As summer turns to fall (wait, it was 90 degrees, this is fall?) the apples get ready to fall off their branches, and OID was there to catch them. Despite the long drive, first and second year OID students trekked out to Butler’s Orchard to pick apples, raspberries, and even corn! OID has heard that there are some accomplished and intelligent first-years, but now we also know how nice you are. Thanks to everyone who came out, including Dr. Fink and her family. Here are a few pictures submitted to OID of the event:
OID: Hi, Ani! Thanks for talking to OID today. Please start out by telling us a something about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you decide to pursue a Master’s in International Development at GWU?
Ani Avetisyan: I am from Yerevan, Armenia. For those of you who know little about Armenia, is it one of the fifteen post-Soviet republics. Armenia is also the cradle of Christianity and the home of numerous medieval monasteries. (Editor’s note: Ani used to work for birthright Armenia and doesn’t always talk like a tour guide. But when she does, you learn something!)
What makes me passionate about development is my country’s own history and the opportunities it has for the future. The past two decades have been the most challenging ones in our history, marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outburst of the Nagorno Kharabakh conflict, and a tragic earthquake. Although there have been tremendous achievements not only on the public reform side but also in civil society, there is still room for improvement.
As far as for my decision to join IDS, I’d say it was not a difficult one. The program stands out for its’ academic rigor while simultaneously providing opportunities to train students in a real-world setting.
OID: Where are you this/these summer and how did you get this position(s)?
Ani Avetisyan: This past spring I was interning at the Office of Investment Policy at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Upon the completion of my internship, I was given the opportunity to extend the contract through the summer semester.
OID: It seems like a lot of the IDS students went abroad this summer. How did you decide to stay in DC? Are you happy that you did? What do you think you gained from this experience?
Ani Avetisyan: As an international student, I decided to capitalize on my time in this important city and gain further experience in D.C. I have come to realize how important happy hours and networking events are, so I made the most of networking this summer. Also, because I had more spare time in my hands, I was able to explore the city. D.C. has so much to offer in the summer such as jazz in the garden, outdoor movies on the National Mall to name a few!
OID: The first years are starting their first year of grad school. What do you wish someone had told you when you started grad school?
Ani Avetisyan: I know the first semester hits you hard, but it does get better.
OID: Any class recommendations or favorite study spots that you want to share with the group?
Ani Avetisyan: The sixth floor at Gelman and the Lower Level computer room were my favorite spots to study last year. Since the newly renovated second floor was opened, Gelman has become my second home.
As for classes, I would recommend International Development Management Tools and Processes, which gives you hands on experience with a real client. I found this course especially useful in preparation for the final capstone project.
I would definitely suggest students try to get out of their comfort zone when choosing classes. It is the challenging classes that will eventually help you think outside the box.
Hello and welcome to the class of 2015 (and beyond for those of you enrolled in dual programs or taking classes part-time!) and welcome back to the class of 2014! The OID board hopes that everyone had a fun and productive summer–and we look forward to hearing all about it! For the first-years: please feel free to reach out to the OID board (firstname.lastname@example.org) at any time if you have questions, want to be interviewed for the blog, or are just interested in getting more involved. Remember that this is a student-run organization so we want this organization to accurately reflect your interests and we’ll be turning the reins over to you next semester–so get involved!
If you are a first-year in the IDS program, reach out to your mentor. We’ve been through what you’re about to embark on and can help guide you–or at least commiserate with you! Come to the OID events because it’s a great way to meet second-years and learn about internships, class recommendations, and to discuss development. Hopefully many of you came to the Welcome Back event last Friday. It was a chance to reunite, meet for the first time, and become acquainted with our professors.
The views from the Elliott School’s City View room are always breathtaking, and meeting everyone (and seeing old faces again!) is a wonderful opportunity. Obama didn’t come by personally, but he did fly over to say hello.
