Unlike many of my Wagner colleagues, I have been in New York all summer – but no less focused on the field of international relief development! I dropped out of the water capstone when I was offered a full-time job at the International Rescue Committee, an organization that works to provide emergency relief and development assistance after a disaster. The IRC is primarily active in post-conflict and post-natural disaster areas, and focuses its efforts on assisting refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
I work from the NY headquarters office, primarily with the South Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar country programs (though all the others to some extent as well), and do work related to the logistics and operations of these complex country programs.
My main project at the moment is the new logistics manual that will be used by staff on the ground in each of our 28 country programs. Much of this involves turning the complex processes required by U.S. government and donor regulations into a manual that will actually be used and read, and be a helpful tool enabling field staff to carry out the basic operations and logistics of their humanitarian work efficiently and transparently!
Although the topic can be dry at times, this has been one of my favorite projects in the last few months, and it’s actually been surprisingly interesting learning the intricate inner workings of an organization as amazing as the International Rescue Committee. The IRC is highly regarded as a reputable, transparent, well-run organization, one that uses donor funds efficiently and carries out truly groundbreaking work, so I’m enjoying being a part of this in whatever small ways I can!
As we enter the final month of summer, IPSA has three Summer Book Club events in the next three weeks. Please see details below, and we hope to see you there!
IPSA Summer Book Club: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
When: Tuesday, August 4, 5:30 pm
Where: Lafayette Conference Room, Puck Building, 295 Lafayette St
About: “A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years—from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to the post-Taliban rebuilding—that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms. It is a tale of two generations of characters brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war, where personal lives—the struggle to survive, raise a family, find happiness—are inextricable from the history playing out around them.”
IPSA Summer Book Club: Persepolis
When: Wednesday, August 12, evening (exact time TBD)
Where: Manhattan, exact location TBD
About: “Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi that looks at her life as a child of the ’79 revolution, a teenager of the Iran-Iraq War, and an adult of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Satrapi’s wit is able to produce the perfect equilibrium between the horrors and the humors of growing up in Iran’s turbulent 70s and 80s, and the emotional turmoil Iranians, both within Iran as well as its expatriates, feel to this day. Using this a foundation, I hope that this reading group will be able to place a historical perspective to the 2009 election fallout, and Iran’s potential for the future.”
IPSA Summer Book Club: An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski
When: Tuesday, August 18, 7:00 pm
Where: Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 837 Union St at 7th Ave
About: “An Imperfect Offering is a deeply personal, deeply political book. With unstinting candor, Orbinski explores the nature of humanitarian action in the twenty-first century, and asserts the fundamental imperative of seeing as human those whose political systems have most brutally failed. He insists that in responding to the suffering of others, we must never lose sight of the dignity of those being helped or deny them the right to act as agents in their own lives. He takes readers on a journey to some of the darkest places of our history but finds there unimaginable acts of courage and empathy. Here he is doctor as witness, recording voices that must be heard around the world; calling on others to meet their responsibility.”
Co-sponsored by Global Health Alliance and Wagner Health Network (WHN).
On July 1, the IPSA book club met to discuss Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson at the bar Swift, a few blocks from the Puck building. The meeting was a success! There were seven people at the meeting – 3 current students, 2 new students, and 2 friends of an IPSA member.
The group discussed how impressed we all were with the extreme dedication Mortenson showed to his mission of building schools in rural Pakistan and later rural Afghanistan. He spent years of his life working with the local people, for very little money, often putting himself in danger. We discussed how we felt his made a different in empowering rural communities, particularly because aside from helping with the building, the school’s were run by the local people without an American influence. We agreed that work like Mortenson’s, by offering an alternative, can prevent poor people from turning to terrorism. However, we did note that the leaders of terrorist organizations often have high levels of education. We also talked about how Mortenson could have benefited from some organizational management and help with his finances and fundraising operations. He was luckily able to succeed, but his organization was constantly on the brink of financial ruin in its beginning days.
In the end, we were all amazed at the power one individual can have to change so many peoples lives and have such a positive impact.
It’s been a while since my first post and in that time a lot has happened. As reminder, my capstone team is working for GAIN – the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. We started work in Delhi on July 13, though I took my time coming to India making stops in England and Bombay to visit family and friends. Delhi – hot, humid, and dull, Delhi – was made all the more bearable upon meeting our capstone clients finally and realizing just how lucky wer are. The entire GAIN-India staff is extremely generous, hospitable, and supportive. I don’t want to jinx us, but I really think we’re a very lucky capstone team based on the stories I’ve heard from previous years.
We spent less than a week in Delhi and then hit the road to visit several locations in India where GAIN’s partner – Naandi – operates kitchens providing nutrient-fortified meals to students at government schools through India’s mandated Midday Meals Program. (Or, “Middy Meals” as was posted on one government official’s office door.) I should mention that during our time in Delhi, one thing that made me appreciate our client all the more was their willingness to allow us to format the scope of our work with a great deal of freedom. Most importantly, we were able to opt for only one case study, dropping the research related to universal salt iodization. Although that topic seemed immensely interesting and one which could have had a great deal of policy impact, we didn’t feel that we could do justice to both it and the Midday Meal review. In the end, we opted for MDM since it was a more clearly defined assignment and would allow for more field study.
