On Being (and Doing) in Partnerships

by: Sarah Davies Breen

I have a friend who likes to remind me of her favorite mantra: “We are human beings, Sarah, not human doings.” — “Not me!” I usually retort, only half in jest. “I’m definitely a human, doing.”

In June, I boarded a plane from Boston Logan airport to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the first leg of international travel with my Keough School i-Lab project. The Program in Global Surgery and Social Change is a research group at Harvard Medical School that is working to improve surgical outcomes in low- and middle-income countries through evidence-based national health policy and advocacy. In Ethiopia, PGSSC is a part of the implementation partnership known as Safe Surgery 2020, funded by the GE Foundation, and working in collaboration with the government of Ethiopia. I traveled to Ethiopia to observe and learn about the partners working there under the umbrella of SS2020, as well as the Ethiopian government’s national plan for surgery, called Saving Lives Through Surgery, or SaLTS.

At the start of a weekend hike to visit some of the rock-hewn churches in the region of Tigray. There are over 100 churches carved from the rock in the cliffs in this region that date from around the 10th-15th centuries. ​
At the start of a weekend hike to visit some of the rock-hewn churches in the region of Tigray. There are over 100 churches carved from the rock in the cliffs in this region that date from around the 10th-15th centuries

When I left for my work this summer, I was admittedly a little disappointed not to be “doing” anything. Our project plan could essentially be boiled down to “listen and learn,” while many other groups had detailed execution plans from their partner organizations. My own biases for “doing” in the front of my mind, I decided to embrace the opportunity to simply be present, observing and reflecting, and allowing those around me to drive our conversations and ultimately the direction of my final product—teaching cases designed to “tell the story” of surgical policy and implementation initiatives in low-resource countries.

In truth, our group has been incredibly fortunate to be supported in such a vaguely defined project. Having previously worked as a grant manager, I can tell you I do not know many funders (even in higher-education) who would support such an exploratory mission—an opportunity I wanted to fully embrace as I entered interviews with my teammate in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Having a coffee with some young surgeons that we spoke to about the government's SaLTS initiative. As a coffee lover, I was very excited to be in Ethiopia, the "birthplace" of coffee!
Having a coffee with some young surgeons that we spoke to about the government’s SaLTS initiative. As a coffee lover, I was very excited to be in Ethiopia, the “birthplace” of coffee!

A few key themes emerged from my listening tour, one of which I think is particularly relevant to the i-Lab and to our summer global partner experiences: the challenge (and reward!) of partnerships. It is not a secret that true partnerships are not easy to form or maintain, but when properly nurtured, they can bring about lasting relationships, changes, and outcomes that would never have been possible otherwise. This has been true for the SS2020 initiative in Ethiopia, a collaboration across not only organizations, but industries, nations, and cultures. Despite many initial challenges, the early participants from SS2020 in Ethiopia all shared some version of essentially the same story with me: once they took time to get to know their collaborating partners, via improved communication and personal relationships, the professional relationships became stronger, and their work was both more effective and more rewarding.

With my tendency to consider myself a “human, doing” I know how easy it is to get focused on the task at-hand, rather than the people we are serving or with whom we are working. This was also true in some ways in SS2020, as the Ministry of Health asked SS2020 to provide their very promising leadership training to all surgical hospitals in the country.  “Safe Surgery is not about the leadership training [alone]—it is about the action plan, and mentorship, and all of the other resources that fill the gaps,” said one informant, referring to the follow-up task each team is assigned. With the support of mentors, teams collaboratively identify a barrier to surgery in their own hospital, and create a step-by-step action plan to address the need. The surgical teams who have completed this exercise have succeeded at a remarkable rate in addressing their barriers, but—perhaps even more importantly—they have improved their communication and their relationships with one another.

It didn’t used to be this way. Before, surgical teams didn’t communicate outside of their limited, individual roles in the operating room, we were told, which led to a lack of coordination that affected patient care. Now, the entire team knows the responsibilities of each of its members, enabling them to work more effectively in both planning for and executing surgeries. This further improves outcomes for patients, creating lasting changes in the operating room, hospital, and health-system culture that will survive long beyond the life of any purchased generator or newly acquired technical skill.

Unfortunately, partnerships alone cannot fix under-resourced health systems, deteriorated infrastructures, lack of cash flow, and the many other barriers that prevent the average person from receiving safe and affordable surgery in every country. However, with partnerships, the load that must be carried clearly gets a little lighter, and the path a little more clearly lit.

As my favorite saying (about doing) suggests: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

We may not be going very fast with our work this summer, but the value of sitting still and listening—and bringing others along with us through our teaching cases and other forms of storytelling—cannot be underestimated. In fact, with these resources and this newly-formed partnership, it is my hope that Harvard’s PGSSC and the Keough School will ultimately go much further than I can currently imagine.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”

Can You Hear? Being Present and Open in the Field

by: Patrick Calderon

There’s something uncanny about how an almost-forgotten song can resurface in your consciousness. As I’ve traveled across three U.S. states and four different countries to investigate migrant issues, and as stories of migrant children being separated from their families proliferate in news outlets, I find that I’m silently replaying the melody of a song from years ago in my high-school choir: Kurt Bestor’s “Prayer of the Children.” It opens with these haunting lyrics: “Can you hear the prayer of the children / on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?”

