Addressing Structural Violence within Transitional Justice Processes

by: Maria Isabel Leon Gomez Sonet

Given my current interest in the links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town, South Africa, has been the ideal place to carry out research for my MGA capstone project. Initially, my inclination was to choose a Latin American country, given that all of my professional and academic experience up to that point had focused on Latin America, particularly on human rights and U.S. foreign policy in the region. However, I decided that, given the opportunity to conduct research as part of my Master of Global Affairs program, I should do so in a new context to compare, learn, and analyze solutions carried out by other countries for problems similar to those in my own region.

Understanding South Africa’s history

As I read about South Africa in a post-apartheid era, one thing was clear to me: the peace negotiations and the transitional justice process—mainly focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—were successful in stopping direct violence, leading to democracy and the creation of a new constitution. The constitution appears comprehensive and inclusive of all South Africans; however, the promises of change mostly remain on paper and the structural foundations of apartheid are still in place.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. This inequality results in huge socioeconomic issues such as poverty and unemployment as well as limited access to basic services such as health, sanitation, and education for the majority of the Black population.

Dsitrict Six Suitcase, an example of the research into links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice
Visiting the District Six museum. District Six is a former residential area in Cape Town. More than 60,000 people were forcibly removed by the apartheid government during the 1970s and it was declared a whites-only area.

South Africa and Guatemala: Cases of Historical Inequalities unaddressed during Transitional Justice Processes

As I now study the South African case, I find connections with the Guatemalan case, a country where a comprehensive peace agreement was finalized in 1996 after years of civil conflict.

Prior to joining the Keough School, I worked in Guatemala and saw firsthand how, despite an inclusive peace agreement signed almost 25 years ago, the indigenous people (who were the main victims of the conflict) are still living in poverty, marginalization, as well as enduring criminal violence and militarization. Both countries have a deep history of embedded racism and inequality, which to this day remain unsolved behind promises of peace and reconciliation.   

My research is a case-study-based approach regarding South Africa and Guatemala. I focus on moments of missed opportunities, turning points, and failed policies that resulted in the inequality and structural violence still present in both cases—even after inclusive transitional documents. I would like to explore these questions for both cases, keeping in mind the economic and political contexts, as well as the international and external pressures both countries faced at the time of transition. As I collect my data in South Africa, I have five topics of emphasis that transitional justice processes fail to address: socioeconomic inequality, gender justice, security reform, mental health, and issues of land and other natural resources.

Protesting Climate Change
In front of the South African Parliament where youth came together to demand climate change action.

Comparative findings thus far

In the case of South Africa, the TRC’s narrow and legalistic definitions of justice and violence resulted in the recognition of only 22,000 official victims of human rights violations. The millions of people that suffered systemic structural violence during the apartheid years were not counted as victims. For instance, during apartheid, more than two million people were forcibly displaced from their homes and land. However, these displacements were not taken into account as violations and therefore not subject to policies of reparation. In Guatemala, promises from the State to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and to address historic inequalities remain on the papers of the peace agreements.

Both countries face ongoing issues such as violence against women rising at alarming levels. High levels of criminal violence and gangs leading to the militarization of poor and already vulnerable communities are present in both. Gender justice, as well as important reforms to the security sector, did not occur during transition periods. In both contexts, issues of healing, addressing trauma, and psychosocial as well as mental health problems stemming from violent conflict and structural violence have been superficially addressed by the State and seen mainly as the responsibility of civil society.

As we have learned in the International Peace Studies concentration coursework, achieving peace is not only about stopping direct violence. We refer to this as negative peace (as per the work of Johan Galtung). Positive peace is inclusive of transforming oppressive systems that will address systemic injustices and inequalities.

The exclusion of socioeconomic issues, gender, land, trauma, and security sector reform from transitional justice is not accidental. Transitional justice processes have been historically important to document and disclose the truth behind massive human rights violations. However, these processes often aim for liberal constitutional democracy and market economy as their end goal.

Transitional justice should be a long-term process—rather than a truth commission with a deadline—and should focus on transforming oppressive and unequal power relationships and structures that are at the root of the conflict itself.

A comprehensive and holistic agenda for transitional justice processes is hard to deliver in practice, and we must take into consideration the economic and political contexts in place. However, we cannot dismiss the important connections between peacebuilding in post-conflict societies and socioeconomic and development issues. Otherwise, we run the risk that victims of direct violence will perpetually suffer from structural injustices, and that promises of a new post-conflict nation will remain only on paper.

A photo in Nelson Mandela's house
Picture taken while I visited Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg.

Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Imagination

By: Nate Van Duzer

Last spring in our Strategic Peacebuilding course, the MGA Peace Studies students learned about the concept of “the moral imagination” from peacebuilder and former Kroc Institute faculty member John Paul Lederach. I’ve been reflecting on this concept during my six-month field placement as a researcher with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Geneva, Switzerland. It strikes me that, in the world of international advocacy, ICAN exhibits a clear moral imagination.

In 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its successful campaign that led to the landmark 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Underlying the campaign’s hard work was a simple premise: focus the conversation on the catastrophic, real-world humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, not on abstract political concepts.

ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. They let me hold it.

Nuclear weapons used to be the only category of weapons of mass destruction not banned by international legal instruments, but the 2017 treaty fills that gap. More than two-thirds of the world’s states support it; governments around the world have been engaging in internal processes to ratify the treaty, which will enter into force once 50 nations ratify it.

