Monday, October 29, 2012

With Eyes Wide Open

In a few days, I will be transferred to the field office in Somalia. Now, I know what many think about this because I hear it on a daily basis.
“You are going where!?”
“Why would you go to Somalia?”
“Be careful.”
“You are so brave.”

To be honest this is slightly nerve-wracking. I am very aware of the security situation in the country. Adeso, the INGO that I am interning with, has a great security team that is very aware of the situation. Having previously lived in other countries, I understand the various precautions necessary to daily life in the global south. Frankly, I do not see it as any different as last year when I lived in Boston during my first year of grad school. Anyone who has been to Boston knows how Bostonians are not the friendliest people. Yes I generalize, but this is from my experience.  I started my internship in Nairobi, Kenya which is considered a hub of East Africa in my field as many multilateral organizations are based here. As in any big city, there is a risk of crime and precautions should be taken. If you read and all the State Department travel warnings you never would leave the US, as they paint a really bad picture of the world. Of course these recommendations should be considered but I do not believe they can protect a development practitioner or anyone else for that matter. Fact is, of someone wants to do you harm, anywhere in the world, they will.

Kenya is a relatively stable country to travel and work in and the exact same danger I faced in Boston I face here. Considerations such as: roadways, road conditions, excessive speeding, unpredictable driving habits, lack of adequate street lighting, and poorly maintained vehicles pose hazards. After riding around town the mini buses (matatus) are generally poorly maintained and recklessly driven. Not only that, matatus have a tendency to follow their own rules. Again this is possible anywhere. I cannot avoid a natural disaster happening but I can be aware of the rainy seasons in the areas in which I will be and use caution when traveling and making decisions for travel. I would recommend that development practitioners working in a country that is not their own consider that they could possibly be targets for thieves. I certainly would be say if I traveled for a visit to NYC as a Vermonter. I would recommend educating yourself on the conflicts in the region and current political discussions and remember that as development practitioners it is not our role to engage in any action that is not a part of our mandate. Personally, I always avoid discussion of sensitive topics and dress conservatively (as I always do), and respect religious and social traditions of others. Stay with me, I am getting at something.

This field is not for everyone.  I repeat:  this field is not for everyone. I feel that those entering it really need to know themselves. After that you should assess if you have the skills and/or experience to contribute to it. I had previous experience in development (not just a few weeks randomly spent abroad). I did not have the theoretical background, hints why I decided to pursue masters in this field. Ultimately, as I hinted at in the last post, a career is something you should be passionate about. I don’t see myself as anything else but a development practitioner, and want to make a positive contribution to my profession. So experience and knowledge, what else? Training's.  Most development practitioners jump at training's not only because they are useful but because you get to travel for them, meet other practitioners, share ideas and generally get re-inspired. 

I am going to Somalia and this is an area that I knew I was not prepared to work in. How can one prepare to work in a conflict/post-conflict environment? To begin with I prepared by taking relevant courses during my first year in residence of grad school. Before that I was already somewhat familiar with the culture and customs of the area. Personally, I really wish I was able to do the dual masters program at Heller but unfortunately I could only pursue one degree. After taking electives on conflict and coexistence I recognized the gaps. Do no harm (DNH) was one such gap. I had never even heard of it before my development, aid and coexistence course. So I applied for a scholarship to attend a training of trainers on DNH. Once I secured my practicum, I signed that I would abide 100% by the security guidelines set to insure my safety. I met with the security manager and other senior colleagues to discuss at length the situation in the field.  How else could I skills that would enable me to adapt to a conflict/post-conflict environment? Adeso was way ahead of me in this and I attended a very practical training called Heist (Hostile environment individual safety training).Heist is a training created in response to the extreme nature and level of threat INGOs operating in Somalia are exposed to. The purpose is “to better prepare NGO staff for working and living in insecure and remote environments through the provision of basic skills and techniques.” These skills are somewhat common sense but the training really just makes you more aware. Key elements of heist are: communications, weapon awareness, travel, problem solving, psychological preparedness, medical care, personal security, and incident management.  

I am an advocate of furthering knowledge in any profession, and training's/certificate programs allow for this. So it is with eyes wide open that I go to Somalia, knowing all the risks. No, this does not ensure that I am going to be safe just because I have done my best to prepare, but it does mean that I have done my homework. There is no such thing as 100% safety, just as freedom has many different definitions. And that is something that everyone should keep mind wherever you happen to be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Development: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every career has two sides. There is the good. A teacher nurtures and assists someone gain knowledge. A nurse fosters the healing process for patients. A development practitioner makes positive, and hopefully sustainable, changes in the lives of the vulnerable. The other side is the challenges faced. Perhaps for the teacher a student just is not getting the material. For the nurse a prognosis could be complicated, for the development practitioner maybe project funding was cut. The ugly is possibly the worst part of a person’s career. Dealing with standardized testing and failing students for the teacher, nurses’ dealing with a standardized health care system and for us development practitioners the list of the ugly is long.

