Voices of Hope Amid Complexities

By: Ephraim Bassey Emah

To what extent should outside peacebuilders (or newcomers) display optimism for positive social change despite the presence of protracted conflicts in an environment? This is a question that I struggle to answer as I engage my Master of Global Affairs field experience in Myanmar.

Based on my interactions so far, it is clear that as long as local populations, who are the most affected by the conflict, demonstrate optimism, then outside interveners should keep the faith and continue to show solidarity with them. This attitude, I would argue, should be part of the professional ethics and individual responsibility of [outside] peacebuilders, and shape how we engage with conflict-affected populations. The strength that communities need to transform conflict relationships, achieve long-term social change, and thrive is often embedded in their collective display of resilience, positive attitudes, and belief that violent conflicts will de-escalate or disappear.

Overlook of Yangon from RAFT Office.

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a rich culture, substantial mineral deposits, and a friendly people. Despite these endowments, different complex issues continue to drive conflict escalation and frequent clashes between the country’s military, called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in different parts of the country. Continued conflicts in Shan and Rakhine states are just one of the major conflicts that occur around the country. The continuation of fighting in locations like Rakhine State reveals the complexity of contextual issues and how the outcomes of the conflicts shape relationships among citizens. Ethnonationalism, ethnocentrism, demand for political autonomy and resource control, and the weaponization of religion to incite hate are some of the factors that sustain the conflicts. A continuous polarization of identity and broader national security by different armed actors, including the government, threatens social cohesion and the possibilities of achieving integral human development, a core principle and goal of the Keough School.

Achieving sustainable peace and human flourishing in environments affected by high-intensity conflict is difficult. As I engage in deep reflections about opportunities that exist amid the complexity in Myanmar, interactions with youth help me realize that outside peacebuilders’ emphasis should be on integral human development and integral peace. Pursuing both goals emphasizes the importance of “carrying everyone along.”

However, the optimism of many groups who are working beyond narratives of hate and stereotypes demonstrates significant hope for peace and conflict transformation in the country. This optimism is further amplified by the existence of civil society organizations, like RAFT, whose organizational make-up reflects a dynamic mix of technical capacity, contextual awareness and sensitivity, firm resolve and commitment to collaborative peacebuilding actions, and a desire to build peace across various identities. My immersion in Myanmar, through the guidance of RAFT, enables me to more deeply understand the ethics associated with engaging local contexts, being sensitive to different dynamics that exist, carefully triangulating information, and maintaining the best attitude and poise that is required to manage conflicts.

It is evident that because the sources of conflicts often emerge from local populations, they are better placed to develop locally-owned and locally-driven solutions for transforming their problems. Therefore, as a peacebuilder and participant-observer, it is my responsibility to interact cautiously within this space. Because we do not wish to do harm, peacebuilders should recognize that we are not “saviors,” but “facilitators” of positive social change. We may be experts with technical capacity, but may never be experts of local solutions. Therefore, supporting local populations to identify and leverage available resources and utilize their agency to build peace is one of the greatest gifts that outside peacebuilders or interveners can give in any context.

Program Coordination Meeting with some RAFT colleagues.

The growing level of hope for a peaceful Myanmar among young people stirs their resolve to display group solidarity regardless of their ethnic or religious inclinations. I remember Min Nyan Shwe, a young colleague at RAFT, telling me one time that “even though there is fighting everywhere, we know things will change one day.” This hope expands the space for mobilizing collective action towards reducing discrimination, strengthening the agency of youth to pressure conflict actors to end violence, promoting social cohesion, and transforming narratives that have divided citizens for decades.

My interactions with many young people have also opened my eyes to the paradox of a peacebuilder’s position. Although the positionality of peacebuilders provides power, legitimacy, and increases access to resources, our work will be more effective when we channel our resources toward sustaining the optimism growing among local actors, regardless of the difficulties that they face. It is not “what” peacebuilders offer to transform conflicts that often matters; it is “how” these resources are transmitted that sustains peacebuilding.

A Display of Youth Solidarity.

As peacebuilders enter new environments, we automatically become a part of the context and its issues. Our vocation is one that requires us to identify and create solutions constantly. Solutions are easily recognized through genuine and deep reflection, respect for context, awareness of sensitivities, developing and maintaining the right relationships, and a display of humility to learn through the processes that shape us.

