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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dissecting Protection and Peacebuilding—The Local and the Change

by: Mary Mumbi Wachira

“…More like an inquiry. Probing the theory and investigating your interests—for the moment and in time. Seeking the connection and the tension between practice and theory. A search for the location of the individual who is likely impacted and affected by violence and conflict. A rhythmic step toward the hope that the music strums on. An investigation into the connection between psychosocial wellbeing, support, and sustainable peacebuilding.”

This is how I would describe my internship. A curiosity of sorts and a learning process linking me to the work of protection and the relationships therein in a moment to moment movement towards peacebuilding.

I have interned with the Catholic Relief Services EQUIP (Equity, Inclusion, and Peacebuilding) department since July 2019. My focus was on protection and youth in peacebuilding. CRS is a relief and development organization that often works with local partners to promote transformative and sustainable change. Using the holistic approach of integral human development, CRS has programs in agriculture, emergency response and recovery, health, education, microfinance, water security, youth, justice and peacebuilding, and partnership and capacity strengthening.

Group of students, capitol building behind them
Participants group photo outside the US Capitol building during the US Peacebuilding Advocacy to inform lawmakers about the proposed draft Youth, Peace, and Security legislation. Photo courtesy of Alliance for Peacebuilding.

During my time here, I have engaged in both policy formulation around protection issues and advocacy on upcoming Youth, Peace and Security legislation while leaning a lot on my policy analysis lessons at the Keough School. I was based in the Baltimore CRS Headquarters and had proximity to Congress in Washington, DC.

An invitation into planning and design transformed to participation in formulating guiding principles for organizational and humanitarian response in protection and prevention from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). We explored the role of language and culture in PSEA when working in communities. In a field that works with communities towards change, language and culture often determine the expression of violence and, consequently, the social transformation. What does this mean for organizations that choose to use the official languages in multilingual and multicultural countries? Or even the big four languages—English, French, Spanish, and Arabic—in global contexts? By creating a language criteria to promote inclusion, who gets excluded in the communication?

A drawing detailing local peacebuilding in a series of steps
A written image helping to distill conversations on local peacebuilding during the AfP Conference in Washington, DC.

I believe an anthropological reflection would give insight here. The outcomes of this process established the need for incorporating more languages into our roles in community engagement and a survivor-centered approach to acknowledge the asymmetry in agency and power for the vulnerable and affected communities. We must recognize the gender and resource interplay in the conflicts that can get hushed in the search for survival. Everyday. The discussions expressed the importance of focusing on prevention and indicated that when the focus is protection, the root cause is yet to be addressed. Ultimately, the policy called for the need to listen to the local, not just for “box checking,” but with the intention of yielding power and co-creating change to support the human security of survivors.

As CRS adjusted its strategic plan, I had a didactic experience reflecting on the visioning and implementation of peacebuilding into different programming initiatives. What would strategic peacebuilding look like, for instance, in health and gender focused initiatives? Given that implementers at the community level were involved in this process, the relationship and, in some cases, the tension between practice and theory was evident.

As the different actors held this tension with both curiosity and openness to experiment with an idea, I was encouraged. You see, as a learning peacebuilder, I am aware that we certainly do not have the answers or solutions to the violence and conflict in our world today. By all means, we try, we show up, we ask questions and seek to hear how communities and people envision peace. Then, we accompany the process and the people, we implement the ideas, and sometimes we build and inform the idea through feedback and functional relationships in that space. It sounds simple, but so does a surgical process on paper. Until you begin the dissection and realize that this is an intricate process needing attention, skill, listening, and presence with human beings—all at the same time and in an appropriate environment. And conflict and violence are not predictable.

When I began the examination of the implementation of the Singing to the Lions workshop, I found myself often interrogating the political, social, economic, and cultural contexts of the participants. Singing to the Lions is a psycho-education workshop to build resilience and foster social cohesion among children in contexts of violence and conflict. When noticing resilience in a community, we also need to look at the local and shared underlying structures making them resilient and reinforcing them toward sustainable peacebuilding. This provides the appreciative inquiry into how well the environment fosters the individual’s psychosocial wellbeing and possibilities of sustainable peace.

In this process, I found that although the target audience is children, depending on their context and needs, different implementers have “cherry-picked” what works for their contexts and other identities (age and role). Certainly, this modification impacts how the evaluation of such an approach works, even with a preexisting monitoring and evaluation process. What would contextual indicators look like from the perspective of the individual in this case? Please ponder with me here.