Interpreted literally, the question in these lyrics is about sensory perception: Can you hear? But this is not a song about sensory perception, nor is the issue of migration something that can be apprehended by hearing or sight alone. Rather, I think what we need in order to fully grasp the complexity of migration is an openness of being, a disposition to not only perceive things on the surface level but more fundamentally at the level of the heart.

LISTENING, PERCEIVING WITH OUR GLOBAL PARTNER

For our i-Lab project, I and three of my classmates are partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services to explore how migrants’ human rights and dignity can be better protected as they undergo various immigration-enforcement processes. To that end, we have been touring detention centers, shelters, courtrooms, universities, churches, NGOs, intergovernmental organization offices, and even deserts (as a Canadian, the Arizonan Desert seems to me to be so hot that it violates the laws of physics), conducting interviews where appropriate, to get a sense of how migrants are treated and how they might be treated better.

A migrant trail in the Sonoran Desert

Given the number of places our i-Lab team has traveled for this project—Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico, Germany, Greece, and Switzerland—I could honestly have just gotten lost in the whirlwind of travel, always just transiting through places instead of truly being there. But I felt like I owed it to the migrants who make dangerous northward journeys to really be present in these places, to really bring my whole self to them and listen as attentively as I could to what people were telling me.

Several months ago, as we were preparing to go into the field, renowned peacebuilder and professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies John Paul Lederach spoke to our i-Lab class on the “vocation of presence,” which I understood to mean bringing your full self to a place in a spirit of humility. ‘Presence’ means allowing the place that you are in and the realities you are witnessing to really touch you and move you deep within. One example: Before he visited Auschwitz, Pope Francis prayed for “the grace to cry.” That is, for the grace to be so affected by the reality one faces—to be so radically present—that one is personally moved. I have not yet been granted the grace to cry, but I have done my best to hear, to see, to be present in the sites that I have visited and to the people I have met.

This has meant going into each place and forcing myself to not become desensitized, to visit each location, as it were, with new eyes. I don’t want each transit or detention center to just get lost in a blur of misery and hopelessness. Nor do I want the interviews to fade into each other. I want to be present, and be with the people I am encountering—from migrants to other stakeholders, like NGO officials, activists, scholars, humanitarian workers, and intergovernmental agency staff—so as to really hear.

"A cross in the desert, marking the spot where a deceased migrant's body had been found."
A cross in the desert, marking the spot where a deceased migrant’s body had been found

And the places I have visited are harrowing indeed. The sense of fear and heartbreak is palpable in the emptiness of the detention centers, the austerity of the courtrooms, the stench of death along never-ending desert trails. Two weeks ago I visited a visibly run-down “transit center”—that is, a center for migrants deemed unlikely to win their asylum cases—in the German state of Bavaria, and almost smelled the stench of desperation in the air. I think that if anyone steps into these places with a truly open heart, one must feel the deep, distinct sense—that stirring of conscience—that there is something about this situation that is not right. Those who face these many difficulties, these long-suffering migrants, are human beings. Do we not see this? Can we not hear?

A POLICY OF PRESENCE

Me in Geneva, Switzerland, where I have been interviewing staff at intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations about migrant issues

Here in Geneva, from where I am writing this blog post, I have heard a lot of talk about international law requiring states to treat migrants humanely. I think that is incredibly important, but I don’t think that we’re going to move hearts on the issue of migration by focusing on international legal principles like non-refoulement or the technicalities of asylum law. No, I think the answer really does have to lie in presence. More than anything else, what we need to do is to somehow find a way to make sites like these present to ordinary people in prosperous destination countries. We need to show people the inhumanity of the detention centers, the harshness of the desert, the tears and desperation of the courtrooms. We need to support migrants in their efforts to make their stories heard. And we do, in fact, need to hear the prayer that they utter in unknown rooms, a prayer for hope, for safety, for freedom.

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

by: Jamie McClung

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

Jamie McClung is currently working on a project with Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies for her Master of Global Affairs i-Lab experience, focusing on women’s adaptive capacity to climate change, particularly in rural Bangladesh. She and her partner, Chista Keramati, have just completed their first field site visit to Teknaf, in the southeast corner of Bangladesh.

Climate
(from left to right) Jamie McClung, Ausing, Chista Keramati, and Dewan Ali Emran bond in an indigenous Rakhine village near Cox’s Bazar.

It’s quite difficult to write a small blog post to describe a trip to another universe. In a few words, I’m meant to describe the surprising findings, the warmth of the people, the strange geography, the never-ending questions in my head, but how? Instead, I’ll highlight 5 aspects of our trip that were particularly meaningful or interesting to me, each accompanied by a picture.

1) Presents, but Little Presence:

School girls in a Teknaf village walk (and run) home from school.

One of the very first things I noticed was the overwhelming presence of NGOs in Teknaf—presence in terms of goods, like these UNICEF backpacks, but not in terms of people. Yes, we saw endless Land Rovers associated with different organizations on the road, but I was surprised by the lack of interaction between the people in these vehicles and the local people. I became curious about what these NGOs were doing in and around Teknaf, and if they ever stepped out of the Land Rovers. Some of my questions were answered when we met with UN Women later in the week, and I realized that they share similar goals for integral human development as we do here at the Keough School.