Thank you to everyone at Elliott who organized it, and to Graduate School Student Forum (GSF) for the after-party event at Sky Bar. To those of you unfamiliar, join GSF for great events, networking, and fun here and/or here. As we enter this year, we hope that everyone remembers the sense of community that we are so fortunate to have at Elliott. The OID board looks forward to another great year with all of you!
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.
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.
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?”
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?
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.
OID: Hello, Abid! Thanks for talking to OID. We like to start out every interview with a little bit about the interviewee. So, tell us why you’re getting your Master’s at GWU, what makes you passionate about development, and what you are concentrating on in your studies?
Abid Amiri: Growing up in a refugee camp in Pakistan and living in post-Taliban Kabul, my textbooks, notebooks, and pens were all donated by USAID, UNICEF, and other development agencies. I remember getting so excited when international aid donors would come in to give us school supplies. Today, I am attending a prestigious graduate school in the U.S., because I was able to get my primary education with the help of development organizations. Otherwise, like many of my friends in other camps who didn’t receive donated school supplies, dropped out of school and later joined the ranks of the Taliban, I would have been a victim of the war, too. I was a constant aid recipient until 2004, when I was selected to participate in a one-year high school exchange program to the U.S. Later, I was able to come back for my undergraduate degree. The main reason why I wanted to pursue graduate study in International Development is that development aid really hits home with me, as I have come out of the conflict zone successfully due to the help I received from aid agencies. I am concentrating on economic development and international education. Afghanistan needs a lot of work in both these field, and I would like to play an important role in improving people’s living conditions, and their children’s education.
OID: What are you up to this summer? (work, social, etc.)
Abid Amiri: I conducted a 4-week internship with SIKA international in Islamabad, Pakistan. My job was to help this chemical company franchise with grant writing for projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. During this time, I was also able to volunteer with Youth Exchange Study (YES) program alumni activities in Islamabad. As a YES program alum, I joined recently returnees of the program from the United States with Islamabad city clean up project, volunteered as an English language instructor to high school students, and conducted grant writing seminars for interested students.
OID: Many of the IDS cohort are from developing countries. Afghanistan is not a country we talk a lot about in classes, however. How do you feel like your own experiences and history have helped shape your studies and given you insight into our coursework?
Abid Amiri: One of things that I like about the IDS program is that the cohort population is very diverse. I have had students from Asia, Africa and South America in my classes. Their first-hand experience living in developing countries augmented the learning process. In the same vein, my life experience and work background in Pakistan and Afghanistan further enriched class discussions. I worked for American Councils for International Education in Afghanistan and ran an exchange program across the country. While traveling to different provinces for student recruitment, I learned quite a lot about program design and delivery. This experience helped shape my understanding of development, and its delivery. The reason I am concentrating on International Education is that I am a byproduct of exchange programs. I believe in this globalized world, direct contact of our young generation through exchange programs is vital to the future security and safety of Afghanistan and the wider international community. Sure enough, the IDS program will provide me with the expertise to achieve my future career goal in international education.
OID: Do you have any other thoughts on development that you would like to share with the OID blogosphere?
Abid Amiri: I actually have my own site, where I write regularly (and have been published in several places, including Diplomatic Courier Magazine). My most recent article argues that we (Afghans) don’t want to return to the post-soviet withdrawal era, as the NATO troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014. The right decisions now can help to put the country on a new trajectory. Any political miscalculation between now and 2014 could have devastating effects on the long-term security/economy of Afghanistan. It will make or break the country’s future. To find out more, please read about it here, and check out my site, below:
OID: Greetings Hilary and thank you for talking to OID today. Please start out by telling us a something about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you decide to pursue a Master’s in International Development at GWU?
Hilary Hartley: I am originally from the Bay Area in California, but grew up in San Diego. I’ve lived in Washington DC for the last four years working for a non-profit that focuses on university level exchanges. I’ve always been very interested in international relations, and after studying abroad in Montevideo, Uruguay as an undergrad, I wanted to learn more about international education and development education policy.
OID: Tell us more about why you think education is such an important aspect in development.
