“The Community builds an unimpeachable record for integrity and good offices in the societies it comes to serve . . . Sant’Egidio practices nonpartisan social action that underscores its equanimity and commitment to the common good.”
— R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred
The first time I encountered the Community of Sant’Egidio was not in a “usual” way for a Sant’Egidio member—by attending prayer or perhaps engaging in service, but rather by reading an academic article. As a peace studies undergraduate interested in the intersection of religion and peace, I encountered The Ambivalence of the Sacred, a seminal work by Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School. Appleby argues that the “sacred,” religious actors, and religious ideologies in general are not monoliths, but that each tradition and each person within the tradition creates their own response to what they view as the “sacred.”
Appleby also discusses Sant’Egidio, detailing not only the community’s vast diplomatic and peace work in Mozambique, Uganda, Algeria, and elsewhere, but also its activities with a wide range of vulnerable people such as the DREAM project for HIV/AIDS treatment within the African continent, services for elderly people, those experiencing homelessness, those with disabilities, abandoned children, and immigrants. I was immediately hooked, and the work of Sant’Egidio was never far from my mind as I completed my undergraduate studies and began to think about graduate work.
When I returned to Notre Dame in the fall of 2020 to begin the Master of Global Affairs program at the Keough School, I began seeking out opportunities for my six-month internship. I was introduced again to Sant’Egidio, this time in a new way by Professor Jerry Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. What began as a simple introduction soon led into an internship and then a full-time position with the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue as well as an offer to come to Rome and work with Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office during my six-month placement.
From the outset, spending time with the community’s outreach to migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos was one of my priorities. Thanks to an internship and placement grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, I was able to join that project at the end of the summer.
Since starting my work in Rome in June 2021, I have been engaged in assisting Sant’Egidio’s Peace Office with the Rome Initiative, the community’s support for the peace process in South Sudan. The Rome Initiative seeks to find an inclusive way to bring the non-signatories of the Rome Declaration into dialogue and full agreement with the government of South Sudan. No two days at Sant’Egidio look the same, but our focus remains constant: how can we “live out” the values of the Gospel every day by supporting the most marginalized people?
In the spirit of this mission, Sant’Egidio offers robust support for refugees and migrants, including through a program called “Sant’Egidio summer.” For the past few years, about 250 Sant’Egidio members, mostly from Europe, spend part of their summer holiday on Lesbos which is now home to about 7,000 refugees. In the camps, they operate an English school, a School for Peace program for children (from teenagers down to two-year-olds), a full-service “restaurant,” and other services.
Thanks to the Nanovic Institute, I was able to join this group of Sant’Egidio volunteers on Lesbos. Understanding the refugee crisis on the island and around the world is pivotal to the peace work that I am engaged in. When one works in diplomacy and politics, it can often be easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of high-level technical decisions and quickly forget that every poor decision or mistake that is made can result in yet another family ending up in a tent in the middle of a refugee camp with an uncertain future.
I am incredibly grateful to have had this experience on Lesbos, witnessing and participating in the Sant’Egidio community “in action.” I look forward to sharing more about my experiences in my future posts.
Elizabeth Boyle ’20 is a student in the Master of Global Affairs program with a concentration in international peace studies. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she studied and worked on interreligious peacebuilding and received the Yarrow Award in Peace Studies. She has interned with Religions for Peace, the US Commission on Civil Rights, USAID, and the US Department of State. Boyle is also the recipient of an Ansari Institute Fellowship.
6:30 AM: It is still dark outside because it is winter in Malawi, and we must set off early to make it to one of the fifteen communities we will visit in our six weeks of qualitative data collection with the i-Lab. The car winds down the switch-back mountain road and I close my eyes, trying not to puke or focus on the fact that dense fog barely lets us see 6 feet in front of us. I tell Cosmas, our driver, “you’re a hero,” for the first time today. An hour and a half later, we make it to the Chikwawa District’s Agriculture Office to pick up the agriculture extension officer who will guide us to the community. However, he informs us the bridge to the community is no longer operational . . . we must go back to Blantyre and take the dirt road.