2) Communication without Words:

An elderly man outside of a typical bamboo house smiles at the camera.

We talked with this elderly man on our first day in the village, and saw him again on the second day. He showed me that you can make a friend and communicate without any words at all. This continued to happen throughout the week, through shared smiles, laughs, and simple eye contact that conveyed a curiosity about one another and an openness to learn more. I experienced these small interactions both during focus group discussions (FGDs) and during our walks around the villages.

3) Water, Water, Everywhere:

A cow grazes in a rice paddy field.

This first field visit made it beyond clear why Bangladesh is so extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea waters. One of my thoughts when returning to Dhaka from the field was that maybe Bangladesh was the last country God created, and He just had a bit of land left, so He spread it out as much as He could, took His chances, and let water inhabit most of the space. It is low-lying, marshy, and a land covered in rivers.

4) There’s No Average Bangladeshi:

A young Rakhine girl poses for a photo in an indigenous village near Cox’s Bazar.

To harken back to a comment I made during one of my first semesters at the Keough School of Global Affairs, I truly believe that there is no such thing as an “average” citizen of any country. This little girl, and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine village we visited on the last day of our visit to Cox’s Bazar, reaffirmed that belief. This indigenous community had their own language, their own religious leader, and their own way of life that was extremely different than what we had experienced in the days before that.

5) Geographic Vulnerability Can Be Overcome:

A typical house for Rakhine people near Cox’s Bazar.

The final insight I had during our first field site visit was that local knowledge is already being used for adaptation, without any assistance from the outside world. This indigenous, Buddhist village has always built two-story homes with an open ground floor. It allows them to have a safe place in their home when it floods. This kind of evidence gives me hope after a week of seeing small homes built directly on the ground, unable to protect families during floods or cyclones.

All in all, it was a positive week. There were times I was frustrated at how much families were struggling to survive, and how clearly the land left them vulnerable, but I was also awed by the resilience and hospitality I saw when interacting with the rural communities here. Despite being labeled as “vulnerable” by their national government and international organizations, these communities have survived and they continue to live life with or without us. This realization led me to another: development isn’t about helping people survive; it’s about accompanying them as they attempt to thrive. Now that we’re back in the smog of Dhaka, Chista and I are both counting down the days to our next field sites where we hope to continue bonding with and learning from the local communities we visit.

The Puzzle of Cocoa in Ghana

by: Sofia del Valle

I have been a big chocolate lover my whole life. If you ask my siblings, they will tell you I can be a generous person sometimes, but never when it comes to chocolate: every year, the bars that I would get as birthday presents went directly to a secret drawer in my room—to later be slowly enjoyed while reading a good mystery book (I would argue, however, that age has made me more generous, or maybe just more able to buy myself some chocolate when I want, and hence less of a Scrooge).

Given this love for chocolate, it is quite interesting that only this summer I came in first contact with the fruit from which it derives. Last week, in a farm in the Suhum district of Ghana, a kind farmer opened a fresh cocoa pod for me, and I finally discovered the taste of raw cocoa. It was very different from what I expected: sweet and slightly citrusy, closer to lemon cream than to chocolate as we know it.

Food system
Here I am, just seconds away from tasting fresh cocoa for the first time

DISCONNECTED FOOD SYSTEM

Unless you live near the equator, it is very likely that your experience is similar to mine, in that the closest you have come to actual cocoa is through cocoa powder or cocoa butter, intermediate products that later become chocolate. This disconnection is no coincidence, but a structural characteristic of the cocoa supply chain: around 60% of the global cocoa production happens in two West African countries, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Yet, the whole African continent consumes only about 3% of the chocolate produced globally, while Europe and the U.S. together account for more than 70% of this consumption. Several of these cocoa farmers with whom I talked this week have never tasted chocolate in their lives!

Group interview with cocoa farmers in the Central Region of Ghana

Cocoa is the main agriculture export in Ghana, accounting for 7% of its GDP and a quarter of their exports; yet it is produced almost exclusively by small-scale farmers that grow cocoa trees in few acres of land and take care of them with the help of their families. This makes cocoa a highly informal sector with an important portion of unrecognized labor. In many cases the farmers’ wives and children perform key tasks in cocoa production without being acknowledged as cocoa farmers or receiving any of the income.

Issues like this one are not exclusive to the cocoa sector. Our food system has become highly complex and globalized, and a great proportion of the products we consume can be traced to a few transnational companies on one side, and millions of small producers on the other one. These global supply chains have severe social and environmental impacts that affect disproportionally those who produce the raw materials.

A COMPLEX RESEARCH TASK

Launched in 2013, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign (BtB) is a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains. The campaign led these companies to commit to improving their policies regarding land, water and workers’ rights, gender equality and climate change, among other issues. The next stage of the Oxfam campaign monitors implementation of such commitments. For our Keough School i-Lab project, my Master of Global Affairs colleagues Moaz Uddin, Caroline Andridge and I have been supporting the work of Oxfam’s country teams in Malawi, India and Ghana on the implementation of this project at the national level. For the case of Ghana, the focus is, as you may already imagine, cocoa.