Hilary Hartley: In my opinion, education is a universal right and lays an important foundation for all aspects of development work. Basic skills such as literacy and numeracy are critical to everything from agricultural development to micro-finance. Every human being deserves an educational foundation that will allow them to lead dignified lives in which they are empowered to make decisions.
OID: Where are you this summer and how did you get this position?
Hilary Hartley: I’m in beautiful Rosslyn, Virginia (just a stone’s throw from DC). Okay, Rosslyn is not as amazing as some of the other places where my fellow cohort members are, but I am very fortunate to have a job that I thoroughly enjoy. I am the Program Officer for Spain, Portugal, Malta, Mexico, Italy, Nicaragua and Turkey at the International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP). I’ve worked here for four years, and actually made the decision to start school while employed full time (more on that later).
OID: How was working full time and going to grad school last year? Any recommendations for those looking to start that balancing act this upcoming school year?
Hilary Hartley: Well, it wasn’t easy, and if I have any advice, I would say sleep now (just kidding! Well, sort of…) and if at all possible, read some of your capstone books over the summer (I think I got through three or four, I especially recommend reading Escobar and Pieterse early if you can) and it was a big help.
You can manage to do both, but you will need four things: 1) a schedule, and the ability to maximize your time: I read at lunch, I read on the metro (you’d be surprised how much you can read on an escalator too!). Importantly, I scheduled me time too. I always cooked for the week every Saturday and scheduled time to see friends. 2) A tablet: I bought a tablet about halfway through second semester and wished I’d done it sooner. For some reason, I read faster on it, and take better notes. It also makes searching for something for a paper a breeze! 3) An agreement with your workplace: My boss and I worked out a schedule so I could be on-time for class every time. 4) caffeine: because being at work at 8amand finishing class at 10pm means you will not be sleeping a solid 8 hours a day.
All that said, if you are organized, you can do it.
OID: It seems like a lot of the IDS students are abroad this summer. Obviously we are all jealous of them, so staying in DC must have been a tough choice! How did you make that decision and how do you feel that your work experience will help you once you graduate?
Hilary Hartley: I do think that work experience will be helpful when I graduate, and I also wanted to take a summer class, which made my decision a little easier. I’m taking Quantitative Research Methods in the School of Education, which has proven interesting, and I’m happy to be able to take a break from the school/work balancing act!
OID: The first years are about the start their first year of grad school. What do you wish someone had told you when you started grad school?
Hilary Hartley: Be ruthless with your class choices (and don’t be afraid to ask alumni/second years for recommendations)! Pick classes based on the skills you think will be marketable when you graduate, even if they don’t sound that great. A SPSS class may not sound awesome now, but will look awesome on a resume. Take the time to go to happy hour/events/talks etc. with your cohort, even if you’ve worked 8 hours and gone to class for 3, GO! That’s not to say I stayed particularly long, but I recommend going. These people are going to be with you for two years, through thick and thin, and are going to be some of the only people that will understand your triumphs and trials, so get to know them!
OID: Any class recommendations or favorite study spots that you want to share with the group?
Hilary Hartley: Anyone who has met me knows that I am a total nerd and LOVE the library stacks. I also recommend the rooms that you can reserve for group projects as a great place to meet.
OID: Hello, Jessica Lorman! Thanks for talking to OID. We like to start out every interview with a little bit about the interviewee. So, tell us why you’re getting your Master’s at GWU, what makes you passionate about development, and what you’re studying?
Jessica Lorman: I’m studying International Development Studies (IDS) with a concentration in Economic Development/Social Enterprise. I became passionate about development, actually, through coursework as an undergrad. Originally, my undergraduate major was Global Studies, then I picked up Business Economics because I thought it might be more “practical.” At the intersection of these two majors, I found myself in my first Economic Development class. I loved it. The economics and businesses classes I had taken, while maybe practical, were a bit dry. Economic Development took all that dry theory and applied it to our fascinating and dynamic world, especially the world that most of us in the US and western countries don’t usually stop to think about. Unfortunately, that wasn’t until my senior year as an undergrad. I always knew I wanted to eventually get my Master’s, so I decided to pursue Economic Development, since I had only gotten a small taste of it as an undergrad.
