Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

by: Jamie McClung

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

Jamie McClung is currently working on a project with Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies for her Master of Global Affairs i-Lab experience, focusing on women’s adaptive capacity to climate change, particularly in rural Bangladesh. She and her partner, Chista Keramati, have just completed their first field site visit to Teknaf, in the southeast corner of Bangladesh.

Climate
(from left to right) Jamie McClung, Ausing, Chista Keramati, and Dewan Ali Emran bond in an indigenous Rakhine village near Cox’s Bazar.

It’s quite difficult to write a small blog post to describe a trip to another universe. In a few words, I’m meant to describe the surprising findings, the warmth of the people, the strange geography, the never-ending questions in my head, but how? Instead, I’ll highlight 5 aspects of our trip that were particularly meaningful or interesting to me, each accompanied by a picture.

1) Presents, but Little Presence:

School girls in a Teknaf village walk (and run) home from school.

One of the very first things I noticed was the overwhelming presence of NGOs in Teknaf—presence in terms of goods, like these UNICEF backpacks, but not in terms of people. Yes, we saw endless Land Rovers associated with different organizations on the road, but I was surprised by the lack of interaction between the people in these vehicles and the local people. I became curious about what these NGOs were doing in and around Teknaf, and if they ever stepped out of the Land Rovers. Some of my questions were answered when we met with UN Women later in the week, and I realized that they share similar goals for integral human development as we do here at the Keough School.

2) Communication without Words:

An elderly man outside of a typical bamboo house smiles at the camera.

We talked with this elderly man on our first day in the village, and saw him again on the second day. He showed me that you can make a friend and communicate without any words at all. This continued to happen throughout the week, through shared smiles, laughs, and simple eye contact that conveyed a curiosity about one another and an openness to learn more. I experienced these small interactions both during focus group discussions (FGDs) and during our walks around the villages.

3) Water, Water, Everywhere:

A cow grazes in a rice paddy field.

This first field visit made it beyond clear why Bangladesh is so extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea waters. One of my thoughts when returning to Dhaka from the field was that maybe Bangladesh was the last country God created, and He just had a bit of land left, so He spread it out as much as He could, took His chances, and let water inhabit most of the space. It is low-lying, marshy, and a land covered in rivers.

4) There’s No Average Bangladeshi:

A young Rakhine girl poses for a photo in an indigenous village near Cox’s Bazar.

To harken back to a comment I made during one of my first semesters at the Keough School of Global Affairs, I truly believe that there is no such thing as an “average” citizen of any country. This little girl, and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine village we visited on the last day of our visit to Cox’s Bazar, reaffirmed that belief. This indigenous community had their own language, their own religious leader, and their own way of life that was extremely different than what we had experienced in the days before that.

5) Geographic Vulnerability Can Be Overcome:

A typical house for Rakhine people near Cox’s Bazar.

The final insight I had during our first field site visit was that local knowledge is already being used for adaptation, without any assistance from the outside world. This indigenous, Buddhist village has always built two-story homes with an open ground floor. It allows them to have a safe place in their home when it floods. This kind of evidence gives me hope after a week of seeing small homes built directly on the ground, unable to protect families during floods or cyclones.

All in all, it was a positive week. There were times I was frustrated at how much families were struggling to survive, and how clearly the land left them vulnerable, but I was also awed by the resilience and hospitality I saw when interacting with the rural communities here. Despite being labeled as “vulnerable” by their national government and international organizations, these communities have survived and they continue to live life with or without us. This realization led me to another: development isn’t about helping people survive; it’s about accompanying them as they attempt to thrive. Now that we’re back in the smog of Dhaka, Chista and I are both counting down the days to our next field sites where we hope to continue bonding with and learning from the local communities we visit.

The Puzzle of Cocoa in Ghana

by: Sofia del Valle

I have been a big chocolate lover my whole life. If you ask my siblings, they will tell you I can be a generous person sometimes, but never when it comes to chocolate: every year, the bars that I would get as birthday presents went directly to a secret drawer in my room—to later be slowly enjoyed while reading a good mystery book (I would argue, however, that age has made me more generous, or maybe just more able to buy myself some chocolate when I want, and hence less of a Scrooge).

Given this love for chocolate, it is quite interesting that only this summer I came in first contact with the fruit from which it derives. Last week, in a farm in the Suhum district of Ghana, a kind farmer opened a fresh cocoa pod for me, and I finally discovered the taste of raw cocoa. It was very different from what I expected: sweet and slightly citrusy, closer to lemon cream than to chocolate as we know it.

