Why am I here? Reflections from Haiti

by: Abigail Ginzburg

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

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

a seated man in a black shirt faces the camera and is speaking to a man in a blue shirt and grey hat. They are sitting across from each other at a school desk in an unused classroom.
Haitian teammate conducts a key informant interview.

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

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

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

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

My teammates’ answers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

a woman in a white shirt and patterned skirt is seen from the side reading a book. She is sitting under a tree a few yards away from a raised platform where a group of people is sitting in chairs facing away from the camera.
Me, reading a book during a focus group discussion

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

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.