The task sounds more straightforward than it really is: I imagined we could take the main chocolate companies, review their policies, trace the communities where they are sourcing their cocoa, and see if such commitments and policies are being implemented there and how. Sounds easy, right? Reality is, as we keep discussing at the Keough School, more complex; linking companies with cocoa producers is a harder task than I imagined: each level of the supply chain ─ companies, traders, government agencies, middle-men, cooperatives, farmers ─ is a puzzle in itself.

Part of the amazing Oxfam in Ghana team. Oxfam’s GROW campaign englobes BtB and other efforts on making the food system more fair and sustainable

Like the books I used to read whilst eating chocolate in my home in Santiago, my task has become almost the one of a detective, asking questions and following clues that we find in interviews and field visits. The goal is now helping the Oxfam-Ghana team to gain a clearer picture of who is doing what in the cocoa sector. For now, I can say that the distance between cocoa and chocolate is indeed very big; however, our interviews with farmers and local organizations, and the work with the team here in Ghana, show that there are good people doing good work in order to improve the lives of cocoa farmers. I feel grateful to be a part of their team—to witness and contribute to their important work in my own humble way.

My Experience in the Philippines: A Unity of Opposites

by: Juanita Esguerra Rezk

If you asked me to summarize my experience of living and working in the Philippines in one sentence, I would say, “In the past month I have experienced both extreme feelings of familiarity and strangeness.” Beyond the contradictions, this combination has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on myself and my future professional life.

Getting out of my comfort zone

For my Master of Global Affairs i-Lab project, I am working in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) at Habitat for Humanity to improve how market analyses are conducted by international aid organizations within the shelter sector. Specifically, we are testing the market analyses process in one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Despite my prior experience with humanitarian assistance, diving deeply into the shelter sector has certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Shelter
Mapping the construction materials most widely used in northern Cebu.

You are probably inquiring why would a market analysis be relevant at all? I will try to answer briefly: When a crisis occurs (after an earthquake, a typhoon or a massive displacement), local market actors are often the principal means by which people obtain essential items they need to recover and adapt. In the past, this was largely ignored by international aid organizations, who often imported and distributed goods and provided services directly to those affected. These actions bypass and hinder the resources and capacities of local communities. For this reason, in recent years, humanitarian organizations have started to support and use local market supply chains in their aid response.

Advocates for this type of market intervention argue that it supports livelihood opportunities, improves economic rehabilitation and helps international organizations adapt better to the local context. This all sounds great, right? However, to support such interventions, organizations need to understand the local markets, and when it comes specifically to the shelter and housing sector, aid organizations are still struggling to do so. That is where our partnership with TCIS comes in.

The experience of a Colombian in the Philippines: The familiar within the unfamiliar

Shelter
One of the masons we interviewed is showing us the tools he uses to ensure the quality of his work. The device he is holding is a plumb bob (called “tun tun” in Cebuano), which is used to make sure columns are straight.

During our time here, we have been conducting interviews with families, masons, carpenters, local hardware stores and wholesalers to map the capacity of the local market systems to meet the housing demands of low-income households (including land tenure, financing, access to materials and labor). I am marveled by how willing people have been to share their knowledge, thoughts and experiences with us.

Every time we conduct interviews with households, families usually offer us a snack. This gesture has immediately transported me back to my days of fieldwork in Colombia, where I was always offered a cup of coffee and some bread or cookies when I visited someone’s home. More generally, Filipino architecture, cuisine and religious traditions— strongly influenced by Spanish colonization— together with the warmth of the people and their commitment to build a more peaceful and inclusive society amid challenging conditions of inequality and violence, have made me feel at home.

Shelter
A photo of our team with the first family we interviewed.

Despite these similarities, and the fact that most first and last names in the Philippines are in Spanish, I have not encountered a single person who speaks the Spanish language. Getting by in the cities has been surprisingly easy for our team, as almost everyone we interact with speaks English. Yet, in rural areas the use of English decreases significantly. Because of this, we are conducting our interviews in Cebuano, the language most widely spoken in Cebu province. To make this possible, we have a Cebuano on our team, who has not only acted as a translator, but has also helped us navigate our daily life here and helped us establish contact with different stakeholders.

Although it has been great working with him, it has also been frustrating not being able to participate in these interviews because it limits our capacity to build relationships and to analyze the situation from first- hand information. This is a completely new experience for me, and it has really made me reflect on the importance of relationships, cultural sensitivity and language training in development work.

Shelter
Our new team member Leonell, conducting an interview with a family about their experience in rebuilding their house after Typhoon Yolanda.

Reflections from a safe exposure

Although there is no doubt that international agencies supporting local economies is a step forward in the process of localizing development, I cannot help but wonder if these solutions are still rooted within the systems and power relations that intrinsically constitute an obstacle for the development of these communities. Does the analytical assessment of local markets by outside organizations inherit certain biases? One of the biggest challenges we face is to resist being absorbed by a technocratic mindset that ignores other aspects of social dynamics. Focusing solely on technical issues becomes a barrier for change because it eclipses the human components and does not contest the unequal power relations that hinder structural transformations.

Strangely, one of the things that I have found most enriching about this experience is the feeling of discomfort. This project has forced me to venture into a new region, a new culture and a new sector. Being here on our own, but having the support of the Keough School and our advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, has been a safe exposure and in my case, a chance to experiment with a completely different professional career path. Every day I ask myself how I would feel if this were my long-term job and what would be different if that were the case. I am sure these reflections will continue to grow as I continue my experience here and will certainly be useful as I start to think about what I want to do after I graduate.

