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.

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