I am passionate about Development because I think it is an area where I can hope to have a career that is impactful. And the impact I hope for is two-fold. 1. Like many of us in Development, I’d like to be a part of the community of practitioners who aspire to level the playing field of opportunities for those living in developing countries.and 2. I would like to somehow bring those experiences back home to be a more conscious and responsible citizen and consumer in a grossly consumerist culture that takes the rest of our world for granted. I also really love to travel, and Development seemed like a career choice that could allow me to do that!
What are you up to this summer and how difficult was it to find a position abroad?
Jessica Lorman: This summer I am a Program Management Intern for a small NGO in the Dominican Republic, called Community Service Alliance (CSA). So far, it has been a great learning experience, especially to see not only the great work a small, local NGO can do but also to see the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Especially with regards to finding solutions to funding, employee performance, communication, effective coordination, data collection and management, etc. If I ever run my own NGO, or find myself in a management level of an NGO, this experience is showing me some great do’s and don’t’s of working in this field!
My position was (luckily!) not too difficult to find. I was really worried because while I had had coursework, I didn’t really have “field experience.” But, networking was the key! I had a friend who had worked in the Dominican Republic for a partner organization of CSA. She passed my resume on to the contact she had here, who passed my resume on to his program manager, and here I am! It helps that I was willing to be free labor.
OID: You speak Spanish, right? Have your language abilities improved and how is Dominican Spanish different than what you’ve spoken previously?
Jessica Lorman: I do speak Spanish. I learned my Spanish from my study abroad in Spain, but I was intimidated to use it here because that was 5 years ago! I was a little excited, though, when a Dominican here said he could hear a hint of Madrileño (from Madrid) accent in my Spanish! My Spanish is certainly improving, especially my comprehension. Speaking is coming more slowly, but it is getting there.
Dominican Spanish is different primarily in the accent and in some slang vocabulary. I was lucky at the beginning of my internship to be given a pretty comprehensive run-down on Dominican slang. I have misunderstood things like “queso” (cheese) vs. “que es eso” (what is this) more than once because people blur all their words together. But, if I were not an English speaker, I might say the same about how we speak English. Overall, it has been great to be re-immersed in the Spanish language and to gradually become more comfortable using it.
OID: Do you think you will pursue future opportunities and coursework in Latin America as a result of your experiences there?
Jessica Lorman: Yes. I would love to maintain (and hopefully improve) my language skills. Also, I have been able to network while I have been here, so it would be natural to take advantage of that network and continue work in areas of, or related to, Latin America. Finally, having now seen distinct development challenges here first hand, I feel more connected to here than other regions where I may only have expertise though textbooks.
OID: What do you wish was different, either about the organization you work with, or the situations you are seeing on the ground?
Jessica Lorman: Things we talk about when designing development projects, like participation, buy-in, transparency, accountability, governance, management, capacity building, etc are things that need to happen not only in the development projects we implement, but are critical to the workplace as well. A small, community based NGO may be full of smart and passionate people, but a development project will be limited in its success if the workplace itself isn’t also living by these values. It is no secret that small NGOs, at times, struggle with strong management. This could be because those most passionate about the mission are focused on the mission and not on administration and management. It could also be because many donors do not adequately fund administrative costs and so management and administration are financially limited. Either way, it has been fascinating, if at times frustrating, to see some of these challenges unfold, and to be a part of the conversation about how to make effective changes without institutionalizing to the point of abandoning the mission.