 

Into the Warm Heart of Africa

by: Mian Moaz Uddin

“What is this boy from Peshawar doing in Africa?,” I kept thinking to myself as I looked down from my 30,000-foot window over the Sahara Desert. By the time we stopped at Addis Ababa for the layover, I was having a mini existential crisis.

The past four months of my master’s program, I’ve been in the i-Lab learning about the Behind the Brands campaign with Oxfam. My colleagues Sofia Del Valle, Caroline Andridge, and I had taken a deep dive into a program that covers ten of the world’s leading food and beverage companies on a comprehensive list of their social and environmental policies worldwide. The orientation week at Oxfam’s Boston office then brought our team together for one week to synthesize our work before we each parted for different research locations across the globe: Ghana, India, and Malawi, respectively. Now it was becoming real; I had six short weeks to gather as much information as possible to understand land rights and governance issues in Malawi to help the campaign.

Coming from a developing country myself, I’ve seen first hand the myopic development programs that are often administered by well-intentioned but oblivious foreigners. The Keough School of Global Affairs has further sensitized me to the perils of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘symptom targeting’ in the context of international development. Considering Malawi’s GDP is one of the lowest in the world and is heavily reliant on foreign aid, I wanted to ensure that I did not become one of those foreigners here.

A SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY IN MALAWI

Villagers participating in the awareness campaign

I’m glad to say that my first week in Lilongwe allayed all of these concerns. Instead of seeing a frail state swarming with foreigners trying to fill the vacuum, I saw that most of the development work on the ground was being carried out by Malawians themselves. I happen to be the only foreigner in the Oxfam office here (maybe the whole block!). Furthermore, the members of civil society and government officials I’ve met with recognize the aid dependency problem.

At one of the workshops on women and land rights issues, the participants unanimously agreed that Malawi must develop independently from the ‘mzungus’ (foreigners) aid programs. The sentiment of self-reliance reverberates in government policies and the national character, as well. I’ve seen many public sponsored billboards here promoting local produce and industry and have found the supermarket shelves stocked with local brands. I usually judge countries by the way they drive. The spirit of community can be seen very well on the roads of Malawi where each driver displays the utmost patience, even in rush hour traffic, and pedestrian crossings are taken seriously, even on the most remote roads.

Needless to say, I was delighted to see the inclusive and horizontal approach to development, which we’ve learned as part of the Sustainable Development concentration at the Keough School of Global Affairs, being applied where it’s needed most.

STORIES OF DISPLACEMENT

Land has been a contentious issue in Malawi. As a British Protectorate, the British land laws were superimposed on the existing customary laws of the land. This created a dichotomy of land law, and land use loopholes, which have often been exploited by investors, corporations and corrupt officials to grab vast swathes of land—often displacing the indigenous populations and disturbing livelihoods. I’m traveling to these plantations and meeting with the affected communities, government representatives and civil society representatives; I will gather information to assess the state of land policy commitments made by the world’s leading food and beverage companies here.

Development
A village right outside Lilongwe, where the local women gather to get water.

Last week, I traveled to the Mulanje district to the south of Malawi to meet with a community displaced by a tea estate. The village was a quiet place surrounded by iridescent green tea plants with a stunning view of Mt Mulanje. The people, with their broad smiles and hospitality, reminded me that I was in the warm heart of Africa. While the lush landscapes, jolly people and slow pace of life seemed very charming to me, my focus group discussion with the community revealed that this tranquility belies the heart-breaking stories of displacement and the historic injustices committed against these people. The villagers revealed how they had been driven out of their own land and were now faced with food insecurity because of the lack of cultivable land in the face of a growing population.

Civil society organizations, like Oxfam, have been partnering with the government and corporations to introduce laws that formalize land rights for ‘customary land holders’ like the villagers I met. Almost two decades of effort has culminated in the recent passage of the Customary Land Act, which provides villagers like the Mulanje a mechanism to register and exercise authority over their land. The representative from the Ministry of Land explained to me that this has been a huge milestone for Malawi that will effectively close the loophole allowing corporations to exploit these communities. The civil society organizations here widely celebrated the passage of the law, but also acknowledge the fact that the law will only yield results if the communities and corporations are aware of its provisions; hence, organizations like Oxfam are shifting gears from activism to awareness, monitoring and evaluation.

This has been a truly humbling experience for me, and the people of Malawi have reaffirmed my belief in organic and inclusive growth. I’m very grateful to be here and participate in the Oxfam campaign. I look forward to reconvening in Washington, D.C., where we will discuss our collective experiences and findings from Malawi, India, and Ghana.

4 Reasons to Fall in Love with Tanzania

by: Quang Ngoc Thang

“Your Tanzanian name is now Tanzanaiti. Your name in Vietnamese means gem, and ‘Tanzanaiti’ is a very beautiful gem that can only be found in Tanzania.”

In my first week here in Tanzania, an old man—whom I had just met—gave me a Tanzanian name. At that moment, my mind echoed what someone told me before I came here: “The wildlife, beautiful beaches, and landscapes are what attract visitors to come here. But it is the hospitality and friendliness of Tanzanian people that make them want to come back for more.”

