie Raggay, Mohammad Farrae, and I are currently interviewing stakeholders across 6 US cities in the hopes of addressing the question: How might we accelerate the ability of cities to successfully implement effective policies for climate justice and equity? Our journey has so far taken us to Washington, DC, Takoma Park, MD, Providence, RI, and Cincinnati, OH, where we have observed the unequal effects posed by climate change and structural racism, but also the creative solutions seeking to undo these wrongs. 

Our project, often spearheaded by directly affected communities in conjunction with city officials, seeks to compile successful climate justice initiatives, together with common challenges, so that cities beginning their climate justice and equity journey can do so on a stable foundation of expertise. 

Three students sit having a discussion under a tree in a park.
The i-Lab team interviews Amelia Rose, executive director of Groundwork RI, a non-profit dedicated to creating healthier, more resilient communities in Rhode Island.

The more we move forward, the more I have learnt by having my traditional conceptions of development work challenged, not only of where we should work, but even of who should be listened to. As we sometimes look at foreign nations, we must also look inward, giving nuance to the geographies of development that so often prevent us from seeing its global dimension. Sustainable development is needed in developing countries, in the US, and in the world. 

When collecting data and upholding human dignity, timing is everything

by: Lauren Oliver

If you had asked me a month ago what it means to practice integral human development in impact evaluation, I would not have said anything about timing. It has only been through my experience conducting field research in southern Malawi for my Integration Lab (i-Lab) project these past few weeks that I have realized why it matters so much when data is collected and how the timing of collection could interfere with researchers’ recognition and upholding of human dignity. 

My team and I are here in Malawi to conduct a follow-up evaluation of the five-year Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) project completed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 2014. CRS implemented WALA in an effort to reduce food insecurity by promoting watershed management and installing watershed “treatments” (check dams, marker ridges, and in some cases, irrigation schemes) in beneficiary communities. Though an initial evaluation completed during project close-out suggested that the treatments were well-received, a rapid assessment completed in 2018 painted a different picture. The author of this 2018 evaluation reported that the benefits of the treatments had not motivated a majority of beneficiaries to maintain the various structures and, as a result, WALA failed to achieve its objectives. Hoping to understand these disheartening results and avoid repeating the same mistakes, CRS asked us to investigate these findings as well as the barriers and drivers to long-term sustainability for watershed interventions. 

We have met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved.

With this report in mind, we began our field research thinking that if the 2018 researcher found the WALA treatments in disrepair and people unwilling to even talk about watershed management, then surely, three years later, we would find only the remnants of the structures and community members who had forgotten about WALA entirely. Surely. To say that the opposite is true feels like an understatement. We have now met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved since WALA and to take us on a tour of the treatments. The findings we have collected so far bear no resemblance to those presented in the 2018 report. 

My classmate Arthur Ssembajja, standing next to an irrigation canal in Natama, Chiradzulu, southern Malawi during our tour of the community’s watershed treatment structures.
My classmate Arthur Ssembajja, standing next to an irrigation canal in Natama, Chiradzulu, southern Malawi during our tour of the community’s watershed treatment structures.

There is only one way that we can think to explain these discrepancies: timing. The author of the last report visited at peak harvest time. Not only is this when farmers’ labor-demand is the greatest, but it also happens to be during peak rainy season as well when the treatments are withstanding the greatest load. Thus, when the researcher arrived in December of that year, farmers were irritated to be sitting in focus groups when there was so much work to be done and treatments that were difficult to assess—if not entirely undetectable—due to the high water levels in the rivers at the time. 

There are endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others.

This is not to say that the researcher’s findings were wrong, but his conclusions were. Moreover, I would argue that the conclusions he drew and the way he presented them in the report misconstrue not only the impact of WALA on the beneficiary communities, but also the beneficiaries themselves. In his report, he describes the irritated community members as greedy and suffering from “resource-dependency syndrome,” a portrayal that I believe violates their inherent human dignity. 

There were times this past school year when I would find myself sitting in the back of Clemens Sedmak’s Integral Human Development class or Hal Culbertson’s Ethical Issues in Humanitarian Practice course overwhelmed by the endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others. I don’t wish to sound hypercritical or turn this blog post into a tirade; just as I wish to express empathy for the farmers who were irritated to be disturbed during harvest, I want to empathize with a fellow researcher who—I assume—did not choose to conduct his evaluation at such an inopportune time.

More than anything, though, I want to extract a lesson from this experience that I can carry with me as I pursue a career in development-related research myself. I want to remember that research design, like project design, must be human-centered and that at the end of the day, the recognition of human dignity must remain our greatest priority. 

My classmates Arthur Ssembajja and Emily Kaplan observing a focus group led by facilitators Micter (left) and Moyenda (right) in Muluma, Chiradzulu.
My classmates Arthur Ssembajja and Emily Kaplan observing a focus group led by facilitators Micter (left) and Moyenda (right) in Muluma, Chiradzulu.