Finally, I wonder, “what, who and how” have I become as a nascent peacebuilder? I don’t wish to get lost in the process and emerge without a soul in the end. I am grateful for the community of colleagues that held me in the learning and the inquiry. I am present to the local communities where my feet journeyed for this transient time. As I reflect with hope for those who continually work and seek change, I join you all in the reflective practice, in the study, and in being.

Mary poses, arms crossed, next to a CRS
Me, at the CRS headquarters office in Baltimore, Maryland.

My learning journey in Nepal and India: housing, hospitality, and community building

by: Maria Belen Zanzuchi

On any other May 25—Argentina’s May Revolution celebration—you would find me at my parents’ house, sitting by the fireplace and eating traditional Argentine food. But this year was different. Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time, I took one step outside the plane and was already sweating. I lowered the window in my taxi, hoping for fresh air and a view on the way to my new apartment, but car tailpipes smoked like a chimney and clouds of dust obscured the mountains. Many people wore face masks, and several buildings were still under reconstruction after the monstrous 2015 earthquake. In a city with no traffic lights but plenty of cows and motorbikes, my mind was jostled by frequent sudden stops and punctuated by the sound of vehicle horns.

View of Kathmandu
View of Kathmandu from Bhaktapur Square, where many temples are still under reconstruction after the 2015 Earthquake.
Street in Kathmandu
Street in Kathmandu.

Warm, chaotic and notoriously polluted was my first impression of Kathmandu, but nothing could dampen the excitement of beginning my Integration Lab summer research. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), my teammate Brian and I were to visit communities in Nepal and India to better understand how we might encourage disaster-affected populations to adopt hazard-resilient housing reconstruction practices. CRS aims to promote human development by responding to major crises. The organization seeks to expand culturally appropriate housing that meets international standards and enables future upgrades to permanent shelter. 

 

Learning from chaos

As the days went by, I started to enjoy the chaos. Every day I set foot outside, my body and mind filled with energy. I was delighted by the colors, the smell of incense in the streets, the mixture of religions, the countless temples and, mainly, the people. Despite their meager resources, every house welcomed us with a smile and offered tea and food. Our attempts to speak local words brought curious smiles as well.  

Gorkha, Nepal household survey
During a household survey in a rural community in Gorkha, Nepal.

 

Nepal household tea
During a household survey in Nepal. The owner offered us some tea after it.

Though every day I’d learned something different, there was one thing that stood out: the dynamic inside the communities. Every time we visited a house, at least one neighbor was already there having tea or talking to the house owner. A simple household survey would sometimes turn into a focus group with neighbors joining to help answer the questions. Many of these people also work together under a labor exchange (parma) system cultivating crops. Yet, astonishingly, they don’t usually help each other to build safer houses. At least in Nepal, some communities used to work together to (re)build traditional houses before the earthquake, but haven’t done so since.

Filling gaps and thinking forward

I started to ask why such close communities no longer exchange labor for house reconstruction. Some said they were struggling to repair their own houses and were not able to care for neighbors’ houses, but others said that once a household obtains a government grant to build a safer (usually brick) house, the community won’t help. Community members assume that someone with a grant doesn’t need the community’s help. 

How is it that the grant scheme prevents people from helping each other to build safer houses if they used to work together for traditional ones? This was a living example of the unintended consequences of development work we discussed in one of our Master of Global Affairs classes at the Keough School. 

 

Devastated community after Cyclone Fani
A community devastated after Cyclone Fani in Odisha, India.

Revising the grant program to address this issue would require larger players to exert influence, but development workers can help fill this gap by promoting community resilience.  Community resilience not only helps families save time and money (the few communities that did work exchange for house reconstruction saved up to 50 percent of labor costs), it also can help them heal and move forward after a traumatic event. Promoting community resilience might not be an easy task, but it’s one that’s worth trying, especially in an environment where community members are already close to each other. How do we do this? I don’t have the answer.

One last important lesson I learned from the field is that people are happy to share their views and experiences. All we need to do is listen carefully. Before we try to change their behavior, we need to listen to understand what motivates them, what they fear, whom they trust, and what they stand for. Their fears, needs, and incentives are usually rooted in something real and shaped by the larger environment. Policies don’t take place in a bubble, and behaviors are not changed by simply suggesting “universal” best practices. The development world needs to listen to and work with communities to face the challenges ahead.

Welcomed into the community
Women welcoming Brian and me when entering their community in Odisha, India.