Feelings in the field

by: Abeera Akhtar

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


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

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

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

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

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

HOW CLIMATE CHANGE HOLDS CAMBODIA BACK

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

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

PEOPLE BEFORE POLICY

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

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

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

Giving a human face to hard data

by: Dominic Scarcelli

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

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

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

BUILDING COLLABORATION IN CONTEXT

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

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

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

HOW COMMUNITY STORIES ADD DEPTH TO OUR RESEARCH

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

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

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

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

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

by: Raushan Zhandayeva

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

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

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

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

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

HOW BEHAVIOR STUDIES INFORM DEVELOPMENT WORK 

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

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

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

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

SUPPORTING GRASSROOTS INNOVATION IN GLOBAL COMMUNITIES

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

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

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

Diving deep into culture and context

by: Christine Germann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: BANGLADESH

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

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

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

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

VOICES OF REFUGEE COMMUNITIES: UGANDA

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

WHY CONTEXT MATTERS

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

Dancing in the rain: encountering the strength of community weavers in Nepal

by: Brian Hickey

It started pouring. My teammate Belen and I had barely started our descent from a one-hour, strenuous hike straight uphill when the rain came. For obvious reasons, we stuck out as foreigners among the local Nepali population, even more so considering our unpreparedness for the fast-moving rain clouds amidst the start of Nepal’s monsoon season. Nepalis around us put on their rain jackets, walked around with umbrellas, or simply ignored the rain. Instead of cursing our luck, Belen and I decided to embrace the rain and smile at the locals trying to stifle their laughter at us soaked westerners. As we continued our descent, we ran into a group of young women walking and dancing with no rain gear. We joined the women reveling in the weather conditions.

Throughout our past month in Nepal, we have heard stories of resilience in communities recovering after natural disasters. We have listened to stories about individuals continually rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods four years after the devastating 2015 Nepali earthquake. We have heard these stories from grandparents who lost grandkids and widows wanting to serve us tea because we remind them of their kids who are now gone. I have witnessed the faith of the small Catholic community in Nepal reconstructing a beautiful church that was lost among the earthquake, bomb, and arson attacks. A community that passionately celebrates Mass and has formed a tight-knit parish family despite adversity.

A church in Nepal.
The Catholic church, once lost among the earthquake, bomb and arson attacks.

The person I have learned the most from in Nepal has been our translator, Ramchandra. Ramchandra is not too much older than me and is soon to be a father of two. He is a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to assist us in our research.  During one of our long talks about life and personal desires for future impact in our careers, Ramchandra began speaking about his efforts leading citizen initiatives in his community. Ramchandra, along with several other driven community members, was concerned by the distance people with debilitating diseases had to travel to reach medical care at a hospital. They are what bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “community weavers.”

Ramchandra and Brian Hickey, a Notre Dame graduate student, standing in front of a Catholic Relief Services building in Nepal.
Ramchandra and I at the CRS building.

Ramchandra’s group, the weavers, inspired the community to give out of their valuable income (some living in poverty) to build a center for the sick to have proper rest and support during their journey to obtain medical care at the hospital. While these community members do not know the majority of the people who will benefit from the new community center, Ramchandra is proud to know he does not necessarily have to run for political office or have a position with a large NGO to see a need and do something about it.

Ramchandra and his fellow community members highlight a theme we have consistently observed in Nepal: communities are banded together by weavers like Ramchandra who assist fellow citizens in their time of need. They rejoice as others rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Nepali locals working on a project together.
Nepali community members working on a participatory activity with Ramchandra.

LEARNING TO EMBODY THE WEAVER SPIRIT

This month, we are continuing our research with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) through the Keough School’s i-Lab in a state in India that has suffered from recurring cyclones, floods, as well as attacks on minority religious communities. With our work, we hope to discover the effects of communities constantly having to grapple with devastating human-made and natural disasters.

A morning sunrise in the mountains of Nepal.
A morning sunrise in the mountains during our fieldwork.