Food system
Here I am, just seconds away from tasting fresh cocoa for the first time

DISCONNECTED FOOD SYSTEM

Unless you live near the equator, it is very likely that your experience is similar to mine, in that the closest you have come to actual cocoa is through cocoa powder or cocoa butter, intermediate products that later become chocolate. This disconnection is no coincidence, but a structural characteristic of the cocoa supply chain: around 60% of the global cocoa production happens in two West African countries, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Yet, the whole African continent consumes only about 3% of the chocolate produced globally, while Europe and the U.S. together account for more than 70% of this consumption. Several of these cocoa farmers with whom I talked this week have never tasted chocolate in their lives!

Group interview with cocoa farmers in the Central Region of Ghana

Cocoa is the main agriculture export in Ghana, accounting for 7% of its GDP and a quarter of their exports; yet it is produced almost exclusively by small-scale farmers that grow cocoa trees in few acres of land and take care of them with the help of their families. This makes cocoa a highly informal sector with an important portion of unrecognized labor. In many cases the farmers’ wives and children perform key tasks in cocoa production without being acknowledged as cocoa farmers or receiving any of the income.

Issues like this one are not exclusive to the cocoa sector. Our food system has become highly complex and globalized, and a great proportion of the products we consume can be traced to a few transnational companies on one side, and millions of small producers on the other one. These global supply chains have severe social and environmental impacts that affect disproportionally those who produce the raw materials.

A COMPLEX RESEARCH TASK

Launched in 2013, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign (BtB) is a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains. The campaign led these companies to commit to improving their policies regarding land, water and workers’ rights, gender equality and climate change, among other issues. The next stage of the Oxfam campaign monitors implementation of such commitments. For our Keough School i-Lab project, my Master of Global Affairs colleagues Moaz Uddin, Caroline Andridge and I have been supporting the work of Oxfam’s country teams in Malawi, India and Ghana on the implementation of this project at the national level. For the case of Ghana, the focus is, as you may already imagine, cocoa.

The task sounds more straightforward than it really is: I imagined we could take the main chocolate companies, review their policies, trace the communities where they are sourcing their cocoa, and see if such commitments and policies are being implemented there and how. Sounds easy, right? Reality is, as we keep discussing at the Keough School, more complex; linking companies with cocoa producers is a harder task than I imagined: each level of the supply chain ─ companies, traders, government agencies, middle-men, cooperatives, farmers ─ is a puzzle in itself.

Part of the amazing Oxfam in Ghana team. Oxfam’s GROW campaign englobes BtB and other efforts on making the food system more fair and sustainable

Like the books I used to read whilst eating chocolate in my home in Santiago, my task has become almost the one of a detective, asking questions and following clues that we find in interviews and field visits. The goal is now helping the Oxfam-Ghana team to gain a clearer picture of who is doing what in the cocoa sector. For now, I can say that the distance between cocoa and chocolate is indeed very big; however, our interviews with farmers and local organizations, and the work with the team here in Ghana, show that there are good people doing good work in order to improve the lives of cocoa farmers. I feel grateful to be a part of their team—to witness and contribute to their important work in my own humble way.

My Experience in the Philippines: A Unity of Opposites

by: Juanita Esguerra Rezk

If you asked me to summarize my experience of living and working in the Philippines in one sentence, I would say, “In the past month I have experienced both extreme feelings of familiarity and strangeness.” Beyond the contradictions, this combination has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on myself and my future professional life.

Getting out of my comfort zone

For my Master of Global Affairs i-Lab project, I am working in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) at Habitat for Humanity to improve how market analyses are conducted by international aid organizations within the shelter sector. Specifically, we are testing the market analyses process in one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Despite my prior experience with humanitarian assistance, diving deeply into the shelter sector has certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Shelter
Mapping the construction materials most widely used in northern Cebu.

You are probably inquiring why would a market analysis be relevant at all? I will try to answer briefly: When a crisis occurs (after an earthquake, a typhoon or a massive displacement), local market actors are often the principal means by which people obtain essential items they need to recover and adapt. In the past, this was largely ignored by international aid organizations, who often imported and distributed goods and provided services directly to those affected. These actions bypass and hinder the resources and capacities of local communities. For this reason, in recent years, humanitarian organizations have started to support and use local market supply chains in their aid response.