Peacebuilding is a conscious journey toward identifying opportunities for inclusive and sustainable solutions, despite the existence of structural and institutional complexities. Solutions are not always created. Sometimes, they are already available at our fingertips. We only need to reflect, visualize them, and overcome the fears and constraints that the environment may create towards implementing them.

My learning journey in Nepal and India: housing, hospitality, and community building

by: Maria Belen Zanzuchi

On any other May 25—Argentina’s May Revolution celebration—you would find me at my parents’ house, sitting by the fireplace and eating traditional Argentine food. But this year was different. Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time, I took one step outside the plane and was already sweating. I lowered the window in my taxi, hoping for fresh air and a view on the way to my new apartment, but car tailpipes smoked like a chimney and clouds of dust obscured the mountains. Many people wore face masks, and several buildings were still under reconstruction after the monstrous 2015 earthquake. In a city with no traffic lights but plenty of cows and motorbikes, my mind was jostled by frequent sudden stops and punctuated by the sound of vehicle horns.

View of Kathmandu
View of Kathmandu from Bhaktapur Square, where many temples are still under reconstruction after the 2015 Earthquake.
Street in Kathmandu
Street in Kathmandu.

Warm, chaotic and notoriously polluted was my first impression of Kathmandu, but nothing could dampen the excitement of beginning my Integration Lab summer research. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), my teammate Brian and I were to visit communities in Nepal and India to better understand how we might encourage disaster-affected populations to adopt hazard-resilient housing reconstruction practices. CRS aims to promote human development by responding to major crises. The organization seeks to expand culturally appropriate housing that meets international standards and enables future upgrades to permanent shelter. 

 

Learning from chaos

As the days went by, I started to enjoy the chaos. Every day I set foot outside, my body and mind filled with energy. I was delighted by the colors, the smell of incense in the streets, the mixture of religions, the countless temples and, mainly, the people. Despite their meager resources, every house welcomed us with a smile and offered tea and food. Our attempts to speak local words brought curious smiles as well.  

Gorkha, Nepal household survey
During a household survey in a rural community in Gorkha, Nepal.

 

Nepal household tea
During a household survey in Nepal. The owner offered us some tea after it.

Though every day I’d learned something different, there was one thing that stood out: the dynamic inside the communities. Every time we visited a house, at least one neighbor was already there having tea or talking to the house owner. A simple household survey would sometimes turn into a focus group with neighbors joining to help answer the questions. Many of these people also work together under a labor exchange (parma) system cultivating crops. Yet, astonishingly, they don’t usually help each other to build safer houses. At least in Nepal, some communities used to work together to (re)build traditional houses before the earthquake, but haven’t done so since.

Filling gaps and thinking forward

I started to ask why such close communities no longer exchange labor for house reconstruction. Some said they were struggling to repair their own houses and were not able to care for neighbors’ houses, but others said that once a household obtains a government grant to build a safer (usually brick) house, the community won’t help. Community members assume that someone with a grant doesn’t need the community’s help. 

How is it that the grant scheme prevents people from helping each other to build safer houses if they used to work together for traditional ones? This was a living example of the unintended consequences of development work we discussed in one of our Master of Global Affairs classes at the Keough School. 

 

Devastated community after Cyclone Fani
A community devastated after Cyclone Fani in Odisha, India.

Revising the grant program to address this issue would require larger players to exert influence, but development workers can help fill this gap by promoting community resilience.  Community resilience not only helps families save time and money (the few communities that did work exchange for house reconstruction saved up to 50 percent of labor costs), it also can help them heal and move forward after a traumatic event. Promoting community resilience might not be an easy task, but it’s one that’s worth trying, especially in an environment where community members are already close to each other. How do we do this? I don’t have the answer.

One last important lesson I learned from the field is that people are happy to share their views and experiences. All we need to do is listen carefully. Before we try to change their behavior, we need to listen to understand what motivates them, what they fear, whom they trust, and what they stand for. Their fears, needs, and incentives are usually rooted in something real and shaped by the larger environment. Policies don’t take place in a bubble, and behaviors are not changed by simply suggesting “universal” best practices. The development world needs to listen to and work with communities to face the challenges ahead.

Welcomed into the community
Women welcoming Brian and me when entering their community in Odisha, India.

