How Our Disrupted Summer Turned into A Memorable Experience

by: Laura Guerra and Shadwa Ibrahim

When we planned for the summer as master of global affairs students, we expected to have rich in-person field experiences in South Africa, Tunisia, and the Philippines. Some of us even contacted family and friends in these countries and made arrangements to see them. We devised our research plan using methods like focus group discussions and human-centered design workshops—methods that, we hoped, would help to improve development outcomes within the private sector. 

But the surprise of a global pandemic disrupted all of these plans, prompting us to adapt and ultimately pivot to online fieldwork. This gave us a chance to test our assumptions and expectations about fieldwork, learn about ourselves as individuals and as a team, and experience an enriching partnership with Chemonics International that will still contribute to better involvement of the private sector in achieving development outcomes. 

Originally, our i-Lab team expected to work with four projects in three countries. Throughout the spring semester, we discussed preliminary ideas about our plans for working together in the summer. However, the outlook became gloomier in April, and this continued into May, when we were to begin our fieldwork. 

We started our pivot towards virtual fieldwork in mid-May with only two projects out of the four ready to work with us. We were doubtful about the feasibility of using our initial toolkit, confused about our next steps, and questioning the value of any work we would produce in this remote work mode. We spent hours discussing our assumptions and fears internally as a team, with our advisor, Melissa Paulsen, and with our partner liaisons, Chemonics’ Universities Partnerships Team. These open conversations helped us reaffirm our commitment to the project and prepared us to change our outlook on uncertainty and equip ourselves for the many potential scenarios and directions the project might now take. 

We started by revisiting our action plan and intended methods of data collection. We agreed to do so regularly and update our plan and methods vigorously as we moved forward. We started by prioritizing our Private Sector Engagement (PSE) in-depth survey for the PSE practices within Chemonics as an organization to formulate our understanding of the needs of our partner. The survey had a high response rate and received input from 28 different ongoing projects in 42 countries. The results of our survey informed our project plan and were helpful for Chemonics to realize where their field staff faces bottlenecks when it comes to PSE, as highlighted in this blogpost on Chemonics website. Based on the survey, we decided to focus more on Key Informant Interviews and desktop research as our primary tools for data collection and deliverable formulation. In this task we collaborated closely with the Chemonics PSE SMART Team. 

PSE Survey Geographic reach covering 42 countries, shown on the above map.

At the same time, our partner, Chemonics, worked with us to ensure that this was a rich learning experience for us. As a result, we included two short-term PSE focused projects with different deliverables for the health supply chain team within Chemonics and another project in Namibia involving water delivery and maintenance systems. So instead of the initial four projects we had in our proposal, we ended up engaging closely with five projects and teams in eight different countries and had four final deliverables instead of one! It is important to note that we worked extremely hard to guarantee that the quality of our work was consistent and exceptional throughout the different components of our project. The task was challenging, especially with our four team members being in four different time zones, with up to a 12-hour difference. All of this was possible because of those conversations we had early in the summer, where we decided to reach beyond our expectations of how our summer should be and focus on adapting to what our summer actually was. 

Below are four lessons we learned from our remote i-Lab field experience. 

Accepting Uncertainty and Celebrating It 

One of the biggest challenges that we experienced as a team was getting comfortable with the uncertainty of how our project would continue unfolding. It is worth mentioning that this did not mean we waited for things to happen to improve our outcome magically, but rather became completely okay with what might happen next. To do this, we focused on distinguishing between the things within our reach and those outside of our control. Once we made this distinction, it was easier to make a plan and take concrete steps to reach our objective. Recall that when we first started our i-Lab project, we prioritized our data collection on projects that were ready to work with us and co-designed an in-depth analysis survey that guided us on how we would shape our final deliverable. Once we analyzed the results of our data survey, we learned that our partner’s top need was to provide successful examples of PSE in case studies format. This finding guided our next steps.