8:00 AM: So, we start our trek back up the switch-back road, through the dense fog, make a pit stop for roasted maize sold on the side of the road, arrive in Blantyre, and start our journey all over again on a different road. Little do I know, this is the longest, most bumpy, truly terrifying road I have ever encountered in my 26 years on this earth. I have never been tossed around so violently and I feel truly thankful for the invention of the safety locking mechanism on seatbelts.
10:30 AM: We arrive at the community four long hours after our initial start time this morning with a moderate case of whiplash. As we get out of the car and I try to forget about the experience I just had, my research teammate, Lauren, whispers to me, “Look it’s market day.” Vendors from town and other communities have set up shop along the main road to sell fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, and chitenge (the traditional cloth wrap worn by women). Lauren and I pause our walk to the meeting venue to buy a fritter and when we look up from thanking the kind woman who sold us the perfectly fried pastry, the car is gone, our translators and facilitators have vanished, and we are left standing helplessly in the middle of the road—my minimal Chichewa language skills are not going to get us out of this situation.
10:50 AM: After ten long minutes desperately trying to ask for directions and communicating with smiles and pointing, a child approaches us, and it is very clear we are to follow her. The 10-year-old guides us to the meeting location where 20 men and women of the watershed management committee wait for us; they laugh kindly at our mistake, welcome us to the correct location, and we thank our child guide.
We apologize profusely for our tardiness. Our research facilitators, Micter and Moyenda, introduce us and the purpose of our visit. We are there to learn about the community’s relationship with natural resources and how they have sustained the interventions of a watershed management development project that ended eight years ago.
The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement project, WALA, is aimed to help communities restore degraded watersheds through building physical structures and planting trees, amongst other things. This prevents flooding by allowing water to easily infiltrate into the ground and recharge the water table, allowing for longer growing seasons, lessening the impact of severe weather brought on more frequently by climate change, and increasing food security in the region. The community has so much to teach us about what they have been collectively working on, and how they sustain, modify, and add new interventions to the project every year to better fit their needs. The conversations take place in Chichewa, and because I speak a different yet very similar language from a neighboring country, I can understand a fair bit of what is being said. Later, I get the details from the extensive notes Micter and Moyenda take.
Their notes describe how this community felt a need to go above and beyond the watershed management interventions because this project was the first time an NGO was willing to make the trek into their community. They collectively felt that this was their only opportunity to reap the benefits from the resources and expertise the project gave them. They understand they are geographically isolated, so were truly grateful and appreciative for their first and thus far only opportunity to solve some of the problems the community knew they needed to address.
Most of the other communities we have visited thus far during our field work, those situated along the paved road or just an easy 10 to 15- minute ride on a dirt road, have had multiple projects from multiple NGOs over the past decade, often working simultaneously. Some communities were inundated with NGO projects to assist with issues surrounding health, nutrition, education, or natural resource management, while isolated communities have few such opportunities. How can this disparity, based simply on geography, be fair?
2:00 PM: We are sincerely impressed during a tour of the watershed infrastructure, which is maintained immaculately. We see massive stone bunds, contour trenches, and swales. The sheer amount of physical labor that went into the construction of these elements is astounding. It really is incredible to see what a community can do when they come together to solve their problems and make sure they have a sustainable future. This community is so hidden away from urban society that getting to it is time consuming and physically painful, but to be able to see the progress and get a sense of the lifechanging outcomes that result from a single development project really makes me understand the important role that NGOs can play in a community’s development.
3:00 PM: Before we leave, we are asked to sign the community’s visitor book in which I see the names of the Catholic Relief Services Country Director and a United States Congressional Representative. They visited the community in 2019, before the pandemic. This community and all they have done in sustaining and replicating project interventions, since the completion of WALA, is an excellent example of how development projects succeed in changing lives through effective natural resource management thus leading to poverty alleviation and food security.