As Belen and I seek to develop a tool for CRS to help households reconstruct shelter after major traumatic experiences, we must keep in mind the importance of community weavers. We must ask how organizations like CRS can assist households and communities in rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods so that when the rain, or oth­er difficult times come, community members can continue to dance knowing a brother or sister will soon come with arms open wide to help. Perhaps, when we come home, we can also look at our community and neighborhoods in the United States and discover how we can develop as weavers like Ramchandra.

How to evaluate success in development work

by: Joshua Pine

Youthful optimism. Eager expectation. Passion to learn and to serve. As I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, these were the emotions that engulfed me. Having lived for nearly twenty years as an American in China, I had never traveled to Latin America before and was excited to broaden my global horizon. While I knew the exotic appeal of a new country, replete with street tacos and mariachi bands, would eventually wear off, I did not expect a sobering reality check to set in on our first day of work.

My team and I are partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, exploring ways to increase the quality of homes among low-income communities through market-based interventions. Drawing heavily from our training in design thinking from the Master of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, we set out the first day to engage directly with the marginalized communities we aimed to serve by visiting homeowners in Tláhuac, a poorer neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Without any background in Spanish, my assigned role during these visits was to observe our surroundings and take detailed notes. After the interview, my teammate would provide me with a quick summary translation.

Joshua Pine visits a household to conduct interviews about housing in Tláhua, Mexico.
Visiting households to conduct interviews in Tláhua, Mexico.

When we entered the first home, I began furiously jotting down every detail into my notebook: a two-story home with multiple generations living together, several pet dogs, a Wii video game console, a tile floor. No detail was too small, and I was ready to do my part in contributing to the project! As the day went on, however, my inability to understand the language began to weigh more heavily as a source of frustration. Whenever someone would make a joke and the room lit up with pearls of laughter, I forced a smile even though I did not know what was happening. As that first week continued, my enthusiasm began to wane as I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity and question why I was even here. How was I adding value to the project when all I was doing was taking up team resources by having someone translate for me? How could I fulfill my role as the team’s leader with regards to communication and design thinking if I couldn’t directly engage or empathize with those we were seeking to serve?

Joshua Pine stands by a fiber cement sample house in Mexico City.
Exploring a fiber cement sample house that is the new type of disaster-resilient material that our project is encouraging lower-income families to adopt.

As I was reflecting on these questions, I heard one of my favorite Christian worship songs—“You Say,” by Lauren Daigle—on the speaker in the mall we were walking through:

“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?

Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know”

These lyrics caused me to realize I had been evaluating my success precisely as the “sum of every high and every low” by asking myself whether I had individually contributed to promoting the goals of the project. This self-evaluation framework reflected the system utilized in academic classroom settings, where you have a fixed period of time (a semester) to achieve a set goal (learning the material), with frequent tests to ensure that you are making progress towards that goal. For my research project, I had a month to complete the first segment of our project in Mexico, and based upon my self-assigned midterm exam, I felt like I was failing.

PROCESS- AND TEAM-ORIENTED METRIC OF SUCCESS

As I discussed my feelings of frustration with my teammates, they provided invaluable encouragement and helped to point out areas where I had been able to contribute. Of more importance than this individual encouragement, however, was the realization that my metric for success had been based upon the fundamental fallacy that the success of the project depended on me as an individual.

Joshua Pine looks out at the Teotihuacan pyramids on the horizon.
Visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids.

A central question within design thinking encapsulates this form of communal recognition by encouraging us to always ask, “How might we…?” rather than “How might I…?” This seemingly simple insight was powerful in helping me view my worth less as an exam evaluating individual success, but rather as a relational perspective measuring my ability to add value to the team as a whole. Expanding the scope of “team” beyond my immediate teammates to include our partners in Mexico helped me develop a more communal, relational perspective. I did not need to solve the problem of inadequate housing in a month, but rather contribute to an ongoing process that had been happening before I arrived and would continue long after.

Rather than evaluating success within an individualistic, goal-oriented model, my experiences so far this summer have helped to focus more on a collective, process-oriented model of success wherein my goal is to help support my team and add value to an ongoing process.