I arrived in Tanzania on a mild Tuesday afternoon at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam. This is only the second foreign country I have been to besides the U.S. One year from the day I knew that I was going to study at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, my study has taken me to two different continents: North America and Africa.

One of the core parts of my Master of Global Affairs program is the Integration Lab, where the students have a chance to actually use their knowledge from class to apply to real-world challenges. Working in a team of two to four students, we partner with organizations around the world and support their work. Luckily, my team was chosen to collaborate with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School to support its work of promoting universal access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia care.

Tanzania and friends
Desmond Jumbam (from PGSSC) and me after an interview at Muhimbili hospital

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is this partnership that has brought me to Tanzania—to learn how this country, as one of the world’s pioneers, developed its own National Surgical, Obstetric, and Anaesthesia Plan (NSOAP). At the same time, my other two teammates, Leah Walkowski and Sarah Davies Breen, are now working in Ethiopia and Sierra Leone on the same issue. We truly hope to contribute to the work that PGSSC has been doing to inspire more countries around the world to address access to surgical care.

After two weeks in Tanzania, I have fallen in love with this beautiful country. Understanding that the work I am doing is going to improve the surgical system in Tanzania, and help all the lovely Tanzanians  I have met, I am really glad that I can contribute something meaningful to this country.

Now, let me tell you: How did I fall in love with Tanzania?

NATURE

Tanzanian beach
Me at the sandy beach on Bongoyo Island, a small island 30 minutes away from Dar es Salaam

Nature tends to attract people to Tanzania. The wildlife in Serengeti National Park, Mount Kilimanjaro (Roof of Tanzania), and the beaches are the top three attractions. I have not yet had a chance to experience the first two, but I can definitely tell you that the beaches in Tanzania are the most beautiful I have ever seen. Let me show you the pictures and you can see for yourself.

FOOD

Tanzania
My lunch at the Muhimbili hospital after an interview (pilau + beans + kuku)

Tanzanian food, like the food of many other East African countries, is influenced by Indian culture. However, the mixture of cultures creates the uniqueness of the food here. In Dar es Salaam, you can easily see the signature of the sea in the meal. Ugali (maize porridge) with samaki (fish) is a must-try dish when you are in Dar. Usually, what I have every day is pilau (rice cooked with coconut milk), beans, and maybe kuku (chicken). You can fill your empty stomach for a bit more than $1. If you eat seafood, even in a fancy restaurant, it will only cost you $10. Sound tempting?

CULTURE

Dar es Salaam in Swahili means, “haven of peace.” Most of my time in Tanzania is in Dar, and all of the small things here have given me a glimpse of Tanzanian culture which are enough to make me fall in love.

Tanzania
Bodaboda

The main transportation in Dar is cars, but this is not the best way to travel. Find yourself a bajai (motorbike with a roof); it is an easier way to avoid traffic jams in this city. However, the best way is to find a bodaboda (motorbike). Using a bodaboda, you will never have to worry about the jam, and most of all, they are the experts in the area. Sometimes you will find yourself on a no-name road, which is actually the shortcut to your destination.

PEOPLE

All in all, it is the people that made me immediately fall in love with this country. Tanzanians are friendly and kind. You can feel their warm hospitality in every conversation. People say “hi” to each other whenever they meet on the street, even to strangers. There are many ways to say “hi” in Swahili. A foreigner usually learns the normal way in a guidebook which is, “habari.” Have you ever heard about “mambo”?  This is the street way to say “hello” that I learned from my friend Rajo, shown here.

Tanzania also surprises me with all the amazing people that I randomly meet everywhere. Remember the man who gave me my Tanzanian name? His name is Banto (people call him Picasso). He sells paintings in Dar during the weekend to finance his school of art for the poor children in his village in Msata (2-3 hours from Dar).

Tanzania
Picasso, Kelvin (his first student), and me. Kelvin was sent to the Bagamoyo College of Art thanks to Picasso.

So if you ever find these two men on the street of Dar, please do not hesitate to buy a painting from them—you are supporting kids from a poor village to study art, and you may be helping more students like Kelvin to go to college.

There are so many amazing people that I have met in Dar, I cannot list all of them here. It could be Paschal, an entrepreneur who is opening his own company to develop a system that helps students to learn through SMS.

Or Jeremiah, the president of the student organization at the University of Dar es Salaam, the top university in East Africa. It would not be false if you call him a politician. He plans to run for Member of Parliament of Tanzania in 2020. He is also now establishing his own start-up.

It is just my second week in Tanzania, and I cannot imagine how many more amazing people I will meet in the next five weeks. How can I not fall in love with this place, right?

Bangladesh: A New Learning Experience

by: Chista Keramati

Chista Keramati is working with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) in Dhaka. Chista and her teammate, Jamie, will be studying the gendered aspect of climate change by looking at policies and programs in Bangladesh that address the vulnerabilities of women to climate-induced hazards. The team is conducting fieldwork in three different rural areas of Bangladesh, each prone to a different mix of climate disasters.