3:10 PM: We say our goodbyes and are informed that the bridge we had previously thought was not operational is repaired, so we can take the “shorter and better” road back to Blantyre. Looking back on this moment, I realize I have never been so boldly and confidently misled by a stranger. Boy were we in for a treat. If I thought the road coming into the community was the worst I had ever been on, then this road out of the village made the last feel road like the miniature roller coasters for kids under the age of 5 at the theme park. At no less than seven points in the ride, I think the car is going to flip and tumble down a mountain slope. There are not one but two bridges, and the car cannot even make it over the first one, so we actually drive through a river. I do not know much about cars, but I know they do not normally drive through rivers. This is the point in the day in which I tell Cosmas, for the second time, that he is a hero.
6:30 PM: We make it home a full 12 hours after leaving that morning, our brains bursting with information and adrenaline pumping through our veins. The people we met and the watershed interventions we saw today opened my eyes to the good that can come from development projects. But realizing the inequity in the way NGOs allocate resources, based on the level of ease of transportation into a community, makes me ponder the ethical dilemma of doing what is easy rather than doing what is right. This is a message that I have always held close and I will continue to take with me as I enter the sustainable development field after graduation. I am grateful to have had such an eye-opening Tuesday.
White Georgia marble rises tall over an ample green lawn. Chairs lie on this pristine patio, lush trees providing a refuge from the summer heat. Sitting on the grounds surrounding the Rhode Island State House in the city of Providence, I cannot help but marvel at the beauty and openness of this public space. In my hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I am more used to parks and fences, to government buildings and guards; where there are beautiful green spaces, there are also signs restricting them to certain hours, activities, and kinds of people.
This thought process of mine portrays a logic long familiar to the field of international development and to policymakers in Latin America: there can be a tendency to praise the accomplishments of our neighbors to the north, including the United States and its ranks of prominent academics, while lamenting over what we supposedly have yet to achieve in the geographic south. However pervasive to this day, this perspective obscures the fact that there are other geographies that matter.
I stand up from my chair and enjoy the protection of the shade trees one last time, then I begin my commute to Smith Hill, a Providence neighborhood less than a block away from the state’s capitol. I venture across a narrow sidewalk overlooking a plethora of lanes and cars. This neighborhood is split in two by I-95, an interstate highway connecting the entire eastern coast of the US. Once on the other side, cracked and abundant pavement greets me, and the thick smell of smoke settles into my nostrils uninvited. Under the hot sun, with few trees and thus hardly any shade, I begin to sweat.
This artificial geography provides an example of vastly different living conditions among segregated areas, including lower climate resilience within low-income neighborhoods of color. It is now well documented that segregation efforts at both the federal and municipal levels have resulted in racially divided neighborhoods within US cities. The denial of federally backed mortgages to neighborhoods graded too “risky” to lend to was one of the main public policies used for such discrimination, as lending risk assessments were dependent on both the housing stock and racial composition of an area. As documented by Groundwork RI for the city of Providence, “neighborhoods of color and those with high numbers of immigrants saw property values drop or stagnate, and with that, resident- and city-led improvements to infrastructure also stalled.”
Smith Hill and other areas that received Cs and Ds, the worst neighborhood grades, suffer from higher concentrations of impervious pavement, lower levels of tree canopy, and higher temperatures as compared to their higher-rated counterparts. The end result is what one can term a “climate injustice,” with neighborhoods of color more exposed to flooding and heat, and citizens who must thus bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences brought upon by climate change.
Such injustices committed by this artificial geography within the supposed developed world make it clear that development is not so much about a transfer of knowledge or resources from the planetary north to “solve problems in the south,” but rather an issue of the “where” and the “who” within those spaces, as nation states and cities are far from being monoliths. The term “global south” should therefore be used to acknowledge the plight of marginalized peoples within the borders of wealthier countries. The Sustainable Development Goals recognize a need for global action on this topic, including within the US, by calling unto “all countries, rich, poor and middle-income, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.”
