Interview: Kevin Robbins on Bangladesh, Networking, and Marriage

Kevin Robbins, at iDE-B’s Tech Center, learning about the treadle pump and other agricultural technologies.

Kevin Robbins, at iDE-B’s Tech Center, learning about the treadle pump and other agricultural technologies.

OID: Thanks for talking to OID today! Can you start off by telling everyone who you are: Where are you from, what made you passionate about development, and what is your area of concentration?

Kevin Robbins: I’m from Virginia originally. I went to college in New York City where, in an effort to find myself, I changed majors five times and took a year off to travel and work abroad. I worked at an orphanage and taught English in the Dominican Republic and then volunteered with a reconciliation project for former child soldiers in Liberia (not too long after the civil war…almost attended the wedding of Charles Taylor’s aide-de-camp…long story). I finally graduated with a degree in political science and religion and moved out to California to find a job. After eight years as a union organizer and labor educator, I returned to Virginia to pursue a new interest: food. I cooked in farm-to-table restaurants and worked on small farms, but an article on food security in Foreign Policy magazine connected the dots of my personal history in a new and inspiring way. I worked odd hours as a fish monger, made room for an unpaid research internship at the Worldwatch Institute, and applied to graduate school. Now I’m a year into my International Development Master’s with a focus on food security and development management, and I feel like the stars have aligned in a wonderful and unexpected way.

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

Kevin Robbins: This summer I’m working in Bangladesh with iDE, International Development Enterprises. They’re an American-based INGO with a market-based perspective on development. They treat the poor as producers and consumers and facilitate market linkages that support entrepreneurial opportunities. In the 80s, iDE Bangladesh (iDE-B) made a name for itself commercializing the treadle pump, an affordable human-powered irrigation technology that helps smallholder farmers increase their yields and thereby enhance food security and household income. Currently iDE-B works with technologies ranging from sac-cropping for above ground farming in flood-prone regions to pheromone traps for cheap, environmentally friendly pest management. After a dark decade of slow-to-no growth, iDE-B has re-made itself over the last few years, more than doubling its’ projects and staff.

A health and nutrition class held outside of Barisal is part of iDE-B’s ANEP project.

A health and nutrition class held outside of Barisal is part of iDE-B’s ANEP project.

I’m serving as an Innovation and Quality Management Associate, which loosely translates to a combination of knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation, and business practice management. I’m visiting projects for research and review, helping to write impact studies for past interventions. I’m most excited about a project idea that I co-crafted with iDE-B. Their outgoing Country Director has implemented a great deal of change over the last four years. I’m performing a change management case study for the organization and hope to produce not only an internal report for iDE-B, but also an outward-facing document that I can work on through one of my classes in the fall.

OID: How did you get this internship/opportunity?

Kevin Robbins: Last semester I worked for Oxfam America and I had started to plan a research project for them in Cambodia. But, that fell through and I started to scramble for another opportunity abroad. A friend of mine consults for the World Bank in Bangladesh. He’s friends with a woman over at the World Food Programme. WFP didn’t have anything, but this same woman had worked for iDE-B a few years earlier and thought it would be a good fit. A resume and a Skype call later, I had an offer. You know that advice everyone gives us about how important networking is? Yup, it’s true.

Meeting with an iDE-B supported farmer CBO in Bhola to better understand their micro-credit needs.

Meeting with an iDE-B supported farmer CBO in Bhola to better understand their micro-credit needs.

OID: You didn’t go on this journey alone, right? How did you rope your wife into travelling to Bangladesh with you?

Kevin Robbins: Well, first of all, my wife is a rock star and probably more adventurous than I am. So when I asked if she wanted to visit a hot, densely-populated country where violent general strikes (hartals) are the opposition party’s regular means for grabbing media attention, she asked, “How soon do we leave?”

Kevin Robbins and his adventurous wife, Dina

Kevin Robbins and his adventurous wife, Dina, in India

We had wanted to visit India together for quite some time. We got married last year and instead of wedding presents, we asked our friends and family to invest in a “honey fund” for the trip. Instead of getting toasters and microwaves (which we already owned), we got “train tickets to Varanasi” and “a night in an ashram”. The internship gave us an opportunity to leave early and cross India on my way to work. Halfway through the planning we decided to squeeze in a trek to Nepal. Dina then spent a week with me here in Bangladesh and got to meet the crew I’ve been working with this summer. I would have loved it if she could stay for the summer—so would iDE who put her to work as soon as they found out she was a proposal manager—but she had to return home for work. I miss her like crazy, but we both agree that this has been an amazing opportunity for professional development and well worth the sacrifice.

OID: Many of those of us pursuing a degree in development have significant others–how has being part of a team changed your thoughts about your future plans, if at all? Any advice for others? 

Kevin Robbins: Now that I’m married, I think about my life and its direction differently than I did when I was single. I’m mindful of how my decisions will impact my family and find myself thinking through all my decisions with Dina. There’s a lot of compromise involved, but also a lot of synergy. The strong foundation of our relationship is empowering, and I’m confident that we’ve got a bright future ahead of us.

On a practical note, Dina and I are planning to have kids soon, so that changes how we think about where we’d like to live. Plus Dina’s work is rooted here in the D.C. area—at least for the time being—so I’m looking for professional opportunities that are based here, yet still involve travel and short-term stints abroad. In a couple of years we might decide to move our family abroad, but for now we’re happy to continue building our life in D.C.

OID: What are your initial impressions of Bangladesh? Is it like what you imagined?

A female lead farmer in iDE-B’s Nobo Jibon project shows off her baby goats and her healthy son.

A female farmer in iDE-B’s Nobo Jibon project shows off her baby goats and her healthy son.

Kevin Robbins: Bangladesh is intense. Dhaka, the capital, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Traffic is loud and unrelenting. The smells of the city shift from one block to the next, from pleasant piquant curries one moment to offensive acrid sewage the next. Poverty runs rampant, and I’ve found it painful to confront the many deformed beggars who approach me for money. I’ve never seen such acute physical manifestations of suffering before. Behind the scenes, I am told, creeps clientelism and lethargy—people with power that are paid a great deal to perform surprisingly little.

And yet there is hope and optimism here. The people are good-natured and giving. There are visionary leaders, bright thinkers, dedicated organizations, and a new generation of young people who are looking—with creativity and determination—for a better way forward for their country. The international community is pouring an incredible amount of time, money, and human resources into development here. There’s much wheel-spinning, but there’s traction too. With time and perseverance, I’m confident that life here will improve.

OID: Are you happy you decided to spend your summer outside of DC and what do you think will be the best part about this experience/has been the best thing so far?

Kevin Robbins: Yes! Unequivocally, this was the best way to spend my summer, and I’m extremely grateful to have had this opportunity. My goal was to see firsthand what we’ve been reading and writing about during our first year in IDS. What do agricultural CBOs, demonstration farms, and lead farmers look like in person? How does micro-credit best serve farmers? What are the challenges women face when the pursue micro-entrepreneurship? The lessons I’ve learned from the work I’ve seen here will be invaluable as I advance my career.

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve seen what really goes into development work—the politics, the compromises, the pragmatism, the underbelly. My eyes are open more widely now, and I know that I’ll be a better—albeit less idealistic—development practitioner for it.

Kevin Robbins and an angry goat

Kevin Robbins and a Nepalese goat