Hi Everyone thank you so much for following my blog this year, I really cannot believe it is over! Here is my final report but not my last post. I'm thinking that now that I have constant internet access and a computer at my fingers I might post some of the pictures from the year as well as some of the more interesting journal entries I made. So for now enjoy and stay posted for further blog additions.
Sharing: A Childhood Lesson With Global Potential
Giving my presentation at the Watson conference in Minnesota I swayed between several ideas grappling with the slippery question, “how do I connect the diverse experiences of my one year away for a 10 minute presentation?” I ended up settling, sort of unhappily, on a more quantifiable run down of what I thought worked best and what I felt was needed in development. As these things go, it really wasn’t until I was next up to present that I saw a concept I could grasp hold of that, in its presence or absence, united not only my project related discoveries but also the other meaningful moments that shaped my year. While there are no words that will ever fully embody all that my year was, I feel that the idea of “sharing” in the way that it refers to an engagement, an interest or a love for exchange comes close to suggesting something of its essence.
There were people everywhere who shared with me. I was invited for mint tea and snacks in a tiny mountain town in Morocco; I was welcomed into clinics and hospitals in highland Guatemala; I was treated and cared for as if I was family in Lima, Peru; I was taught to cook Ugali on a traditional stove in Southern Tanzania; I was offered the chance to observe project implementation in Uganda and on the Thai-Burma border; I was given places to stay in Bangkok and Marrakech; and I was talked to, counseled and connected by organizations and friends (both old and new) around the world. My engagement with these various networks of sharing resulted in the most important, informative and memorable experiences I had over the course of the year.
It thus surprises me that while I came into contact with this side of humanity that was so generous, I found that same spirit so lacking in large-scale development work. Rather than an engagement, interest, or love for exchange I encountered separation and even hostility in aid work. The big as well as small non-profits I came into contact with were so often enmeshed in an aid culture that promotes isolation and encourages competition (for the next project, grant or village) rather than partnership. Even those organizations that did not rely on big international aid organizations for their funding existed in a “development context” that fostered individualism and separation. That does not mean that many organizations and individuals I met were not doing good or creating change; it means instead that even those best I encountered seemed limited in the impact they were able to make.
This ties into one of the questions I kept returning to over the year: how do you make development work on the big scale? I saw small-scale interventions that were improving quality of life for people but found that really big, macro level interventions; those with with globally transformative potential seemed to flounder.
The Watson gave me a chance to think about this question in a way no other form of travel, work or study could have. I got the opportunity to see development work as a global phenomenon thanks to the different cultures and the diverse countries I got to visit and engage with. I was granted a gift, a chance to see cultural and project parallels I otherwise would not have noticed. I found similarities among a diverse set of countries while simultaneously experiencing first hand how much can be learned through even the smallest two-sided engagement. The result of such an opportunity is my belief that there is a way to scale up.
For me the solution lies in an extreme form of exchange, a sharing among different organizations regardless of intervention focus or country location. Just from my own experience, I was amazed by the tricks, local realities and creative approaches I was taught because I asked about them in interviews and looked for them in observation. People are so often open, yet exchange is so noticeably lacking in development culture; not even the cleverest solutions are shared amongst organizations. I truly believe that increased emphasis on partnership or even the type of small scale experience exchange I participated in could help so many of the unremarkable or limited projects I encountered achieve their, as of yet, unfulfilled potential.
There were numerous instances where I saw a space for the type of cross-cultural or cross-focus sharing I am talking about. At the conference and also in my reports I talked about Tanzania and Guatemala. The book distributers that want to open libraries in Tanzania and the librarian-training program in Guatemala that had no books to contribute to the libraries they helped make possible.
The examples go on. In Guatemala I encountered a focus on education as the solution to the country’s diverse social ills. In Morocco I saw the troubling levels of unemployment among urban youth despite access to an increasingly high quality education. While in Thailand I encountered a vocational training program that was working to reduce in country unemployment. If each side shared experience and knowledge, the far-reaching effects of education could be seen and the unforeseen negative results (unemployment) could be preemptively combated.
Another example. In Guatemala I interviewed the director of an organization that worked to resolve land disputes that often occurred along ethnic lines, the legacy of a gruesome Guatemalan civil war. In Peru I met with an organization teaching first time land owners who had been given farms in a poorly managed reallocation that occurred 40 years ago how to make that land productive. While in Tanzania I heard first hand accounts of the Zimbabwe government and their confiscation and then poorly managed and violent redistribution of land to people who had never farmed before. Each a different country yet with shockingly relatable experiences.
One more. In Tanzania I heard horrifying accounts about a corrupt and failing distribution system for medical supplies. Interestingly, while conducting interviews in hospitals in Peru I learned about a system whereby chains of clinic outposts in remote locations collected medications from central distribution sites and thus successfully stocked their own clinics.
I am not saying the experiences I reference in these different countries are the same. Rather that while cultural sensitivity should always hold a position of primacy in development; cross-country communication should never be dismissed as irrelevant. In the cases where issues on the international scale cannot be associated, why can’t organizations operating in the same countries, cities, or villages connect? They so obviously should but too often don’t. From the biggest global scale to the smallest village scale the effect of exchange could be enormous if only it was better taken advantage of.
My faith that an “engagement, an interest or a love for exchange” can make a big impact emerges because people shared with me. In connecting with others I not only learned about development work, but I was also able to see the transformative power community can have. I am idealistically extrapolating upward in scale from “people shared with me, and it changed my life” to “if we shared on a global level; it could change the world.” Thank you Watson for granting me the opportunity to see so many of the faults and problems that permeate the development field while simultaneously allowing me to strengthen my faith in humanity.