Investigating climate justice policy in the US
The Keough School Integration Lab’s first-ever domestic project is a recognition of this pressing global need. In partnership with the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, my master of global affairs colleagues Dara-Marie Raggay, Mohammad Farrae, and I are currently interviewing stakeholders across 6 US cities in the hopes of addressing the question: How might we accelerate the ability of cities to successfully implement effective policies for climate justice and equity? Our journey has so far taken us to Washington, DC, Takoma Park, MD, Providence, RI, and Cincinnati, OH, where we have observed the unequal effects posed by climate change and structural racism, but also the creative solutions seeking to undo these wrongs.
Our project, often spearheaded by directly affected communities in conjunction with city officials, seeks to compile successful climate justice initiatives, together with common challenges, so that cities beginning their climate justice and equity journey can do so on a stable foundation of expertise.
The more we move forward, the more I have learnt by having my traditional conceptions of development work challenged, not only of where we should work, but even of who should be listened to. As we sometimes look at foreign nations, we must also look inward, giving nuance to the geographies of development that so often prevent us from seeing its global dimension. Sustainable development is needed in developing countries, in the US, and in the world.
If you had asked me a month ago what it means to practice integral human development in impact evaluation, I would not have said anything about timing. It has only been through my experience conducting field research in southern Malawi for my Integration Lab (i-Lab) project these past few weeks that I have realized why it matters so much when data is collected and how the timing of collection could interfere with researchers’ recognition and upholding of human dignity.
My team and I are here in Malawi to conduct a follow-up evaluation of the five-year Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) project completed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 2014. CRS implemented WALA in an effort to reduce food insecurity by promoting watershed management and installing watershed “treatments” (check dams, marker ridges, and in some cases, irrigation schemes) in beneficiary communities. Though an initial evaluation completed during project close-out suggested that the treatments were well-received, a rapid assessment completed in 2018 painted a different picture. The author of this 2018 evaluation reported that the benefits of the treatments had not motivated a majority of beneficiaries to maintain the various structures and, as a result, WALA failed to achieve its objectives. Hoping to understand these disheartening results and avoid repeating the same mistakes, CRS asked us to investigate these findings as well as the barriers and drivers to long-term sustainability for watershed interventions.
We have met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved.
With this report in mind, we began our field research thinking that if the 2018 researcher found the WALA treatments in disrepair and people unwilling to even talk about watershed management, then surely, three years later, we would find only the remnants of the structures and community members who had forgotten about WALA entirely. Surely. To say that the opposite is true feels like an understatement. We have now met countless farmers and leaders eager to tell us about all the ways their lives have improved since WALA and to take us on a tour of the treatments. The findings we have collected so far bear no resemblance to those presented in the 2018 report.
There is only one way that we can think to explain these discrepancies: timing. The author of the last report visited at peak harvest time. Not only is this when farmers’ labor-demand is the greatest, but it also happens to be during peak rainy season as well when the treatments are withstanding the greatest load. Thus, when the researcher arrived in December of that year, farmers were irritated to be sitting in focus groups when there was so much work to be done and treatments that were difficult to assess—if not entirely undetectable—due to the high water levels in the rivers at the time.
There are endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others.
This is not to say that the researcher’s findings were wrong, but his conclusions were. Moreover, I would argue that the conclusions he drew and the way he presented them in the report misconstrue not only the impact of WALA on the beneficiary communities, but also the beneficiaries themselves. In his report, he describes the irritated community members as greedy and suffering from “resource-dependency syndrome,” a portrayal that I believe violates their inherent human dignity.
There were times this past school year when I would find myself sitting in the back of Clemens Sedmak’s Integral Human Development class or Hal Culbertson’s Ethical Issues in Humanitarian Practice course overwhelmed by the endless ways that development practitioners can fail, often unintentionally, to uphold the dignity of others. I don’t wish to sound hypercritical or turn this blog post into a tirade; just as I wish to express empathy for the farmers who were irritated to be disturbed during harvest, I want to empathize with a fellow researcher who—I assume—did not choose to conduct his evaluation at such an inopportune time.
More than anything, though, I want to extract a lesson from this experience that I can carry with me as I pursue a career in development-related research myself. I want to remember that research design, like project design, must be human-centered and that at the end of the day, the recognition of human dignity must remain our greatest priority.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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 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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.