Notes from Northern Thailand: An Interview with Morgan Blackburn

Temple in Thailand

OID: Give us the scoop: what program are you in, what are you studying, and what made you choose this field for your Master’s?

Morgan Blackburn in Thailand

Morgan Blackburn in Thailand

Morgan Blackburn: I’m a (to-be) second year in the IDS Program, focusing on a strange mixture of humanitarian assistance, community development, climate change studies. The story of how I became interested in development changes periodically. I’ve always been interested in seeing the world and knew early on that I wanted to have a job that let me travel and explore new places and people but I didn’t really know how to do that.  Initially I thought I was going to be an ecologist or an archeologist, but later I realized that I wanted to do work that left a positive impact on people’s lives.  My approach to development has been somewhat tangential; I think a lot of people I’ve met always had an interest in development but I sort of stumbled across it and thought okay, this might work.

OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing?

Morgan Blackburn: I’m spending the summer in a tiny town in Thailand near the border with Burma in the northern part of the country, a few hours away from Chiang Mai by bus. I’m volunteering with a refugee community group that works to promote gender parity and improve the lives of women living in the refugee camps along the Thai border.

I was committed to spending the summer abroad; my one major concern when I decided on the development program at GW was that i wouldn’t be able to do a semester outside of DC. I’m the kind of person who picks a dream and sticks with it until I achieve it, so I decided really early on that I wanted to go to Thailand — basically the same day that the Freeman Foundation grants were announced — and I spent the next couple months pursuing leads. In theory, my focus is humanitarian assistance so I really wanted to work on the Burma border and learn about the kinds of conditions that exist in camps — I thought I would be a good idea to test out before I fully committed myself to refugee issues as a line of work and found the protracted nature of the conflict interesting. I left the States in the last week of May and as late as May 9 I was giving myself consoling pep talks about how it was perfectly fine to stay in DC for the summer, so it kind of all fell together at the last minute.

OID: How long will you be there? Do you think this is enough time to get a feel for the country context and the work being done there?

Morgan Blackburn:  I’m here for 12 weeks — ten working and two at the end traveling around. This is my first time being in a country in which I don’t know or understand the language at all, so that’s really different for me. I carry around a piece of paper with simple Thai phrases I need for daily life, which doesn’t really help me since Thai is a tonal language and I’m essentially tone deaf.  In larger cities you can get away with no Thai and it’s fine, but my town is pretty remote so most people don’t speak much English (or Spanish, my very helpful second language). In terms of country context for work, refugee work is interesting because it’s the intersection of two different countries and basically the culture with which I spent the majority of my working time is not the same as the one that I live in. I’m so green that I don’t really even know what questions to ask to make myself understand better. I’m kind of bumbling along, learning half through osmosis and half through gentle corrections when I mess things up. I’m learning a lot, but at the same time I think much of what I’m learning also boils down to the fact that everyone has different motivations and priorities for what work they’re doing, even when ostensibly everyone is working toward the same goal.

Market in Thailand

Market in Thailand

OID: Is this different than other development experiences you have had in the past?

Morgan Blackburn:The situation here is far more politically sensitive and I’m working with a group of people in a country that aren’t protected under that country’s laws, so that’s different. Previously, my work had been a little more standard small-scale development work: education for street youth, protecting women against violence, multiuse water systems, that sort of thing. This encompasses those things and a whole other dimension of work.  I should also put the caveat here that I’m not technically even working on development — humanitarian assistance isn’t the same as development and the refugee camps here are marked by what could be called anti-development.  The whole idea of the camps is that they’re temporary, so people aren’t allowed to build permanent structures, aren’t encouraged to invest in agriculture, don’t use real money. The interesting thing is that the refugees do it anyway: maybe they have to rebuild their bamboo structure every single year because the constant rains rot the wood, but people still set up small businesses in-camp like movie theaters in their homes or tiny garden plots to grow vegetables to complement the rations. The determination and resilience of humans to constantly work for their own betterment is frankly amazing.

OID: What has been the most challenging thing you’ve done so far? Is there anything you would like to see done differently either in the country you are working for, the type of work you see being done more generally, or the situations you are seeing on the ground?

I’m going to hedge on this one and give a bit of a crap answer: the biggest issue is communication, from all directions. I’m working for a really tiny organization, which is just one of a bunch of different stakeholders in this situation, and there are daily, weekly, monthly meetings — an endless series of so-called coordination meetings that aren’t coordination at all; they’re just people going around the room saying what they’re doing. There are a lot of buzzwords flying around: participatory, accountability, transparency, but they don’t really have a lot of traction. People working on the border here speak a dialect of development-pidgin, so their own language mixed in with development vocabulary because these words that have very specific meanings in English don’t have direct translations to the local languages. It seems as though there’s definitely a feeling of, “We want the community’s input but only if you agree with what we want to do,” from some of the larger organizations, while I think the refugee community is put in an awkward position: refugees want clear information and they want good services but it’s really difficult to tell someone that you know is trying to help you that they’re kind of making a mess of things.

To give an anecdote, the other other day someone dropped a document on to my desk. It was an USAID contract for about $100K for the provision of services in the camps. My organization is too small to get money directly from USAID, so it was actually a sub-sub-sub contract that had made its way to us through a series hierarchical NGOs. The document is about 30 pages of opaque, back-referencing legalese that basically all boils down to don’t steal this money or use it for anything you haven’t said you were going to use it for but because it’s money from the US government, it’s written in this long document that’s incomprehensible to the people that ultimately have to sign it. So you have community organizations essentially forced to sign documents that they don’t understand. It seems obvious that there should be a clear, short document that lists what you can reasonably expect a small community organization to sign but who is going to force USAID to do that? Maybe with USAID Forward and its renewed commitment to working with local organizations there will be shift, but USAID seems like a slow-moving behemoth so I imagine it will take a while if it does happen.

OID: Has your perspective on development changed since being in the field? If so, in what ways?

Some Perspective

Some Perspective

Morgan Blackburn: To put this into perspective and link back to something earlier, the single thing that made the biggest impact on me in the first year of school was something Professor Roberts said on the very first day of the cornerstone class. I don’t really remember the context, just his laughing like oh you poor naive children and saying, “Ah, but everyone has an angle.” The rest of the year sort of blends together but that moment is really clear for me. Perhaps memory has colored my perspective, but I’d say that’s the single biggest thing I’ve seen here. I’m not sure that it’s changed my perspective so much as consistently reinforced that idea. There are so many people here working on border issues and each has his/her own agenda — from a political standpoint, an organizational one, and a personal one. I don’t mean to imply that anyone here is a bad person because I think that all the people and organizations are all working to do good things, but everyone has different version of an ideal outcome and those visions don’t all coalesce into a seamless whole.