Practicing Open Communication

Our next key takeaway from our fieldwork was the importance of open communication in all aspects of our project. This helped us align expectations within our internal team as well with our partner. Sharing our challenges and fears openly and immediately allowed us to find solutions to any arising issues instead of delaying conflicts that could jeopardize the quality of our project given our 9-week constraint. Being intentional about communication definitely challenged us outside of our comfort zone, as some of us were intimidated to vocalize concerns and disagreements. Still, it paved the way for us to meet deadlines and adapt our strategy to accomplish the objectives of our fieldwork. For example, our team was split between specializing entirely into different lead roles and keeping lead roles but sharing a smaller degree of responsibilities in other projects. After communicating this concern, we were able to come up with a compromise that allowed us to each focus on a lead project, but continue to support our teammates. What also made this much easier was that our liaisons were very understanding and receptive to our concerns. They validated many of these concerns and worked with us closely to address them throughout the summer.   

Strategic Planning i-Lab meeting using creative, collaborative-online Miro platform.

Working Remotely And Creatively 

Working remotely did not mean we could not collaborate creatively. Our team learned to use different collaborative tools to foster creativity and inclusivity internally and externally. Even working remotely, we were aware some of us were more comfortable voicing ideas than others, so reaching a consensus that truly reflected everyone’s opinion could be difficult. However, we were intentional about using online tools that allowed everyone to participate and make our sessions more engaging/interactive. One form of collaboration we used was GroupMaps during a stakeholder mapping session we held with our liaison from the South Africa team. This allowed us to brainstorm in real time and then as a group discuss the rankings of the key players and prioritize key stakeholders for interviews. Using these tools helped us make our decision-making process more effective and even fun.  

Leaning into the Team 

The last takeaway that resonated with our team was the value of leaning in. While we worked from four different time zones, we were able to support each other in times of need. We conducted interviews that took place at 4 a.m., and thankfully, we could count on each other to take turns and perform these in pairs. We were intentional about dedicating a space to check in during our weekly meetings and even followed up after long days of work to see how we were doing.

This value of leaning in pushed us to ask for a support system when we most need it. For instance, when we faced barriers or roadblocks securing Key Informant Interviews in Namibia, we leaned into our partner in South Africa to leverage networks that ultimately enhanced the quality of our research and led us to our targeted interviewees.

Looking back at our summer fieldwork, we cannot help but smile. We smile because of how optimistically we thought things would unfold for us. But we also smile because we are proud of how we made things work for ourselves despite the obstacles and made this past summer a richer learning experience than we could ever imagine!  

Strategies for embracing uncertainty: the life of a project from afar

by: Kara Venzian, Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Sofia Piecuch

One of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) mottos is to “embrace the uncertainty.” Unbeknownst to us, this mindset would assist us, the “CRS Homies’—Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Kara Venzian, and Sofia Piecuch—in navigating the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of its 2030 Vision, CRS plans to shift its disaster response from a focus on “shelters and settlements” to “homes and communities.” CRS tasked our i-Lab team with gathering data to understand how refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) perceive and create “home.” 

MGA Students Kara Venzian, Fiana Arbab and Sofia Piecuch
CRS Homies selfie! (From left to right: Kara Venzian, Fiana Arbab, Sofia Piecuch.)

When the quarantine began, our team was required to pivot from our original project implementation plan to our plan B. Plan B was designed for us to delegate leading the research to local CRS staff while relying completely on local data enumerators, transcribers, and translators. As project managers from afar, we needed to be creative in assessing the capacity of our three different field teams, catering our communication to their needs, and being intentional about building relationships with them– all while navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic.  

While our initial start date for research was mid- to late May, lockdowns and restrictions were extended repeatedly, ultimately delaying our research in Uganda by two weeks and in Myanmar by a whole month. Our pre-pandemic proposal sought to conduct six focus groups, six mixed method activities, 40 interviews, 20 photography sessions and 200 surveys per country. However, in light of the increasing COVID-19 cases around the world, we simultaneously elaborated a plan B and C.