The big picture is how I like to see my chosen field. With most development initiatives results are hard to track and it may take years to gauge impact. These days development has a role alongside government initiatives. Many argue that development is hindering the role that the government is responsible for. I believe this to a point but also see the need/place for development, but I digress. Aside from the highs and lows of any profession there are those colleagues that you just wonder about and often ask yourself, “why in the hell did they choose this career?”  This post is dedicated to one of the ugliest sides of development.

Development has been a field dominated by white males, and now even more increasing by white females.  Often these practitioners are in countries where they are the minorities. Race and nationality are aspects that do matter in this field. For an example I recently read a post from the Center for the study of African economies (CSAE) entitled, “White man’s burden? How the presence of foreigners can change behavior.”  See: csae/white-mans-burden/presence-of-foreigners.The post articulates how a researcher completing his field work in Sierra Leone received 'special treatment' for his identity. If you do not believe me regarding my estimations, do a google image search for aid/development worker and you will see who google thinks is in this profession (not to mention some poverty porn).

Part of my issue with this posting its ugliness, and how blatant it is. As a non-white development practitioner that has at some point in my life benefited from a social welfare initiative, I find this revelation baffling. Personally, I feel that I can relate at some level with those that the development initiatives I am involved with are attempting to reach. No I do not understand 100%, but enough to see things from a different angle.  What motivates people to become development practitioners? Is it guilt, adventure and fame, etc.? Or am I generalizing too much and some people do genuinly care and are good at this work? In my experience, I have found mostly the first to be true. The latter are few and far between. The author goes on to say, “This is an experience shared by researchers and expat aid workers who try, but fail, to ‘fit in’. The sad truth is that foreign development researchers and practitioners bring with them a whole set of perceptions and expectations.” Development practitioners, whether expats or nationals, rarely can understand what the lives of the people they are trying to help are like. No amount of integration changes who a person is and the experiences that they have lived. This is probably the only point of this “sad truth” in which I agree with in this post. The rest is a complete ploy to make you feel sympathy to the challenges a white person faces in the field.

I do not apologize for the next sentences. I feel no empathy at all for these sort of practitioners. (I do not mean racially, yet the mentality) In fact, they are missing the entire point of their work and probably never got it in the first place.  I have commented but my post was never placed on the site. This was my response: “While I agree that foreigners of Caucasian decent are treated differently, I would like to say that this issue is not solely about race. I believe we must also take to task the issue of privilege, perhaps even white privilege. I cannot to relate to your experiences as I am not treated that differently in the field, which is until it is made known which passport I hold. Even then I am identified by the origin of my family. While you may think this is positive, sometimes it is not as rosy as it sounds. I have been told 'that I get it,' the struggle that is, or when I disappoint people when they expect to meet the porcelain skinned, blue-eyed skinny rich ex-pat female. This brings me to another issue. Your post does not mention the role of the media, which has a profound effect on how the rest of the world views foreigners. Perhaps even explains how people view my identity when in the field.  Many foreigners have problems with the whole idea of White Man’s Burden.  I hear your point about research being skewed but I argue that that would also be true if an urban person or someone from a different ethnic group within the country where to conduct research. Also the idea of research itself is a very western concept and does not translate to a rural person of the global south. Do minorities in the U.S. or other global north countries act differently when you go to their neighborhoods? I think so. Privilege does that. I do not discount how hard it is for you in the field, because it is. I'm sure you have had your share of reverse racism. The only aspect of your post that I do not understand is what part of it is new information? Seems to me this is a much older debate. Again, I thank you for your post and I'm open for dialogue.”

I believe the posting of Duncan Green (, “Do’s and don’ts on research -> policy and the state of Development Studies in Ireland,” mentions relevant aspects on research that the author should take note of.  I would also refer this author to see this post on racism and bias at,

In future posts I will elaborate on other ugly aspects of development. I would like to reiterate that every career has its ugly parts. The ability to persevere while dealing with the ugly probably means that you love what you do. I heard a recent quote that rang true. “Your career is what you are paid for but your calling is what you are made for.” Perhaps assessing whether your career is your passion is the first step to figuring out if you have what it takes to weather the ugly.