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).

a seated man in a black shirt faces the camera and is speaking to a man in a blue shirt and grey hat. They are sitting across from each other at a school desk in an unused 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 in a white shirt and patterned skirt is seen from the side reading a book. She is sitting under a tree a few yards away from a raised platform where a group of people is sitting in chairs facing away from the camera.
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. 

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.”

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. 

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.