 

Top four things to know about collaborations in the NGO world

by: Max Ngoc Nguyen

In February Greg Van Kirk, founder of Community Empowerment Solutions (CES) and an Ashoka Fellow, approached our Keough School i-Lab team and proposed an intriguing research question: NGOs tend to work in silos, thus miss out on potential collective outcomes as a result. Could our team work with CES in designing a platform that would encourage NGOs to collaborate with other organizations in order to maximize social impact? As we have begun to dive deeper into this project, we have learned fascinating things from the 54 organizations we have interviewed.

1. Organizations collaborate better than we expected

Before heading to our fieldwork in Guatemala and Ecuador, where CES has a strong presence, we spent two months in the classroom conducting research on why most NGOs do not collaborate with one another. We spoke to experts, examined academic literature, and perused articles on SSIR. We came up with a plethora of reasons: nonprofits compete for the same funding, NGO employees are too busy, organizations are not interested. Basically, we started with the assumption that there is little collaboration in the NGO sector.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen stands with his i-Lab partner, Dominic Scarcelli and the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, in rural Guatemala.
We interviewed the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, ND ’89. Ecofiltro aspires to provide clean drinking water to rural Guatemala.

During the course of our interviews, we learned that organizations are collaborating more actively than our research suggested, at least in Guatemala and Ecuador. In fact, 83% of the interviewed NGOs exhibit dynamic patterns of either working with or looking to work with others. One executive director from an education NGO in Antigua, Guatemala, summed up this sentiment best:

We’re always looking for partnership. In fact, I believe that creating and promoting partnerships with a lot of NGOs that have affinity [with us] is the only way we’re going to make an impact.”

2. Organizations that look beyond their field of specialty tend to seek more alliances

We have noticed an interesting correlation: NGOs that express the desire to offer services beyond their areas of expertise are more likely to reach out to others. As an example, in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, we came across a social enterprise that specializes in exporting artisan products to the United States. They also want to improve the health conditions of their employees, but they do not have skills in that field. Thus, according to the Development Manager, they partnered up with others:

“We have a health-based initiative, such as sexual health family planning. But we’re not a health-based organization. So we collaborate with organizations with specialty in health-based education. They can provide us with tools, resources, or modules for education. In return, we provide access to communities.”

MGA student Dominic Scarcelli waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
My teammate, Dominic Scarcelli, is waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

3. The greatest challenge to collaboration is different priorities

The aforementioned challenges that we researched in class are indeed echoed by some NGOs, but 35% of the interviewees believe the biggest obstacle to collaboration is conflicting priorities. In Cuenca, Ecuador, a nonprofit focused on technical training for farmers told us that they would only work with groups that offer complimentary services to theirs. If you want to make clean water, build schools, or construct a soccer field, for example, they are just not that into you.

4. Capacity-building workshops are key to creating partnerships

An overwhelming 77% of organizations have claimed that they initiate collaboration because they have a friend who works for another NGO, met a potential partner at a fair, or even bumped into someone at a bar. From these observations, we have concluded that in order for alliance-building to flourish, we need to make these coincidental meetings happen more frequently and systematically.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen playing soccor with community members in a plaza in Ecuador.
In our spare time, we played soccer with community members in Ñamarín, Ecuador.

We have discovered that one of the best ways to do so is through organizing training workshops on various topics. Staffers and leaders from different NGOs come to these events to acquire knowledge in fundraising, navigating social media, and managing foreign volunteers. Whatever the theme is, participants get to know one another, exchange contacts, and build personal connections. Afterwards, they start to collaborate with one another.

In conclusion, NGOs are indeed working together more often than we anticipated. But these partnerships take place organically. We believe the platform we are designing for CES will help these collaborations occur on a systematic scale. Most important of all, it will incorporate the personal connections necessary to spark enduring alliances among NGOs.

Be grateful for everything and keep going

by: Mukhlisa Khudayberganova

“To take for granted” is a phrase that describes most of the actions of humanity. We take our health, fresh air we are breathing, education, and even people for granted, failing to properly appreciate them. My journey to Chile, which started three weeks late because of a visa delay—or “bureaucracy” as Chileans call it—has made me ponder this phrase and its active role in our lives.

I had heard a lot of good things about Chile, so I had very high expectations for my Integration Lab research project and was really excited when I got my visa. However, it was a little bit of a disenchantment for me to see the polluted air of Santiago and not be able to see the beauty of the city because of urban smog. While we were driving to our home, my host dad tried to show and explain the geography and parts of the capital, but most of the time we could not see the buildings or mountains.