Plan B involved remote data gathering with local field staff by completing six focus groups, 40 interviews, 20 photography activities, and 90 surveys per country. Plan C required us to go completely virtual in data gathering, utilizing platforms like WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and remote survey platforms like Mechanical Turk, targeted to our countries of interest, as backup plans. We were prepared to implement either plan on any given notice, and ultimately were able to implement Plan B. Nonetheless, when embracing uncertainty, local conditions with layered complications had to be considered.

Due to lockdowns, refugees in Uganda and IDPs in Myanmar faced rising tensions at the intersection of poverty, food insecurity, access to information, and complications from large informal economic sectors (such as migrant workers crossing borders for temporary jobs). Furthermore, refugee and IDP camps and settlements face higher rates of health issues, sometimes having up to 60 times higher mortality rates when compared to host countries. In addition to pandemic-related complications, each refugee and IDP context faced its own challenges due to climate change, civil conflicts and war, food insecurity, poverty, corruption, and coordination failures. These difficulties were also coupled with uncertainties that arose from natural disasters. 

Uganda experienced widespread flooding amid our research, while Myanmar also faced flooding and a devastating landslide during our planning stages. Myanmar was particularly impacted by COVID-19 during the summer, and both countries were stressed by the reduction of funding caused by the pandemic–especially the refugees in Uganda, who had their food rations cut by a third

Our team sought to navigate these conditions in a way that our research could be implemented effectively without being extractive or ignorant of these realities. We intentionally built our research instruments in a trauma-informed way, actively avoiding any questions that could bring forth bad memories, and reviewed each question extensively with in-country staff to maintain our ethical commitment to the dignity and well-being of people we engaged in this research. In general, we had expected refugee and IDP camps and settlements to be ever-changing and uncertain landscapes to navigate, but we could have never anticipated to what extent.

This photo was taken during the i-Lab Global Partner Forum in February 2020, where our journey with CRS began. Pictured, from left to right, is Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Joe Weber (CRS liaison), Sofia Piecuch, and Kara Venzian.

This disaster-stricken reality required flexibility of deadlines for staff members who were constantly pulled in multiple directions to manage many emergencies at once. Additionally, when coordinating with remote staff under pandemic conditions, an immense challenge was navigating the time zone difference. Our working day in Uganda began at 2am and ended at 9am, while in Myanmar work began at 10:30pm and ended at 6:30am. At many points we were working in both countries, juggling late night meetings with Myanmar and middle-of-night meetings with Uganda, all while balancing our own personal commitments based in the States.

We recognize how unsustainable it is for our physical and mental health to be actively engaged in this work around the clock like this. Fortunately (for this reason), we spent a maximum of five weeks working in each country, with the finish line never feeling too far off, giving us something to count down to: a regular sleep schedule.

In addition to difficulties with time zones, managing a remote staff also had its complications. Each time training was conducted, we veered from the plan in unexpected ways. Internet connectivity issues caused disruptions during training sessions as well as late starts. Local conditions (for example, the weather) determined whether to collect data on any specific day. Lack of clear communication coupled with the time difference occasionally delayed research, where we had to adjust our expectations and add extra days of hired staff time in order to meet our desired number of observations. Awareness of cultural differences was vital for delegating tasks to staff and achieving results. Furthermore, knowledge of local contexts was necessary to communicate, not only with staff members, but also with key informants (“who could have guessed the UNHCR representative preferred to be contacted over WhatsApp?”).

To be accessible in real time and to bond with our local teams, we decided to coordinate with staff in a more casual way. In Uganda, we created a WhatsApp group where we could discuss daily assignments and give immediate feedback (when we were awake).

Here we have pictured the Kyangwali (Uganda) team testing our instruments using CRS tablets during our hybrid (virtual with the support of local staff) training sessions.

For Myanmar, we created a Facebook Messenger group. Among all teams, we insisted on finding ways to be personable despite the distance (and screens) between us—we regularly sent selfies of ourselves working, and would often receive them from the team having breakfast or in training sessions together. This interaction was one of the highlights when managing our teams; we loved to put names to faces and to personalize our engagement beyond familiarity with their titles of “enumerator,” “translator,” or “transcriber.” 

Pictured is our in-country staff in Myanmar, composed entirely of KMSS (Karuna Mission Social Solidarity) staff in Bhamo, Yangon.