In his book The Moral Imagination, Lederach defines the title concept “as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.” Developing a moral imagination is a community vocation, not just an individual one. With hundreds of partner organizations around the world, ICAN builds a shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Some critique the work for a future without nuclear weapons as being hopelessly idealistic or irrational. In her speech accepting the Nobel prize on behalf of ICAN, Executive Director Beatrice Fihn countered, “but we represent the only rational choice. We represent those who refuse to accept nuclear weapons as a fixture in our world, those who refuse to have their fates bound up in a few lines of launch code.” Later in the speech Fihn declared, “those who say that future is not possible need to get out of the way of those making it a reality.”

The main assembly hall at the United Nations in Geneva.

ICAN recognizes the challenges of the current moment in nuclear disarmament policy. Regular news headlines showcase what seems to be a renewal of the nuclear arms race among the nine states with nuclear weapons. But the organization remains hopeful in its outlook, believing in the possibility of an end goal that many cannot even envision. This belief, in my opinion, is the moral imagination at work.

In my first year after college, I worked for an organization called Sojourners. The head of that organization, Rev. Jim Wallis, often says, “hope is believing, in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” As more countries ratify the 2017 treaty, as more financial institutions refuse to fund companies that produce nuclear weapons, as more parliamentarians in nuclear-weapons-supporting states sign a pledge to support the 2017 treaty, the evidence for how the world understands these weapons changes.

This fieldwork assignment at ICAN has proven to be a refreshing perspective shift for me. For almost a decade before enrolling at Notre Dame, I worked inside local government institutions. A lot of good work can be accomplished from within government, but it is easy in that environment to get stuck in existing paradigms and lose vision about what other futures might be possible. Effective civil society advocacy can remind us of those alternative futures–and give us a glimpse of the moral imagination at work.

Switzerland is very expensive, but also a magical mountain wonderland.

The Case for Rehabilitation: Peaceful Responses for Interrupting Violent Patterns in El Salvador

By: Jacqueline Shrader

When I first started sharing with my colleagues and community that I would be living in El Salvador working with ex-gang members, their first question was “Will you be safe?” This question was admittedly ironic, since my placement was with Creative Associate International’s Crime and Violence Prevention Project (CVPP). While the question was rooted in concern for my well-being, it reflects the ways in which the discourse around El Salvador is dominated by violence, gangs, and poverty. 

At the Keough School of  Global Affairs, many of our classes demand interrogation of themes like this. In contexts of violence such as those in El Salvador, there has been a tendency to rely on repressive tactics that risk exacerbating the problem. There are an estimated 60,000-70,000 active gang members in El Salvador. If each of those gang members is part of a family who could be affected by repression, then there is tremendous risk for creating more division in the larger society rather than addressing the original conflict. 

The CVPP is one of the first large projects to work on tertiary prevention, which is direct intervention with people looking to leave gangs. Focusing on rehabilitation of people trying to leave the gangs—already very challenging—creates opportunities to lower the number of gang members, decrease violence, and address original factors that lead to people joining gangs. Out of most of the ex-gang members I have spoken with, many reference wanting to feel like their identity is respected and that their well-being sustained. Due to contexts of unresolved conflict, scarce resources, classism and other issues that maintain violence, people who join the gangs seek alternative groups that respect their human dignity.

Ciudad Delgado - El Salvador
CVPP has focused on public space rehabilitation. This was a community painted mural that seeks to brighten the neighborhood and reinforce community building.

For example, there are two dominant gangs in El Salvador, both of which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. During these years, a surge of Central American immigrants fleeing civil war and conflict landed in LA seeking refuge. LA did not have the infrastructure to support the sudden influx of  people, which resulted in high unemployment and dense urban living situations. Existing gang violence and insufficient municipal infrastructure created an impossible reality, which led to the creation of new gangs for safety and community reasons. With high homicide rates and violence in LA, the US responded with heavy-handed incarceration and deportation policies. This response sent young men back to their birth countries, though many  did not even speak Spanish. The policy implementation could not have foreseen the violence that the US would export back to Central America, which in 20 years would create a new iteration of the immigration crisis. 

For the last 10  years or so, the popular rhetoric assigned to gangs and gang members in Central America has been one based on violence and fear. The violence perpetuated by gangs is harsh and inexcusable, leaving several communities in El Salvador struggling. Through extortion and other forms of violence, the gangs in El Salvador pose threats to the Salvadoran social fabric that increase instability, migration, and lower chances of success. With every new iteration of repressive mano dura, or Iron Fist policy, gangs adopt a more formal infrastructure and presence. 

Gang members may commit violent acts, but the questions need to be asked in order to think about gangs origin and historical trajectory. Why did they end up in a gang in the first place? How did the public institutions, international policies, and social fabric fail people enough that they would join a gang? How do gangs provide a sense of safety or security to involved people that they may not feel otherwise? Applying an anthropological lens reveals more answers that may not excuse behavior, but offer hints for disrupting and transforming violence. 

Chapel painting
This painting hangs in the Chapel at the University of Central America, San Salvador. It depicts the military’s violence during the civil conflict, which eventually led to the murder of 6 Jesuit priests in 1989 by the military.

As a peacebuilder from the USA, I come home every day with new questions, information and experiences to think about. My country not only deported the original gangsters, but also policies that provide quick answers without addressing root causes. Scholar-activist John Paul Lederach’s reflections resound daily: “To speak well and listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotions and deep conflict. People’s very identity is under threat.” The starting question may still be, “Will you be safe?” But as practitioners, we must reframe the question to “How is this person not safe due to underlying structural and historical causes that threaten the dignity of the person in front of me?” If practitioners do not, we risk replicating historical patterns of violence towards current and future generations, compounding the root causes and contributing to future insecurity. 

Pupusas
Pupusas are a famous Salvadoran food.

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?