Advocates for this type of market intervention argue that it supports livelihood opportunities, improves economic rehabilitation and helps international organizations adapt better to the local context. This all sounds great, right? However, to support such interventions, organizations need to understand the local markets, and when it comes specifically to the shelter and housing sector, aid organizations are still struggling to do so. That is where our partnership with TCIS comes in.

The experience of a Colombian in the Philippines: The familiar within the unfamiliar

Shelter
One of the masons we interviewed is showing us the tools he uses to ensure the quality of his work. The device he is holding is a plumb bob (called “tun tun” in Cebuano), which is used to make sure columns are straight.

During our time here, we have been conducting interviews with families, masons, carpenters, local hardware stores and wholesalers to map the capacity of the local market systems to meet the housing demands of low-income households (including land tenure, financing, access to materials and labor). I am marveled by how willing people have been to share their knowledge, thoughts and experiences with us.

Every time we conduct interviews with households, families usually offer us a snack. This gesture has immediately transported me back to my days of fieldwork in Colombia, where I was always offered a cup of coffee and some bread or cookies when I visited someone’s home. More generally, Filipino architecture, cuisine and religious traditions— strongly influenced by Spanish colonization— together with the warmth of the people and their commitment to build a more peaceful and inclusive society amid challenging conditions of inequality and violence, have made me feel at home.

Shelter
A photo of our team with the first family we interviewed.

Despite these similarities, and the fact that most first and last names in the Philippines are in Spanish, I have not encountered a single person who speaks the Spanish language. Getting by in the cities has been surprisingly easy for our team, as almost everyone we interact with speaks English. Yet, in rural areas the use of English decreases significantly. Because of this, we are conducting our interviews in Cebuano, the language most widely spoken in Cebu province. To make this possible, we have a Cebuano on our team, who has not only acted as a translator, but has also helped us navigate our daily life here and helped us establish contact with different stakeholders.

Although it has been great working with him, it has also been frustrating not being able to participate in these interviews because it limits our capacity to build relationships and to analyze the situation from first- hand information. This is a completely new experience for me, and it has really made me reflect on the importance of relationships, cultural sensitivity and language training in development work.

Shelter
Our new team member Leonell, conducting an interview with a family about their experience in rebuilding their house after Typhoon Yolanda.

Reflections from a safe exposure

Although there is no doubt that international agencies supporting local economies is a step forward in the process of localizing development, I cannot help but wonder if these solutions are still rooted within the systems and power relations that intrinsically constitute an obstacle for the development of these communities. Does the analytical assessment of local markets by outside organizations inherit certain biases? One of the biggest challenges we face is to resist being absorbed by a technocratic mindset that ignores other aspects of social dynamics. Focusing solely on technical issues becomes a barrier for change because it eclipses the human components and does not contest the unequal power relations that hinder structural transformations.

Strangely, one of the things that I have found most enriching about this experience is the feeling of discomfort. This project has forced me to venture into a new region, a new culture and a new sector. Being here on our own, but having the support of the Keough School and our advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, has been a safe exposure and in my case, a chance to experiment with a completely different professional career path. Every day I ask myself how I would feel if this were my long-term job and what would be different if that were the case. I am sure these reflections will continue to grow as I continue my experience here and will certainly be useful as I start to think about what I want to do after I graduate.

 

Into the Warm Heart of Africa

by: Mian Moaz Uddin

“What is this boy from Peshawar doing in Africa?,” I kept thinking to myself as I looked down from my 30,000-foot window over the Sahara Desert. By the time we stopped at Addis Ababa for the layover, I was having a mini existential crisis.

The past four months of my master’s program, I’ve been in the i-Lab learning about the Behind the Brands campaign with Oxfam. My colleagues Sofia Del Valle, Caroline Andridge, and I had taken a deep dive into a program that covers ten of the world’s leading food and beverage companies on a comprehensive list of their social and environmental policies worldwide. The orientation week at Oxfam’s Boston office then brought our team together for one week to synthesize our work before we each parted for different research locations across the globe: Ghana, India, and Malawi, respectively. Now it was becoming real; I had six short weeks to gather as much information as possible to understand land rights and governance issues in Malawi to help the campaign.