Navigating Cambodia: Reflections from the first week

by: Theresa Puhr

While climbing through the ruins of one of the many temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park in the city of Siem Reap, I was taken aback by a large tree growing on top of the temple’s walls. It was striking—the tree soared into the sky at least 20 feet high, its roots sturdily straddling the wall. For the rest of the day, I continued to think about that tree. To me, it seemed to be a perfect metaphor for Cambodia: the ruins of the temples symbolized the country’s long history, while the tree was present-day Cambodia. Present-day Cambodia isn’t simply a remodeling of an old temple. Rather, it is a stark offshoot that is attempting to stay connected to its roots.

A tall tree growing off the side of a temple at Angkor Archaeological Park
Ruins from a temple in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The Khmer Empire emerged in the ninth century and ruled for five hundred years, bringing Buddhism and political and cultural development to Cambodia. This was evident at the archaeological park, where massive stone structures, full of intricate art, lay on top of human-constructed waterways. The area was bustling with tourists, and it was easy to get caught up in the awe-inspiring complex of temples.

However, small details remind you of Cambodia’s darker, more recent history. At several of the temple entrances, a group of musicians serenaded visitors with traditional music. They all had apparent physical disabilities—and signs next to their performance space confirmed this, describing how these musicians were all injured by landmines. While we ate lunch with our tuk-tuk driver, he explained to us that he was not a native of Siem Reap—rather, he used to live in the jungle, fleeing from the Vietnamese during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Remnants of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and its genocide of around two million people during the 1970s are ubiquitous in Cambodia. I see it on a daily basis—in the fairly young faces that surround me on the streets, in my struggle to figure out what Khmer cuisine exactly is since many recipes and culinary traditions were lost to the genocide, in the very visible survivors of the war who share their stories on the street.

At the same time, rapid economic development also dominates the landscape. High-rises are under construction, most being built by Chinese companies. Parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, are full of modern architecture and advertisements for Western luxury brands. These images of economic growth have brought to life everything I learned about Cambodia’s rapid rate of development in one of my macroeconomics class projects back in my first semester of the MGA program. Any observer can clearly see that Cambodia has made an impressive comeback over the last four decades. In reality, Cambodia’s development has only scratched the surface and has yet to reverse the damage done by the Khmer Rouge.

The city of Phnom Penh at night.
Nighttime near the center of Phnom Penh—this area is in striking contrast to the more populated areas of the city.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

According to official reports, the country’s poverty rate has experienced a massive decline and is currently sitting at 13.5 percent. However, poverty indicators that account for factors other than just income place Cambodia’s poverty rate at a much higher 35 percent. This is why NGOs like my i-Lab partner organization, Oxfam, continue to operate in the country.

Through the Keough School’s i-Lab, my team and I are working with Oxfam in both Cambodia and Timor-Leste to explore avenues to achieve financial inclusion. Inequality in Cambodia is growing: there are limited opportunities for decent work, and climate change threatens its most vulnerable populations. Thus, it is important to remember that, regardless of Cambodia’s ability to achieve remarkable economic growth in recent years, healing from trauma is a long and difficult process.

It may take generations for Cambodia to recover from its painful history and reestablish roots in its traditions. As our team works with Oxfam to improve the status of women by examining programming which addresses gender norms and researching market access opportunities in Cambodia, we will continue to be mindful of the fact that these goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Context matters, and we must not forget Cambodia’s complex layers of history and tradition in our work to address gender inequality.

Kenya: An Opportunity to Learn Adaptability and Effective Engagement in Foreign Spaces

by: Loyce Mrewa

Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.

A bottom-up approach

Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.

I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.

My trip to the coast of Mombasa, Kenya.

The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.

Me, admiring the beauty of Naivasha.

Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.

 

i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

by: Mark Stevens

How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.

Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.

Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:

Continue reading i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

Reflections on a field excursion to Bantayan Island in the Philippines

by: Jenna Ahn

Master of Global Affairs student Jenna Ahn is working with teammates Steven and Juanita, in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International, on a project to design and test a pre-crisis market analysis toolkit for the shelter sector. A better baseline understanding of local markets can guide both pre-crisis programming to build resilience and post-crisis interventions for shelter in sustainable and scalable ways. The team spent two months in Cebu Province in the Philippines conducting interviews and gathering data.