On the ground outside of the office, there are many things I’ve seen that I wish were different. The Batey’s (communities of Haitians or mixed Dominican-Haitians that were borne from what is effectively modern day slavery on sugar plantations) give you a glimpse into not only abject poverty and all associated development issues, but also into how difficult it can be to reach the bottom of the pyramid. For example, I visited a Batey in the northern part of the DR where various NGOs had been involved. There was a brightly colored school house and adjoining little garden, a baseball field and recreation area for extracurricular and summer camps, even a little fair trade shop. All of this was obviously the work of NGOs that had come through. However, it seemed to me that all this very visible development work was next to the Batey in an adjacent community, and not in the Batey. I asked the friend of mine who had done previous work at the school and summer camp if these projects were still reaching people living in the Batey, and if maybe it was simply a matter of having the physical land area to build these things slightly away from the Batey. She didn’t know. To me, this was very worrying. Certainly the community next to the Batey was also poor and likely benefits greatly from the development projects. However, I had a bad hunch that these projects were not in fact integrating members from the Batey as much as they probably could. The bottom of the pyramid was perhaps a 5 minute walk down the road, but to the casual observer, still seemed largely left behind. After this visit, I coincidentally met the Executive Director of one of the NGOs that has done work there. I hope to get the chance to ask her if my observations have any basis in truth.
This is just one example of what I have observed in my time here. NGOs here are doing very important work and I commend them. But many things I’m seeing also show me the many challenges and opportunities that my peers and I have as aspiring practitioners.
In the DR, I also wish they recycled, picked up their trash, had a better sense of citizenship and their rights as citizens, and didn’t have an almost 1:1 ratio of number of plastic bags they give you at a grocery store to number of items you buy.
OID: What do you wish was different, either about the organization you work with, or the situations you are seeing on the ground?
Jessica Lorman: Things we talk about when designing development projects, like participation, buy-in, transparency, accountability, governance, management, and capacity building are things that need to happen not only in the development projects we implement, but are critical to the workplace as well. Working in the organization’s main office and liaising with staff and interns at our project sites has allowed me to see how adhering to these principles ourselves is critical and ultimately helps the success of the specific projects we implement. Discussions with my colleagues about best practices and how to best adhere to these values internally and in our projects has been exciting and challenging. It is no secret that small NGOs, at times, struggle with strong operations and management, whether because of resource constraints, time limitations, or other reasons. It has been fascinating, if at times frustrating, to see some of these challenges unfold.
OID: Alejandro, OID probably knows you best as the OID President. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, such as where you come from, why you chose to work in development, and what you are concentrating on in your academic studies?
Alejandro Guzman: I’m from Valencia, Venezuela, but I grew up in Caracas. I lived there until I was about 9, and then moved to the DC area where I lived until just after finishing high school. After that I moved to San Jose, Costa Rica where I went to college and was there for about 5 years. So when asked I will always say I’m Venezuelan, but it is certainly quite a mix.
My move into development has been a pretty gradual process. I was always very interested in international affairs, but somehow decided I wanted to be an Econ major in college. To say the least, that didn’t work out… So eventually made the right move and switched over to International Relations. Parallel to all this academic craziness, after only a few days in Costa Rica I joined the National Fire Corps of Costa Rica, where I served as a volunteer fire fighter, and later, with the National Urban Search and Rescue Team.
This combination of volunteer and academic interests led me to work with International Cooperation Section of the National Emergency Management Agency of Costa Rica, which gave me my first insight into international humanitarian assistance. After an extended deployment for search and rescue operations for the 2009 Cinchona earthquake in Costa Rica, and support operations for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I was sold on humanitarian assistance. Hence, my concentration in IDS is in humanitarian assistance and complex humanitarian emergencies.
OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing?
Alejandro Guzman: I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya, working with the Africa Zone Office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. I will be here until mid-August undertaking a series of assignments with the Disaster Management Unit, and the Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Unit. The primary tasks will be mapping bilateral donor operations with the 49 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and field evaluations of operations in Juba, South Sudan, which has just been recognized as the 189th National Society in the Movement.
OID: How did you get this internship/opportunity? Was it difficult to find a position outside of the US? f I recall correctly, the last time we talked you were going to South Africa. What can you tell us about being flexible in development?