Coming from a developing country myself, I’ve seen first hand the myopic development programs that are often administered by well-intentioned but oblivious foreigners. The Keough School of Global Affairs has further sensitized me to the perils of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘symptom targeting’ in the context of international development. Considering Malawi’s GDP is one of the lowest in the world and is heavily reliant on foreign aid, I wanted to ensure that I did not become one of those foreigners here.

A SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY IN MALAWI

Villagers participating in the awareness campaign

I’m glad to say that my first week in Lilongwe allayed all of these concerns. Instead of seeing a frail state swarming with foreigners trying to fill the vacuum, I saw that most of the development work on the ground was being carried out by Malawians themselves. I happen to be the only foreigner in the Oxfam office here (maybe the whole block!). Furthermore, the members of civil society and government officials I’ve met with recognize the aid dependency problem.

At one of the workshops on women and land rights issues, the participants unanimously agreed that Malawi must develop independently from the ‘mzungus’ (foreigners) aid programs. The sentiment of self-reliance reverberates in government policies and the national character, as well. I’ve seen many public sponsored billboards here promoting local produce and industry and have found the supermarket shelves stocked with local brands. I usually judge countries by the way they drive. The spirit of community can be seen very well on the roads of Malawi where each driver displays the utmost patience, even in rush hour traffic, and pedestrian crossings are taken seriously, even on the most remote roads.

Needless to say, I was delighted to see the inclusive and horizontal approach to development, which we’ve learned as part of the Sustainable Development concentration at the Keough School of Global Affairs, being applied where it’s needed most.

STORIES OF DISPLACEMENT

Land has been a contentious issue in Malawi. As a British Protectorate, the British land laws were superimposed on the existing customary laws of the land. This created a dichotomy of land law, and land use loopholes, which have often been exploited by investors, corporations and corrupt officials to grab vast swathes of land—often displacing the indigenous populations and disturbing livelihoods. I’m traveling to these plantations and meeting with the affected communities, government representatives and civil society representatives; I will gather information to assess the state of land policy commitments made by the world’s leading food and beverage companies here.

Development
A village right outside Lilongwe, where the local women gather to get water.

Last week, I traveled to the Mulanje district to the south of Malawi to meet with a community displaced by a tea estate. The village was a quiet place surrounded by iridescent green tea plants with a stunning view of Mt Mulanje. The people, with their broad smiles and hospitality, reminded me that I was in the warm heart of Africa. While the lush landscapes, jolly people and slow pace of life seemed very charming to me, my focus group discussion with the community revealed that this tranquility belies the heart-breaking stories of displacement and the historic injustices committed against these people. The villagers revealed how they had been driven out of their own land and were now faced with food insecurity because of the lack of cultivable land in the face of a growing population.

Civil society organizations, like Oxfam, have been partnering with the government and corporations to introduce laws that formalize land rights for ‘customary land holders’ like the villagers I met. Almost two decades of effort has culminated in the recent passage of the Customary Land Act, which provides villagers like the Mulanje a mechanism to register and exercise authority over their land. The representative from the Ministry of Land explained to me that this has been a huge milestone for Malawi that will effectively close the loophole allowing corporations to exploit these communities. The civil society organizations here widely celebrated the passage of the law, but also acknowledge the fact that the law will only yield results if the communities and corporations are aware of its provisions; hence, organizations like Oxfam are shifting gears from activism to awareness, monitoring and evaluation.

This has been a truly humbling experience for me, and the people of Malawi have reaffirmed my belief in organic and inclusive growth. I’m very grateful to be here and participate in the Oxfam campaign. I look forward to reconvening in Washington, D.C., where we will discuss our collective experiences and findings from Malawi, India, and Ghana.

4 Reasons to Fall in Love with Tanzania

by: Quang Ngoc Thang

“Your Tanzanian name is now Tanzanaiti. Your name in Vietnamese means gem, and ‘Tanzanaiti’ is a very beautiful gem that can only be found in Tanzania.”

In my first week here in Tanzania, an old man—whom I had just met—gave me a Tanzanian name. At that moment, my mind echoed what someone told me before I came here: “The wildlife, beautiful beaches, and landscapes are what attract visitors to come here. But it is the hospitality and friendliness of Tanzanian people that make them want to come back for more.”

I arrived in Tanzania on a mild Tuesday afternoon at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam. This is only the second foreign country I have been to besides the U.S. One year from the day I knew that I was going to study at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, my study has taken me to two different continents: North America and Africa.