“Hello mamser!” We turned around to see who was calling us with what came to be my favorite gender neutral and delightfully formal Filipino greeting.

It was the woman we interviewed earlier that day. She was grinning and waving at us.

“Hello, Ma’am!” We called back.

As we continued on the dirt road, we encountered other familiar faces from our previous interviews: a husband and wife at dinner who greeted us, counter managers at neighboring hardware stores, and a few friendly nods in the street. We were a motley crew—four Filipinos, two Americans, and a Colombian—and I assumed news of our arrival had spread through the small neighboring barangays of Santa Fe and Pooc. In just five days conducting over 70 interviews, we were still very much foreigners, but I couldn’t help feeling that in our five days in Bantayan Island we had glimpsed a tiny part of the integrated ecosystem of the shelter market.

We had planned to track the supply chain backwards: from households accessing the local market to reconstruct their homes to the hardware stores, construction laborers, and NGOs who aided them in the process. While a relatively linear strategy, our interviews elicited a much more complex reality of relationships, motivations, and obstacles that left us with more questions than answers. What follows is a brief snapshot of just a few of the people we met along the way. *

Habitat for Humanity TCIS Philippines
One of our translators, Miguel, leading a household interview in Cebuano using questions programmed in a data collection app.
Household

Despite the blaring speakers next door playing “Despacito” on loop, Ma’am Castillo was calm and thorough as she told us her house was the only one in the neighborhood that had survived Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It wasn’t because her house was particularly durable, she admitted— her house was a mixture of recycled plywood, woven bamboo, and corrugated iron—but because her family had been the only to remain in her neighborhood despite the evacuation warning so God had protected her. She had tried to make some improvements to the house, but her limited budget and compounding loans made things difficult, especially when the price of materials and construction workers skyrocketed after the disaster. How was she supposed to hire a skilled mason if NGOs were willing to pay their masons 150% of the pre-typhoon daily rate?

Construction Laborer

Around the corner at a construction site, we met with Cuya Jason as he took a short break from laying concrete blocks. A hardworking mason and father of four children, Cuya explained that he had learned his trade by shadowing his father as a helper, and eventually took on the title of mason himself. After Typhoon Yolanda decimated many of the homes in his community, Cuya helped to rebuild using the same construction techniques used before the typhoon. He hadn’t changed his building strategies, but why would he? He did what all the other masons did, and ultimately they were all limited by budgets. If anything, Cuya had to explain to households that forgoing reinforcing steel bars altogether would be unethical. When asked if he would be interested in training workshops to improve his trade, Cuya smiled—perhaps assuming I was searching for a “yes”—and shook his head. Maybe, but he didn’t have time and couldn’t lose out on his daily wage. After all, he needed to get food on the table.

Hardware Store

I stood at the counter of RJ’s Hardware and I could tell Até Maria was still convinced that we might sell her business secrets to the other stores in town, but she spoke to us anyway. Like any good business manager, Até closely observed changes in customer behavior and demand when ordering stock. It’s not that she wanted to sell substandard materials, she said matter-of-factly, but it’s what the people could afford. It’s what they wanted. She hoped another typhoon wouldn’t hit the community, but we both knew that it would significantly benefit her business.

An inside view of a local hardware store in Bantayan displaying its stock.

We interviewed many others along the way—some with similar stories and still others with different experiences. Ultimately, we found that 60% of households we spoke with did not believe their house would withstand the next climate disaster. And though we must acknowledge there are no easy solutions to the fragile and interconnected relationships within the shelter market in places like Bantayan Island, I do know that the need to act now to benefit people like Ma’am Castillo, Cuya Jason, and Até Maria is central to a commitment to human dignity.

In the end, a home is not simply four walls and a roof where families are forced to live in fear of devastation. Lives are not worth saving only after inevitable climate disasters strike. If we take seriously the Keough School’s mission towards integral human development and protecting the inherent dignity of all persons (especially vulnerable persons), we must work before the next disaster to increase access to dignified housing.

Habitat for Humanity Philippines
Team photo after our presentation in the Habitat for Humanity International office in Manila.

*all names have been changed for confidentiality