These informal chat groups also bridged an equity gap, as not everyone on our staff had email accounts; many were refugees themselves and did not have access to laptops. Thus, the less-formal interaction pathways were the most accessible way to communicate, especially instantaneously. 

Our distance required us to rely heavily on our excellent staff, without whom we could not have effectively conducted the research. We had to be prepared to adapt to their varying levels of expertise—with some being familiar with CommCare (our data collection app) and some having no familiarity at all—and worked to capitalize on their strengths. Additionally, we recognized that our project was one of several for some people, who, especially during the pandemic, were juggling many responsibilities. Therefore, we learned to adjust to differing levels of responsiveness from field staff. There were some points where our team had to relinquish control and let whatever was going to happen, happen. We became familiar, although never comfortable, with the chaos this distant management required, and learned to live with it. 

We were able to join our team in the Bidibidi Settlement (Uganda), virtually, for their final debrief and celebration dinner! The wonderful staff from CRS Yumbe and local enumerators, translators and transcribers seemed to have a great time.

Our State-side daily realities also provided challenges. For example, internet limitations confined us to the same space during workdays, demanding creativity when we had multiple meetings at the same time. Though our desire was originally to find an official office space, we have instead been able to use one of our members’ studio apartments (which has proved ideal, especially during overnighters). Countless key informant interviews were conducted in our workspace’s closet, as the studio apartment did not provide different spaces to operate in while conducting separate meetings. Without the support of each other, solutions like this could not have come about. We are grateful to have been a part of such a flexible team that has had a strong dedication to this project.

Ultimately, this project demanded flexibility from us in ways we never expected, and forced us to generate innovative strategies to address any uncertainties that arose. Here are some of our key takeaways: 

1) We are glad that we made the decision to work together in South Bend. Without in-person cooperation, our work would have been less cohesive, less enjoyable, and less efficient. 

2) Through messaging apps, email, video calls, and final debrief dinners (and selfies), we are glad to have gotten to know the 34 staff members that we worked with. This allowed us not only to receive quality work from field staff, but also gave us the opportunity to contribute to their professional development through the creation of professional certificates, resume pointers, and passing along potential employment/education opportunities.

3) Along the same lines, we observe that working remotely and relying on local staff contributes toward sustainable, localized efforts and responses.

Despite the challenges, we have still been able to receive high quality data. We cannot be more grateful for a huge challenge well met and a successful project, one that has broadened our knowledge of project implementation. We recognized all of these uncertainties and have loved the process of being uncomfortable while growing our own capabilities as project managers and consultant-researchers.

 

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development

by: Novita L. Kumala

When MP Maisara Dandamun Latiph informed me that my internship would entail frequent travel to Cotabato City, Maguindanao, and Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, I said yes excitedly. I also could not shake my latent worry about traveling to Marawi City.

Marawi was once a thriving, picturesque city on a lake, and capital city to the Province of Lanao del Sur in the Philippines. Unlike the rest of the Filipino population, the majority of the people within Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), including Marawi, are Muslim. Hence, Marawi is also formally known as the Islamic City of Marawi, distinguishing itself within the Christian majority state of the Philippines.

My concern for travel to Marawi was due to the highly publicized Marawi Siege back in 2017. On May 23, 2017, Marawi was attacked and then overtaken by an ISIS-affiliated group known as the Maute group. The battle between Maute and the Armed Forces of the Philippines lasted five months, leaving a considerable portion of old-town Marawi in ruins and people fleeing for refuge.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Marawi City, the most affected area.

Having now visited the city several times as a part of my six-month field immersion project, here is a glimpse of the story of Marawi from my observation.

About my peacebuilding internship

I am currently the legal researcher for Attorney Maisara Dandamun Latiph, one of the 80 members of Bangsamoro parliament. She is a lawyer and one of the drafters of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, a Philippine law that provided for the establishment of the political entity currently known as the BARMM. She is appointed by the President.

