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Remember Neo…there is no “field”

15 Jan

As this blog is also dedicated to those current and recent grad students seeking to dive headfirst into development, humanitarian and education work, I thought that this blog post I came across was worth passing along to our readers.

Last week, WhyDev blogger, AidSource co-founder, and author of “Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel” (next on my ever-expanding reading list) “J.” (the elusive name only adds to the amusement and contemplation provoked by the post) recently wrote a piece on WhyDev about the myth of “the field.” Piggybacking off a recent rant on AidSpeak concerning the murky definition and romantic delusions about the obsession development workers have with working in “the field,” J. comments on the perpetual mystique and intrigue of this broadly defined place in international development and humanitarian work that young adventure-thirsty jobseekers like myself so often discuss as the place they feel they belong. J. comments on years of experience in development work, roughly a 50/50 split between international and HQ roles, and regards the two ostensibly unique placements within the development world to be remarkably similar. As the AidSpeak post highlights:

  • Work in HQ: Go to meetings. Stare at a computer screen. Send email messages. Occasionally visit project sites and talk to beneficiaries. Be responsive to the needs of donors.

  • Work in “The Field”: Go to meetings. Stare at a computer screen. Send email messages. Occasionally visit project sites and talk to beneficiaries. Be responsive to the needs of donors. Have a housing allowance. Awesome Facebook updates.

J. explains how in his own experience, it is the HQ-level jobs that enable you to decide and dictate where the indispensable funding that drives development work will be allocated, and in “the field” you are essentially relegated to a position of accepting these decisions as they are handed down from above. The myth of autonomy and being able to make a direct impact on the ground as you see fit is in reality at the whim (no matter how well thought out) of individuals and teams working on the other side of the world. Additionally, the post comments on a topic that has been discussed elsewhere on HREC, in regards to the hesitation of us international development folks who wish to work in foreign locations but do not want to fall into the ‘white savior industrial complex’ or Neo-colonial manifestation of the ‘white man’s burden.’ This is a difficult catch-22, especially being a tall white male with a fairly substantial blonde beard, with which I personally have qualms on a regular basis (I have qualms with the catch-22, not my amazing beard). J. talks about how despite “our” best intentions to breed “local” interventions with local ownership, we essentially “re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.” J. offers a piece of unsolicited advice, for readers to “understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.”

I loved these posts. Through my current home-based consultancy work, I am continuing my own search for a position in this mythical “field,” specifically in East Africa with a desired focus on refugee education. I would argue that the motivations for individuals wanting to work in the “field” are not always confined to the desire to make what they possibly erroneously assume will be a tangible, direct impact on the ground. That is certainly part of it, but even in the smaller NGOs for which I have worked in the past where one would assume more direct impacts could be made, bureaucracy still thrives, and making a direct impact is always a challenge (don’t get me wrong, I am confidant that I personally helped improve the lives of many people, and I have those smaller NGOs to thank for that). In my travels I have even heard horror stories from Peace Corps volunteers who lived, worked, slept and ate with local communities 24/7, and they were still unable to get their organization to provide them with funding to carry out even basic projects that they knew the community truly needed, simply because it did not fit within a larger global development goal-oriented framework.

The posts allowed me to re-evaluate what truly inspires me to want to work in East Africa rather than in NYC or DC at HQ level where I could have the power to determine what communities and what issues get focus and funding. At the end of the day, aside from my powerful distaste for the lifestyle in the Northeastern United States (no offense NYC and DC, I had plenty of fun out there, but this California boy had his fill of that pace of life), I simply fell in love with East Africa in my various work endeavors. I fell in love with the people, with the cultures, with the communities, and those communities were the most welcoming I have ever experienced. I developed an undying passion not to help poor starving Africans, but to learn from the most resilient people I have ever crossed paths with. To draw from my own upbringing in relative poverty and apply my life experiences and my expertise to grow alongside those with whom I worked in Kampala, in Arusha, and in so many rural villages in between, was what motivated me to get the M.A. required to get the jobs that I saw essential to truly making an impact. To me, “the field” is more of a state of mind – it’s getting out of the classroom, getting your face out of books, and LIVING life while conducting work that truly benefits the lives of other people. I have never been concerned with money, I have never been concerned with titles, and I have never relished the glamor and intrigue of being based internationally. I just love to travel, and I love to live with peoples that are radically different than my own, while at the same time highlighting the beautiful and inspiring similarities that bond and bind all of mankind together as one.

This blog discusses education and human rights. And my work abroad taught me not only the true value of education, but it taught me what it means to be human. That understanding, and that experience, I believe, is essential for development workers to truly be in touch with those they seek to work alongside in order to make the world a more just and livable place for all human beings. More than that (stop reading if my hippie-talk is too much for you), life is all about connection, and sitting behind a desk in the community I am seeking to work with is a far more connected and active process for me than sitting behind a slightly nicer desk in HQ. A neophyte to the world of international development and humanitarian assistance, I eagerly await how a few more years of work abroad will shape and mold my perspective, and perhaps I will eventually get tired of that game and return to HQ where I may feel I can really make a difference. But gaining that perspective is what life is all about. Hats off to J. for allowing me to turn inward and think about these ideas, and for the inspiration that has come about because of it.

