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But what about those without evacuation insurance?

May 27, 2011

A new article in The Guardian examines the increasing threats aid workers face around the world, arguing that as a result of the securitisation of the business, aid workers are now commonly associated with Western military interventions, a new colonial force, making them targets for attacks. Flavia Wagner, and American aid worker, is given as an example, who after being kidnapped in Darfur in 2010, is now suing her former employer for not having sufficient contingency plans for cases of kidnap.

I have tremendous empathy for those aid workers facing increasing security threats. Staff security is a serious issue, and if I accepted a post in a less safe setting I would like to trust that my employer had done all that they could to keep me safe.

However, ultimately, it would be my choice to go there. Reading the article in The Guardian, I couldn’t help but think ‘what about those without evacuation insurance?’. I could pack up my life and be out of Bamako overnight if needs be, happily slotting back into an English comfort zone. But what of those aid workers who, if kidnapped, attacked at their workplace or on their way home, have to then go on living their life in that place as best as they can, continuing their work, maybe taking that same road each day?

That’s why I was encouraged to then see the Guardian photo series’ Health workers on the frontline of conflict‘, as part of  Merlin campaign to highlight the vital role, and risks, local health workers face in conflict zones. Although Merlin’s campaign focuses on the importance the health worker’s work, the photos are a nice reminder of the sacrifices that health workers and other local aid workers also have to make in their role.


Sue: The Kenyan prostitute building a brand

May 20, 2011

One role that many NGOs now play is to give space to the voices of people, I won’t say beneficiaries,  who are part of the communities they work in, or they projects they have created. A whole host of evaluation and reporting tools have been created which aim to ‘capture the voice’ of those on the ground, whether for reasons of fundraising, advocacy, or evaluation. The development blogosphere too has traditionally been dominated by Western voices, whether describing their experiences living abroad and working in the development sector, or critiquing the latest academic paper, or advocacy report finding.

The blogging world now has a new addition however: Sue, the Kenyan prostitute building a brand. Sue’s blog, Nairobi Nights, is a refreshing look into her realities, and her reflections, written by her, and not seen through the eyes of another blogger, another evaluation tool, or a ‘case study’ for a report.

Hat Tip to Do No Harm

The value of field experience – what the job descriptions don’t say

May 16, 2011

Reading through Steve’s post on ‘Why am I doing a PhD?’, after ten months in West Africa, I realised I had never really addressed why I am here. I used to get frustrated when before leaving, people would imply that I was taking a ‘year out’. This year has been in many ways all about work, the difference is that I am lucky enough to say that what could be called work, doesn’t always feel that way (admittedly when I am dealing with Microsoft Excel, it really, really does)

More than anything my decision, along with many others who are volunteering abroad and trying to break into the international development sector, was about gaining that valuable field experience, assuring future employers that you weren’t going to freak out in a position where you are paid to be on the ball in difficult situations.  It is now well acknowledged that gaining some field experience is vital for establishing yourself in the sector, and showing you can cut it.

I had acknowledged this for a long time before I came here. It was only living in West Africa though that I finally got it. Why its not enough to say on your application form that you are ‘patient’, citing an example of a tricky work situation in the UK, or that you can work under pressure and tight deadlines, citing your Masters. Nor is it enough to cite various 2 or 3 month summer research trips or internships as examples of how you navigated different cultural situations.

Because field experience is not about ticking some type of box, saying that you ‘did it’. It is about living through the highs and lows that can only really come when the initial glamour wears off, and you are put face to face with the physical, personal and professional realities of your new home. When each day you have to wake up and confront those difficulties, and treat them as a part of your new life.

The value of field experience is assumed by many, but explained or elocuted by few.

So why then, is field experience seen as so important? You learn a lot of little new things living in Africa, from how to survive Bamako’s hot season and not snap at your other half when its midnight, 40 degrees, and you only have a little fan, to how to deal with the practical realities of regular and repeated power cuts.

But then there are the things that you come to learn, but don’t necessarily expect. Long term field experience is important because it teaches you to ride the highs and lows of culture shock, which can take you by surprise and hit you again, and again. It is important because it removes the sheen of excitement and glamour that you experience in the first few months of a country, and forces you to confront its often unpleasant realities.

It is important because it teaches you how to be ok with sitting on a mat, on a hard floor, with your back hurting, and not understanding a word being said all day, all in the name of empowerment and local participation.

It is important because you rapidly learn how to let go of control, accepting that you taxi commute may take 20 minutes, or if the taxi driver takes another route, 45. That rendezvous will wait.

Or more importantly that if you really are all for community led development, then you have to work with a community’s time frame, and despite your best laid plans, a way of doing things which can seem unnecessarily slow and complicated.

Long term field experience teaches you how to make a bullet proof plan, develop rigorous monitoring and evaluation indicators, then be ready to be told you are wrong, that there’s been a change in the budget or the timing, and throw it all out of the window.