One of the core parts of my Master of Global Affairs program is the Integration Lab, where the students have a chance to actually use their knowledge from class to apply to real-world challenges. Working in a team of two to four students, we partner with organizations around the world and support their work. Luckily, my team was chosen to collaborate with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School to support its work of promoting universal access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia care.

Tanzania and friends
Desmond Jumbam (from PGSSC) and me after an interview at Muhimbili hospital

It is this partnership that has brought me to Tanzania—to learn how this country, as one of the world’s pioneers, developed its own National Surgical, Obstetric, and Anaesthesia Plan (NSOAP). At the same time, my other two teammates, Leah Walkowski and Sarah Davies Breen, are now working in Ethiopia and Sierra Leone on the same issue. We truly hope to contribute to the work that PGSSC has been doing to inspire more countries around the world to address access to surgical care.

After two weeks in Tanzania, I have fallen in love with this beautiful country. Understanding that the work I am doing is going to improve the surgical system in Tanzania, and help all the lovely Tanzanians  I have met, I am really glad that I can contribute something meaningful to this country.

Now, let me tell you: How did I fall in love with Tanzania?

NATURE

Tanzanian beach
Me at the sandy beach on Bongoyo Island, a small island 30 minutes away from Dar es Salaam

Nature tends to attract people to Tanzania. The wildlife in Serengeti National Park, Mount Kilimanjaro (Roof of Tanzania), and the beaches are the top three attractions. I have not yet had a chance to experience the first two, but I can definitely tell you that the beaches in Tanzania are the most beautiful I have ever seen. Let me show you the pictures and you can see for yourself.

FOOD

Tanzania
My lunch at the Muhimbili hospital after an interview (pilau + beans + kuku)

Tanzanian food, like the food of many other East African countries, is influenced by Indian culture. However, the mixture of cultures creates the uniqueness of the food here. In Dar es Salaam, you can easily see the signature of the sea in the meal. Ugali (maize porridge) with samaki (fish) is a must-try dish when you are in Dar. Usually, what I have every day is pilau (rice cooked with coconut milk), beans, and maybe kuku (chicken). You can fill your empty stomach for a bit more than $1. If you eat seafood, even in a fancy restaurant, it will only cost you $10. Sound tempting?

CULTURE

Dar es Salaam in Swahili means, “haven of peace.” Most of my time in Tanzania is in Dar, and all of the small things here have given me a glimpse of Tanzanian culture which are enough to make me fall in love.

Tanzania
Bodaboda

The main transportation in Dar is cars, but this is not the best way to travel. Find yourself a bajai (motorbike with a roof); it is an easier way to avoid traffic jams in this city. However, the best way is to find a bodaboda (motorbike). Using a bodaboda, you will never have to worry about the jam, and most of all, they are the experts in the area. Sometimes you will find yourself on a no-name road, which is actually the shortcut to your destination.

PEOPLE

All in all, it is the people that made me immediately fall in love with this country. Tanzanians are friendly and kind. You can feel their warm hospitality in every conversation. People say “hi” to each other whenever they meet on the street, even to strangers. There are many ways to say “hi” in Swahili. A foreigner usually learns the normal way in a guidebook which is, “habari.” Have you ever heard about “mambo”?  This is the street way to say “hello” that I learned from my friend Rajo, shown here.

Tanzania also surprises me with all the amazing people that I randomly meet everywhere. Remember the man who gave me my Tanzanian name? His name is Banto (people call him Picasso). He sells paintings in Dar during the weekend to finance his school of art for the poor children in his village in Msata (2-3 hours from Dar).

Tanzania
Picasso, Kelvin (his first student), and me. Kelvin was sent to the Bagamoyo College of Art thanks to Picasso.

So if you ever find these two men on the street of Dar, please do not hesitate to buy a painting from them—you are supporting kids from a poor village to study art, and you may be helping more students like Kelvin to go to college.

There are so many amazing people that I have met in Dar, I cannot list all of them here. It could be Paschal, an entrepreneur who is opening his own company to develop a system that helps students to learn through SMS.

Or Jeremiah, the president of the student organization at the University of Dar es Salaam, the top university in East Africa. It would not be false if you call him a politician. He plans to run for Member of Parliament of Tanzania in 2020. He is also now establishing his own start-up.

It is just my second week in Tanzania, and I cannot imagine how many more amazing people I will meet in the next five weeks. How can I not fall in love with this place, right?