In my role, I attend parliamentary sessions and listen to their debates on various issues, ranging from the dengue and polio outbreaks to Department of Public Works projects and annual budget planning. I then research issues for MP Maisara based on what the office needs and assist with the drafting of various documents from letters to resolutions to draft bills.

During our onboarding process, MP Maisara briefed me on several of her priority legislative issues, which ranged from education and Islamic banking to lake conservation and protection of vulnerable populations.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Parliamentary Plenary Session, Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Complex Hall, Cotabato City, Maguindanao.

Focus on Lake Lanao

As a member of parliament, one of the legislative priorities of MP Maisara is the rehabilitation and conservation of Lake Lanao. As a native Meranao, she has a cultural attachment to the lake, in part because the Meranao people derive their name from it. “Ranao” or “Ranaw” within the Meranao local vernacular means “lake,” so “Meranao” means “people of the lake.”

Numerous articles and pieces of research have highlighted the plight of Lake Lanao due to unsustainable water use by various stakeholders and industries, including the power industry, local agriculture, household wastewater from the surrounding settlement area, and, more recently, effects of the Marawi siege. Even hydropower plants, despite championing their cause as “green” and low carbon, pose a danger to the lake’s water balance and biodiversity. Compounded by the threat of climate change, there is a looming threat that the lake and its water tributaries will go dry.

If that happens, what happens to the Meranao people? What will the people of the lake become without their namesake?

My first visit to Marawi City was to assist MP Maisara in hosting her first-ever public consultation on the issue of Lake Lanao rehabilitation and conservation. Participants agreed that the best next step would be to establish a Lake Development Authority overseeing the conservation and sustainable use of the lake’s various resources. Since then, we have had several meetings with a technical working group to formulate a better bill, which establishes a Development Authority.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Lake Lanao.

Marawi City: Now

It has been two years since the siege ended. Yet, the scars and trauma run deep for the people, even for Marawi residents used to the sound of daily gunshots from feuding clans. Marawi residents who lived in the most affected areas cannot return to their homes because the city is still closed and has not yet been rebuilt. The process of cleaning the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and demolition of some of the buildings is still on-going.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Marawi’s most affected area with the other staff and Laguna Lake Development Authority guests from Manila—What expression should you make?

Even those who did not live in the most affected area have left the city to settle in Iligan City or Cagayan de Oro. The memory of that day still haunts them.

Marawi Rehabilitation: Opportunity?

The process of Marawi rehabilitation and protection of Lake Lanao showcases an obvious opportunity for a better and more sustainable development plan.

When it comes to post-conflict environmental peacebuilding, water has long been vital for building sustainable peace and for providing immediate societal benefits. I think Marawi and its proximity to Lake Lanao represent what long-term post-conflict peacebuilding should look like.

The location of Marawi City and Lake Lanao within Lanao del Sur.

The emerging notion in environmental peacebuilding is that by taking environmental issues into post-conflict peacebuilding policies it will contribute to sustainable peace. Instead of making the environment an afterthought in constructing post-conflict and development plans, the environment needs to be at the foundation of the framework.  The logic goes as follows: sound environmental governance, legislated and implemented during the transition period, will contribute to sustainable and lasting peace to minimize conflict over resources.

I hope that the people, the Government of Philippines, and the Bangsamoro Government do not fall into the common trap of sacrificing the environment in exchange for short-term economic development. Long-term planning is more crucial, as the threat of climate change is no longer near but here already. An integrated approach to the environment, conflict, and peace are imperative for the Government’s program and policy as well as incoming development projects to the area.

Multidisciplinary Approach in the Future

Environmental peacebuilding draws its body of knowledge from various disciplines. In this particular case, from environmental conservation, structural-institutional change, and post-conflict peacebuilding (trauma healing, etc.). As students of the Keough School, we will encounter more complex challenges upon graduation nowadays, especially problems exacerbated by climate change. With its interdisciplinary approach and mix of several concentrations, hopefully the Keough School can prepare students for challenging circumstances like these.

For me, Marawi rehabilitation represents the complexity and scale of challenges that environmental, peacebuilding, and development actors will increasingly face.

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.