It is important because it forces you to confront your role both as a westerner, and a development professional, when you are faced with people telling you that ‘you are not wanted here’, or you realise that you local counterpart is already expertly navigating the community mobilisation and training programme without your help.

It teaches you the little things, like how to organise a meeting, and actually get people to come, and of the enormous effort it can take to genuinely involve people in a task or process that it would be much simpler to do yourself.

As a women, it can force you to re-engage with feminist debates that once seemed overly theoretical and irrelevant, when you are confronted day in and day out with patriarchal attitudes. More than that it can give you huge respect for your local counter-parts who have grown up with these attitudes, yet have challenged them to become leaders.

It is important as it makes you realise that development work and a different culture can actually be really, really boring. Spreadsheets and reports don’t get more exciting just because you’re sitting in an office in Bamako and not London.

It is important because it makes you grateful for what you have. Not in an emotional ‘ these children don’t have shoes’ sense however, but gradually, thoughtfully, and rationally. When you do the maths and realise what sacrifices your host family has to make to pay for medicine, and how expensive daily life can be for a taxi driver paying off a debt. When you sit next to a local student from a private high school in an exam, and realise that despite his relative privilege, the education system has simply not given him the analytical skills needed to analyse that piece of French text that you have always taken for granted.

And finally, long term field experience is important because it forces you firstly to confront the many, many failures of the development world, and the huge challenges which can surface when trying to get even the simplest things done, and then secondly, to get back to work, and take things step by step.

Any additions?

Monique and the Mango Rains: Qualitative Research in Action

May 10, 2011

Last week I described the first drops of the ‘Mango Rains’ here in Mali:  ‘The rains that come when the earth is dry and the heavy rains still far away to make the mangoes sweet’

Back in 1989, in a small village in Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, a Peace Corps Volunteer called Kris Holloway was also experiencing the Mango Rains for the first time. In the book ‘Monique and the Mango Rains’, Kris describes her two years in the village of Nampossela– the mango rains, the village politics, falling in love, but most of all, her growing friendship with a local midwife called Monique.

Monique was in some ways unusual for the time and location – she had been to school. Because her parents had valued the education of their daughter, Monique was able to become a local midwife and health worker  – a lifeline for the women who gave birth in the village where she worked.

Monique and the Mango Rains, through charting Kris’s friendship and two years with Monique, gives us a rare insight into the daily reality of Monique, both as a health worker, and a woman living in what was, and continues to be in many ways, a very patriarchal and restricted society.

In the early days Kirs describes how not all the women in the village were willing or comfortable going to Monique to give birth; ‘Because of her young age, there are women who will not come here to give birth. They think it is the old women who must do this work’.

Read more…

What the research methods textbooks never quite managed to do….

May 8, 2011

Anyone who has ever attempted to design a survey will be aware of the perils of leading questions, and of survey design more generally. A dissertation, many many surveys and focus groups later, Sir Humphrey Appleby manages to perfectly illustrate what the research methods textbooks never quite managed to do. H/T to Aid Thoughts

A Sunday morning in Bamako

May 1, 2011

Moving to West Africa, I realised I had underestimated the reach and power of globalisation. Kettles in supermarkets may cost at least £25 in Bamako (and now rank pretty high up on the ‘things I will never take for granted again’ list), however Nescafe coffee has well and truly found its market, and is widely available in small sachets from the streets of Bamako to the small boutiques of the remote region of the Fouta, northern Senegal. Although this provides useful insurance that a caffeine fix will (nearly) always be readily available when traveling, over the course of the past 10 months I have stopped thinking of Nescafe as actual coffee, and more of a useful warm dark brown energy drink.

Joy of joys then when I received a parental delivery of the Smartcafe all in one cafetiere and mug. This wonder was quickly eclipsed however in Bamako when we discovered this mysterious creation in the kitchen:

Add one PhD student with a love of coffee, a Sunday morning, some intense staring……

….and home made espresso, without a trip to spend £100 on an espresso maker at Bamako’s expat supermarket, is the result….

The Mango Rains

April 28, 2011

The other night, it rained. Woken up at 2am by a vague noise, I took out my bouchons d’oreille (fancy French way of saying earplugs) to discover what sounded like the sky falling down. The rain felt foreign, out of place in a 40 degrees Bamako, threatening almost.

I hadn’t heard or felt rain in roughly 8 months, and suddenly I had to fight the urge to rush outside and just stand under it, soak it up. The next morning the air felt fresh and renewed, although I started to worry what would happen to the small river/sewage flow trickling through our street when the real rains started.

(I’m hoping Bamako’s impressive number of road side sellers, offering a range of goods from Scrabble and Monopoly to orange juicers, recognise the market opportunity and start selling wellies).

I’d have to wait a few months however, for I learnt only last week that Tuesdays downpoar wasn’t the real rains, just the ‘Mango Rains’ :

The rains that come when the earth is dry and the heavy rains still far away to make the mangoes sweet

As described in ‘Monique and the Mango Rains’. Review to come.

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