Alejandro Guzman: I think flexible is the perfect word in this case. From my first contact with IFRC to my landing in Nairobi, it was a mere 3 weeks. I started my search pretty late, and many of the possible leads did not come together. Basically, after exhausting all my networking contacts, I just started “cold call” emailing a couple dozen organizations. Amongst those emails, one was directed to the Director of the IFRC Africa Zone. To my surprise he responded within hours, and now I am here. I didn’t make it in time for any of the deadlines for the grant applications, so I had to squeeze a bit more from those student loans to cover a large part of this trip. But already the benefits of this experience are proving to be well worth the investment.
(Editor’s note: if you are thinking about working or interning abroad next summer, try to get started early. The International Internship fellowship deadline for funding is in March, and although GSCD is helpful in aiding with your search, they won’t be able to hand you a position.)
OID: You are one of IDS’ international students. Does this in any way inform your decisions about courses to take and jobs you may apply for? Did it impact your decision to study abroad this summer in any way? Do you have any recommendations (for courses, internships, or time management…whatever you think would be useful!) to the incoming first years?
Alejandro Guzman: Coming to the program with an international background has certainly shaped many of my choices. One of my primary objectives coming into IDS was to break my heavy Latin-America and Caribbean background and focus. So this led to me focusing many of my research efforts on East Africa. I also wanted to expand my knowledge base from disaster response to humanitarian assistance in conflict and complex emergencies. This has certainly influenced many of the classes I have taken. The Elliott School has a limited selection of classes in this field such as Care of Children in Complex Emergencies and Information Technologies for Crisis Response. Luckily the public health school and the Disaster and Emergency Management Program at the engineering school have been able to fill this gap well with classes like Humanitarian Operations, International Disaster Management, Emergency and Crisis Management, Disaster Recovery and Organizational Continuity, among others. Now there are probably no classes (at least that I have found) geared to fill the programmatic gap between humanitarian assistance and long term development. This is where much of my research has been focused. I know this has been the case for some of my fellow classmates also focusing on humanitarian assistance.
So my primary recommendation to incoming students, not just international students, is to be as resourceful as possible to mold the program in order to serve you academic and professional interest. Luckily the program is designed to allow this. So take advantage of the endless courses offered by other schools at GW or elsewhere within the consortium, contact as many organizations in your field of interest as you can, whether it be for internship opportunities or simply for informational interviews just to learn about what they do. Being a student again will grant you endless freedoms to contact and be well received by many organizations, which you may not have once you are back in the “real world” – so take advantage of that.
OID: What do you think will be the best part about this experience or what has been the best thing so far?
Alejandro Guzman: Although we have the amazing opportunity to attend one of the best IA schools in the world, it is very hard to understand how far removed from the realities of the developing world we are until you have the opportunity for true “field” experience. Being here, it has become very clear that no class discussion, no book, nor fancy think tank event can replace the value of experiencing first-hand the challenges of development. D.C. is likely one of the best hubs for professional advancement, but the small bubble you become accustomed to is hard to break.
Last semester I had the opportunity to publish an article on conflict sensitive development in Northern Uganda, yet I had never been to Uganda or even met anyone from Northern Uganda. Then, a few days ago I met a young Red Cross volunteer from the pastoral region of Karamoja (one of the focus regions of my article), and as I shook his hand I couldn’t help but think – “wow, I’ve read about you!” This experience led me to truly understand the value of my time here.
OID: What has been the most challenging part of this experience so far?
Alejandro Guzman: The extensive security and other limitations which delegates (fancy name for expats) must abide by are often quite ridiculous to me. Although many are meant to ensure the security and well-being of those coming from abroad, they very often lead to a deep rooted separation from the realities of the place and the people you are working with. This has likely been the most difficult aspect of my stay here.
OID: How will this experience change the courses you take and the types of jobs you apply for down the road?
Alejandro Guzman: This experience has been crucial in solidifying my commitment to humanitarian assistance as the field I want to be in. It has also been very important in identifying the necessary skill set for this line of work, which will certainly shape the classes I will take to help build this skill set.
It has also been a vital opportunity to build much of the network that will likely be necessary to secure an opportunity in this region once I am done with the program. So, hopefully that will work out.