A city street in Santiago. The Andes are seen in the background, and the sky is blue.
Santiago is surrounded by mountains.

The air became clear after several days, and I was finally able to enjoy the view of the ancient Andes, green parks and hills, as well as the beautiful architecture of the city’s buildings. This taught me to appreciate what I have. Santiago is surrounded by mountains that have witnessed centuries of history. However, the lack of wind in the city due to these mountains makes heat concentrate in the higher layers of the air, causing the smog in Chilean winter. If it rains in the city, people become really happy because the air will be clear the next day.

MGA students pose for a picture on a street in Chile.
The MGA students in our i-Lab team.

Chilean winter is not as cold as winters in the Midwest, yet it is cold inside the buildings. I was really lucky that my host family had a heating system in their house. Otherwise, I would have frozen in cold nights and mornings. Again, I took this type of comfort for granted until the moment that I found out that my teammates had sometimes been feeling cold in their apartments.

Learning to appreciate the little things

Inequality in Chile has been a topic of not only regional but also global importance. Reading articles and books about this issue is very different from seeing it up close. Social and economic inequality leads to education inequality, causing a lower quality of education at public schools. This has been a problem to work on for many for- and non-profit organizations, among which is Enseña Chile – a Chilean version of Teach for America. This NGO collaborates with public schools. Its branch Colegios Que Aprenden (“Schools that Learn”), which Seiko, Frank and I closely worked with, offers its expertise to leadership teams to improve the learning environment at their schools.

Our cooperation with Colegios Que Aprenden partner schools has revealed that school leaders have different motivations for educational improvement, as well as different priorities. In most cases, leaders need basic things like safety and security of children. Once we went to a school without any actual buildings—temporary, truck-type constructions were the only shelter. Still the children were happy. When we had a meeting with a principal of the school, we discovered that she is a really nice person trying to do her best as a principal and make the most of the situation.

MGA student Seiko Kanda interviews leadership in an administrative office of a public school in Santiago, Chile.
Interview at a public school.
MGA students pose with their partner organizations in an education building in Santiago, Chile.
Our team and Enseña Chile staff.

Thinking about all of these things leads me to conclude that the concept of “No one left behind” is really tough to achieve. You can do your best to develop a learning environment at schools, but unfulfilled basic needs make your job more arduous. But seeing very optimistic and assiduous people facing a harsh reality and still not stopping their efforts encourages us to work hard, as well. Thus, the ability to be grateful for every little thing and keep continuing is the most important skill.

P.S. Chile does not only have negative sides. The natural beauty of this Latin American country along with its hospitable and sober-minded people made our journey unforgettable. A coin has two faces: I tried to capture the country from all angles, choosing photos to show the beauty of the country and using words to describe the experience that taught us not to take everything for granted.

An orange sunset on a beach in Viña del Mar.
An orange sunset on a beach in Viña del Mar.

Rethinking the priorities of educational communities

by: Seiko Kanda

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

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

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

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

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

STUDYING HOW SCHOOLS IMPROVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHOOL AS A SUPPORTIVE LEARNING COMMUNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by: Pawas Manandhar

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

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

OXFAM’S SAVING FOR CHANGE IN TIMOR LESTE

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

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

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

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

REFLECTIONS AND THE NEED TO QUESTION

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

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

HUMILITY AND SELF-CRITICISM

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

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

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

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

Feelings in the field

by: Abeera Akhtar

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


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

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

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

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

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

HOW CLIMATE CHANGE HOLDS CAMBODIA BACK

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

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

PEOPLE BEFORE POLICY

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

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

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

Giving a human face to hard data

by: Dominic Scarcelli

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

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

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

BUILDING COLLABORATION IN CONTEXT

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

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

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

HOW COMMUNITY STORIES ADD DEPTH TO OUR RESEARCH

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

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

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

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

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

by: Raushan Zhandayeva

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

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

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

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

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

HOW BEHAVIOR STUDIES INFORM DEVELOPMENT WORK 

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

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

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

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

SUPPORTING GRASSROOTS INNOVATION IN GLOBAL COMMUNITIES

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

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

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

Diving deep into culture and context

by: Christine Germann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: BANGLADESH

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

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

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

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

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: UGANDA

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

WHY CONTEXT MATTERS

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