And maybe it IS time to reactivate my Facebook account…

Doctoral Research in Education in Emergencies

9 Sep

A quick, quick followup to last week’s post: INEE’s online discussion series on “Teaching Education in Emergencies” continues this week with posts by The Brookings Institution’s Allison Anderson (former director of INEE), Harvard’s Sarah Dryden-Peterson (a huge inspiration for my own research) and none other than NYU’s own Amy Kapit!

Amy provides some wonderful insights into a few lessons-learned while conducting her doctoral research and collecting data in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Her reflections touch on the utility of qualitative methodologies and the plethora of doctoral research opportunities in the field of education in emergencies, while highlighting some innovative research coming out of NYU’s IE Program. I also particularly liked her piece because it addresses a key factor for me personally in deciding to delay my entrance into a doctoral degree program: the benefits of solidifying connections in the field prior to conducting doctoral research. Keeping my personal focus on forced displacement in East Africa in mind, studying with Amy helped me and many others in IE realize the importance of having a strong network of practitioners in our regions of interest prior to beginning data collection, which many of us are now using our entry/mid-level career paths to do. We at HREC all wish her the best as she finishes up her doctoral work! Give it a read, and check out the other online blog posts and discussions over on INEE’s website – and don’t forget to keep an eye out for Dr. Dana Burde’s post on September 23rd!

On that note, for those of you starting your Fall semester at NYU or Columbia (or anywhere!), I highly recommend looking into a training seminar on “INEE’s Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery.” It’s a great community in which to be involved, and it may just change the course of your graduate studies…

Additionally, Allison Anderson makes mention of INEE’s academic space on its website – this is a growing resource to see what other academics are researching in the field of EiE, and also a great resource for submitting your own research down the road.

Okay, so that wasn’t a quick, quick followup.


16 Aug

As the world’s eyes are glued to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt, a few other bits of HREC-worthy news and stories caught my eye. Enjoy, share, discuss:

1) International Education M.A. Alumni share their stories

Because this blog is also dedicated to sharing the stories, struggles and successes of members of our graduate cohort as we emerge into the field of education, I would like to commend those who were featured in NYU Steinhardt’s M.A. Alumni profile section (including HREC’s own Alice Jacques and attendees of the Human Rights and Education Colloquium!). You can read interviews with each alum, detailing their favorite aspects about their new positions as well as what they liked about their recent International Education graduate degree program.

2) INEE Conflict Sensitive Education Pack

This week, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) launched the highly anticipated Conflict Sensitive Education Pack. According to INEE, “conflict sensitive education refers to the design and delivery of education programs and policies in a way that considers the conflict context and aims to minimize the negative impact (contribution to conflict) and maximize positive impact (contribution to peace).” The CSE pack thus supports the integration of conflict sensitivity in education policies and programs with several tools, including: INEE’s Guidance Note on Conflict Sensitive Education; a Reflection Tool for designing and implementing conflict sensitive education programmes in conflict-affected and fragile contexts; Guiding Principles on integrating conflict sensitivity in education policy and programming; and a number of additional resources. FHI 360 and Save the Children co-hosted the Launch with INEE this Tuesday in Washington D.C. For those who missed out, you can watch the stream of the event.

You can find and download the full CSE Pack on INEE’s Toolkit here.

3) The humanitarian situation in Darfur

While eyes have been turned (justifiably) to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria and the surrounding region, the humanitarian situation in the Darfur region of Sudan is the worst it has been in years, with over 300,000 people fleeing their homes in 2013 alone and 3.2 million Sudanese in need of humanitarian assistance. Over the past decade, over 2.3 million people have been displaced by ongoing violence, which in recent years has been fueled primarily by disputes over grazing land and gold-mining. The Sudanese government in Khartoum is both unable and ostensibly unwilling to assist those in Darfur, placing the responsibility to protect (let’s not jump into an R2P debate just yet…) squarely in the hands of the international community, who remains drastically underfunded for the endeavor. Virtually all international NGO staff and aid workers have left Darfur. This deteriorating situation reminds me of the myriad challenges facing the humanitarian community to provide assistance to those in need. When states effectively dismantle international peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, assistance becomes impossible. I am curious to see whether the same sort of “smuggled aid” that found its way into Syria last year has taken any sort of foothold in Sudan. My guess is no, but does anyone happen to know of other efforts being made to undercut the traditional avenues of assistance provision to help the people of Darfur?

4) How technology is transforming emergency preparedness

In their “Humanitarian Futures” series, OCHA’s IRIN has been producing some great pieces exploring anticipated changes in the aid world likely to unfold over the next decade. This week, IRIN looks at how technology is transforming emergency preparedness around the world. The piece explores how mobile phone technology, geographic information systems (GIS), and other technologies like Twitter are being used to provide early warning systems and routine monitoring in the face of crises. When I began my work in Tanzania as recently as 2009, it seemed that the idea of mobile banking was only in its very nascent stages. When I returned to Uganda just a year later, it seemed that mobile banking, mobile transfers and mass communication systems were burgeoning at a remarkable rate. I am quite interested to see how these technologies continue to be improved and expanded to benefit the largest number of people possible. I like to think the future looks quite bright!