The pilot announced that our plane would be landing in 40 minutes at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. Looking out the window, I tried to see with my own eyes the Bangladesh landscape. I spotted settlements here and there, green areas of what I assumed were cultivated land, and what I initially perceived as “dirt roads.” I asked myself, “But, wait! Where is all the water that I read so much about?,” only to realize that the “dirt roads” were not really roads but rivers whose brown color comes from the huge amount of sediment they carry with them along the way. I gazed in awe at the magnificent web of rivers and wetlands that were running across the landscape below our feet.

Typical busy street in Dhaka
Typical busy street in Dhaka

That feeling of awe has not only remained but grown with me at every scenic or human encounter here. Life in Dhaka involves learning not necessarily new things, but everything in a new and different way. This new learning experience encompasses everything from the very basic activity of crossing the street (a double challenge when you are not used to people driving on the left-hand side of the road, and overcrowded streets that rarely have street signs) to working with our partner organization BCAS.

FIRST MEETING WITH OUR PROJECT PARTNER

Our first week in Dhaka involved extensive meetings with BCAS members, together with our professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa. We heard about the BCAS team’s hopes and aspirations not just for a better life for the people of Bangladesh, but for the whole world.

On our first meeting with Dr. Atiq Rahman, the founder of BCAS, he explained how the neat and well-organized knowledge in written reports and proposals do not necessarily match the messy realities on the ground.

I can see what he means. The realities we read about on paper before coming here have felt different when faced and experienced first-hand. I am seeing with my own eyes the amount of water running across the Bangladesh landscape, and how this might relate to climate change. And instead of seeing images of busy streets, I am now crossing even the narrowest streets of Dhaka with special caution. I am relieved, too, to find that there are some female experts working at BCAS and that it is not an all-male organization. This is important to our research.

RESEARCHING GENDER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

As a team of two women interested in researching the gendered aspect of climate change in Bangladesh, we are trying to observe and learn as much as we can about the attitude towards women in this country. Of course, our own personal experience has been mixed with our identity as not just women, but non-Bangladeshi women. We are slowly getting used to attracting attention at every turn in the local market, and being asked to take selfies wherever we go site-seeing.

Another lesson I have learned is that Google Maps doesn’t help much with local transportation. When you are stuck in a street and don’t know how to get home, and you also don’t know the local language, you can still rely on the kindness of strangers to help you take a CNG taxi (a small motor vehicle that runs with compressed natural gas). I have learned that once you ask someone for help, they feel responsible for you until their job of helping you is completed successfully.

AnAn attraction in our own right
An attraction in our own right

As I am writing the final words of this blog post, I come across another cause for celebration, not necessarily related to our personal experience here, but surely related to Bangladeshi women: the Bangladesh women’s cricket team has just won the Asia Cup, making it the first Bangladeshi team ever to win this championship. It is both funny and endearing to read the comment of Soumya Sarkar, a Bangladeshi male cricket player on this great achievement, saying, “the moment is a proud one for us. This is the first time the girls won something, and that has come at the Asia Cup. They have won a big title, whereas the boys have won none till date, despite all the facilities.”[1]

Kudos to the women of Bangladesh! Our team is here to learn from you all.

[1] https://www.dhakatribune.com/sport/cricket/2018/06/10/bangladesh-women-elect-to-field-in-asia-cup-final

Becoming Uncomfortable: Peace Studies in the Field

by: Susan St. Ville

Students in the International Peace Studies Concentration of the Keough School Master of Global Affairs program will soon embark on the extended field internship experience that is an integral part of their peace studies training. Students will spend six months on the ground working with a peace-related organization and conducting independent field research that will form the basis of their MA Capstone project. This year members of the peace studies cohort will be located in Nairobi, Bogota, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Seattle, and South Bend. They will join a range of organizations including the World Bank, Catholic Relief Services, Voice of America, the Life and Peace Institute, and Act, Change, Transform (ACT!).

Peace studies in actionThe Kroc Institute established its first field internships in 2004. Six months is a long time to be away from campus and the extended internship experience is unique among master’s level peace studies programs. We are encouraged that alumni of the master’s program and employers alike consistently report that the extended time spent in the field is essential to building the professional identity and self-understanding that is the hallmark of peacebuilders trained at the Kroc Institute over the last 32 years.

In the high stakes and unpredictable world of conflict and peace work, acting professionally requires much more than simply applying skills learned in the classroom to vexing problems in the real world.

As part of the Keough School Master of Global Affairs, the peace studies concentration draws deeply on the pragmatic insights of reflective practice: the understanding that the most effective knowledge in any situation comes through practice. Put simply, we learn best by doing.

Reflective practice requires that we shift the center of gravity on the theory-practice continuum. In his classic book, Experience and Education, John Dewey asserts that learning rooted in experience is key for intellectual and personal growth, helping students to “improve their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations.” The peace studies students in the field learn above all to listen to the nuances of the local context and to act in a manner fitting to the particular situation. To be sure, students draw on the theories and skills that they have learned during the first year of coursework. But they understand the importance of holding these theories gently and being ready to adapt, rework or even reject them as the situation demands.

Peace Studies students often remark that the field experience helps them to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Indeed, the experience is intentionally designed to unsettle students. Students are generally placed in a culture that is unfamiliar to them: this year our interns in Nairobi, for example, will hail from the Philippines, China, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Interns become full members of the organizations where they are placed, learning how to navigate an institutional setting very different from the university community that has been their home for the past year.