5) Area 51 officially acknowledged

I’m hoping that before long, the Human Rights & Education Collaborative will have to evolve into the Human/Extraterrestrial Rights & Education Collaborative – HEREC…nice ring to it don’t you think?

People of purpose

7 Jun

This past week I had the amazing opportunity to go to a great place called The Painted Turtle (TPT). TPT is a camp for children with chronic illnesses designed to make the kids forget about their medical conditions and to enjoy themselves and to just be kids.The Camp is situated in California and is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network Camps founded by Paul Newman. Unfortunately, due the wildfires in California, TPT had to cancel all summer sessions.

This past week I had the fortune to spend a couple of days with half of the summer staff and the full-time staff. We spent five days together and day and night we played, we laughed, we cried, we learned from each other and we hoped for the best. During times of uncertainty people’s true colors tend to surface and an atmosphere of desperation, pessimism and frustration usually predominates. However, in this case everyone’s reaction to uncertainty was quite the opposite. Everyone was sympathetic, hopeful, cheerful, understanding and a positive vibe predominated the whole time. The sense of family and community among the staff (many had just met a couple of days ago) was something unknown to me. These folks in their twenties come from different paths in life and even from different countries. It’s a very diverse group of enormously talented people. Their sense of purpose is truly inspiring and the passion and dedication they put into working towards achieving that purpose is just incredible.This is not your average college or post-college young adult. Don’t let their age fool you. Some of them may be young, but they will surprise you by their maturity, discipline, commitment and how well-versed they are.

The series of events over the past days and the wonderful people that I’ve met have been very inspiring to me. It’s been like one of those moments/events/situations that restores your fate in humanity. I now understand why so many people call TPT a “magical place”. Camp is the people and it will go wherever its people are.

I’m confident that next summer TPT will come back stronger than ever as it will also be commemorating its 10 year anniversary! Please visit its website for more information regarding Camp or to show support through this hard times.

We are all vulnerable: Ending the Stigma

13 Nov

As everyone with a television (or ears) knows, the devastation that Hurricane Sandy has left in it’s wake, both in the Caribbean and all the way up to the Northeast, has been unthinkable. Certainly in the greater New York City area, preparation for such an event was severely lacking, and response has been labored and incredibly challenging for the thousands of souls working to assist those affected. After volunteering for a week with the American Red Cross, helping to start up operations on Staten Island just days after Sandy hit, I wanted to write a post in The League about how this event highlights a mutual susceptibility to devastation in the face of climate change. Low and behold, through the INEE listserve comes a message that I could not have written better myself. I pass along the words of INEE Director Lori Heninger from an email entitled “We are all vulnerable: Ending the Stigma.”

Dear INEE Members,

As most of you know, Hurricane Sandy recently hit the Caribbean — particularly the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba — and then rode up the eastern coast of the United States, leaving death and destruction in its wake.  I have two reasons for writing this message.

First, on behalf of the INEE Secretariat, I want to thank everyone who has sent emails, made calls, and thought about those of us in the Secretariat based in New York. These messages were deeply appreciated by the entire Secretariat, and we are very grateful for such a committed, caring membership.  Although power is still out in some areas, the Secretariat made it through the storm relatively unscathed.

Hurricane Sandy over the Caribbean, en route to the United States. 

Photo: NOAA National Hurricane Center

Second, this storm has driven home the fact that, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan, all of us — no matter our stage in development or geographic location — live in situations of vulnerability.  Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis have no care whether they impact a “developed” or a “developing” country: when the ground shakes, or the water floods in, or the wind rips the roofs from schools, we see that nature is not biased.

And it is not just nature that makes us vulnerable. Having experienced first-hand both the events of New York City during 11 September 2001 and London during the 2005 bombings, I am clear that violence is not just something that happens “somewhere else,” but can happen anywhere, at any time, and can take many forms. In all instances, schools were closed due to disruption or destruction.

People walk on a street full of debris after the hurricane hit Santiago de Cuba.

Photo: Desmond Boyland/REUTERS

In New York and New Jersey, many students returned to school after a week of closure; transportation systems were disrupted, schools were flooded, there was no power, or schools were used for shelters. Sound familiar? A major difference is that in New York, most schools opened after only a week of being closed. School closures in other situations, for many reasons, can and do last much longer.

Yellow cabs line a flooded street in Queens, New York in hurricane Sandy’s wake.
Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

Here in the eastern US, we have developed infrastructure, contingency planning, and resources to deal with crises; however, people still die, homes are destroyed, and schools close.  This situation of course cannot compare with the recent floods in Pakistan that killed over 400 or the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that affected millions.  My message is simply that the stigma of vulnerability as something that happens in “other places” is false. We are all affected by crisis, conflict and the results of natural hazard.

The sooner and more deeply we can see how these occurrences link us, rather than divide us, the sooner we can work together to ensure that as much is done as possible to prevent crises and minimize destruction so that lives, and education, are disrupted as little as possible.

Lori Heninger, PhD.
INEE Director