 

Peace studies in action

Students spend the majority of their time (four days per week) working with their organization, leaving one day each week for their own academic research. In these practical ways, the Peace Studies field experience seeks to embody the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity that are central to the understanding of integral human development that undergirds the Keough School Master of Global Affairs. Asking students to step outside of their comfort zone and follow the lead of the local partners for six months is difficult, but through this process students learn in very practical ways how to genuinely support their partners and nurture local initiatives that support the common good.

Over the course of six months, students will write monthly journal entries and longer papers that recount the challenges they face in these unfamiliar settings, but also the creative ways they have found to meet these challenges. Later entries from Peace Studies students on this blog will give readers a glimpse of these journeys. Like past interns, this year’s Peace Studies students will produce important products for their organizations, including conflict assessments; policy analyses and recommendations; workshop designs; and program evaluations. But more importantly, they will develop personal qualities that will allow them to succeed as professional peacebuilders, no matter the context in which they find themselves.

Education theorist Randall Bass writes that the most valuable and transformational educational experiences are those that improve students’ ability to “make discerning judgments based on practical reasoning, acting reflectively, taking risks, engaging in civil, if difficult, discourse, and proceeding with confidence in the face of uncertainty.” Over the extended six-month period, Peace Studies students grow in all of these areas, learning to think outside the box and to act confidently (with both generosity and humility).

If the stories and career trajectories of past master’s students are any indication, we know that the field experience will be radically transformative for our students. We are excited for our Peace Studies students to undertake this formation process and even more excited to see who they become over the next six months.

Susan St. Ville

Director, International Peace Studies Concentration

Exploring Otherness in Delhi: Tracing sugar and self

by: Caroline Andridge

“A girl here to see you, ma’am, from Outside India.”

This Hindi whisper introduced me to my supervisor at Oxfam India, and ultimately, to my first week here in New Delhi. This sense of otherness—expressed both by the “outside” designation that my fair skin and reddish hair make obvious, and my inability to understand the local language—is constant.

Though I’ve lived and traveled abroad alone before, Delhi presents an entirely new and overwhelming landscape for me. The sights and sounds and smells are constant and pervasive. Rickshaws, motorbikes, and compact cars zoom past me without seatbelts or more than the occasional nod to traffic rules. I weave between dogs and hurried strangers on my way to and from the metro for work every day, feigning a confidence and sense of direction I do not actually feel. As an American with only the cultural knowledge I researched in preparation for this position, I am out of place.

Though scary, this otherness also presents a chance to continue an exploration of self, privilege, and positionality that I’ve been struggling with for the past several years. Development work has historically involved using outside money and staff to “help” a community in another country. Of course, this paternal arrangement raises complex and valid questions. Why should outsiders take jobs in place of local citizens? How can a foreign organization know the needs of the community more than the community themselves? What is our right, basically, to enter these communities, assert our Otherness, and take positions and decisions that the community members themselves are capable of fulfilling?

UNDERSTANDING DEVELOPMENT THROUGH A NEW LENS

The Keough School of Global Affairs’ concentration in Sustainable Development, and this i-Lab project in particular, recognizes these questions and attempts to find a new path for development. Rather than the prescriptive and vertical relationships traditionally found in development, the field is moving toward a more inclusive and horizontal approach. Local organizations hire local staff to fulfill the project mandate, and use insight from various organizations to uncover the pressing problems and culturally appropriate responses to them. While there’s still much work to be done in this transition, the early progress is promising.

TRANSLATING LOCAL INSIGHT TO GLOBAL IMPACT

My experiences in the Master of Global Affairs program and the Keough School i-Lab has helped me find my own role within this shifting development paradigm.

Table Workspace

I am working with Oxfam, together with fellow Master of Global Affairs students Sofía del Valle and Moaz Uddin, to support their Behind the Brands (BtB) campaign—a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains, environmental impact, and worker treatment. Eight of the 10 largest companies are American, and all profoundly impact the countries where they source their ingredients. The BtB campaign works with these companies to improve their business practices in areas like improved farmer treatment, water stewardship, and respect for land rights. Our team is working with Oxfam America, Oxfam India, Oxfam Ghana, and Oxfam Malawi to support the implementation phase of this campaign.

I am working with Oxfam India. India is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane in the world and a major source country for The Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo. I will be traveling to sugarcane plantations with Oxfam India staff to speak with sugar farmers about their treatment by and experience with these companies. This information will help us understand the actions the companies have already taken, and where they need to do more.

To me, this project is a great example of the shifting development scheme. Oxfam America works in tandem with local staff at Oxfam India, Oxfam Malawi, and Oxfam Ghana to work directly with the farmers that produce the sugar, cocoa, and other commodities upon which these companies so heavily rely. By engaging U.S. companies and holding them accountable to higher standards, I feel encouraged to connect my U.S. nationality and related privilege with sustainable development work. Taking responsibility for the impact that American consumerism and lifestyle has on other countries is humbling and necessary.

In just a few months, I will regroup in Washington, DC, with my Keough School teammates. I’m excited to share our experiences—both good and bad—and hear about the impressions of Ghana, Malawi, and India from diversely Chilean, Pakistani, and American perspectives. This project has offered a new way to think of my responsibility and positionality as an American. I’m grateful for and challenged by the opportunity.