Since leaving Delhi, we’ve been to Udaipur, Rajasthan, and its environs; Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and are now in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Having been to India, it’s been wonderful revisiting some old stomping grounds like H’bad, but also great going to new places like Bhopal and Vizag. This amount of travel is just one more way that we’re being spoiled by our experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all a cake walk for us. Our days are starting at 3:40/4am regularly so that we can arrive at the central kitchens early enough to see the lunches being prepared and the the delivery trucks heading out on their routes. We spend some time in each kitchen speaking with the managers, route coordinators and staff (cooks, cleaners, drivers, et al, as possible). Then we head off to see some of the schools receiving their meals with time to speak with headmasters, teachers, and students. Before and after lunch, we go for meetings with government officials and end the day with debriefings, typing up notes, and prep for the next day. If we’re lucky, we get two nights in one place before flying/training off to the next site.
Overall, my impression has been one of amazement. Amazement at how much India has changed since 2003/2004 when I was here for study abroad and amazement at the work that Naandi is doing. Everywhere I turn there are western or western-style stores. Each city seems to have a brand new airport that puts JFK to shame (not that that is so hard to do). Even though I spent 6 months in Hyderabad, I could hardly recognize the place given all of the new construction. When I first came to India, it was easy to miss the US and understand why those who wanted a better chance in the world to send their children to the States for school or work. Now, though, India has become a much more appealing place to live, at least for those who are upwardly mobile and have the option to attend school.
Naandi. What Naandi does with a staff of five and on a shoestring budget would put any fat American NGO to shame. Providing nutritious meals to children for whom it is often the only meal of the day, in four states, in different languages, with different tastes. All while combatting local prejudices, political tensions and Indian bureaucracy. I can’t help but want to drop out of Wagner and stay on full-time to help out. I don’t think I’ll be that rash quite yet. At least not until I take a look at my fall semester reading list. But, honestly, Naandi, and in particular, the Naandi Midday Meal Director Leena Joseph, are inspiring. Being here and participating in work like this is a strong confirmation that Wagner is the right place to be and that international public service is the right field to be in.
I have forgotten to mention that we share our house with some of the area’s long-term residents. All sorts of bugs and even some reptiles enjoy romping around. Of particular abundance are the ants. Not just in our room, but throughout the entire compound. We have seen ant colonies that are taller than us and everywhere you go you can observe an endless line of ants working to keep their community going. It is also common to see a bunch of these little guys going at a scarab or similarly large insect and we regularly try to save the big guys. Of course, walk back a half hour later and you may see remnants of a shell, if you see anything at all.
On Saturday evening, we went to Berhampur (the closest main town) and took in the sights, sounds, and food. It basically involved avoiding muck from open gutters, buying seriously needed snacks, drinking something cold, buying some alcoholic beverages, and eating Chinese food. It was a good break from our daily routine but the town itself was nothing to be excited about and it was difficult to see how people were living there.
As we were leaving the city by Gram Vikas shuttle, we headed down a narrow road, made worse by the excess of abutting huts. It was really an experience: our large bus pushing past within 6 inches of these slum dwellers’ home entrances. As we passed on particular dwelling, a baby was standing outside screaming and crying for what appeared to be her mother and grandmother. They were on the opposite side of the road, cleaning their bowls in roadside muddy puddle water probably contaminated with all the traffic going by. Once that was done, the elderly woman walked a few feet behind a bush and started relieving herself.
India is a country which spans the entire spectrum of hope and cannot yet find the strength to work for the collective good. The ants around here have figured it out, hopefully the rest of us can too.
P.S. – for more updates, you can follow along with me at http://niluam.wordpress.com
So here’s our comedy movie moment of the week:
Our Capstone team is working in rural East India on water with a local NGO. We have been cooped up on the NGO’s main campus/compound for roughly a week now. We have not even stepped foot beyond the entrance gate, and we are all starting to get a little stir crazy. We have been reading a lot of papers and checking our emails a lot,yet aren’t we working on Capstone in the summer to actually go to the field? But a day anywhere off of the campus would be a blessing.
We were given hope at the beginning of the week of leaving GV for a few hours, on Saturday night. Bus leaves the campus at 4pm to go to Berhampur, and returns by 9:30pm. FOUR HOURS OF FREEDOM! That meant different meals (which was very important for most of us, because the slightly bland Indian meals with rice and daal were starting to become a chore), REAL FOOD (we could buy coconuts, and mangoes! and other joyous things!), walking around in newer areas, and the potential of purchasing some cheap bangles and sandals!
We began the countdown to Berhampur a while ago.
It started with just ideas of eating Chinese food. Then pizza. Then mangoes, and bananas, and coconuts. Then we could go shopping! And so it became a daily game of imagining what this marvelous, elusive Berhampur would bring us. We even planned our trip around our tastings. We talked about trying to get one meal in every hour while in Berhampur, just so that we could revel in the diversity of foods we’d find.
Every meal, every break, we talked about, "Just two more days until Berhampur!"
So last night, we were walking to the mess hall and ran into the founder & Executive Director, Joe. (Very sweet guy, very lovely, and he rides a bike everywhere. He is the leader of this grand pack, in every possible meaning of the term. He’s kind of like a swami or royalty. He is the man of this post’s image.) And we chit chatted for a little while about how our project was going, how the heat was, about the snakes and scorpions on the compound, and so on.
We said goodbye, and the team started jovially trotting again towards the mess hall, with relieved thoughts of Berhampur in our strides. Yet right away, Joe turns around on his bike and says, "Oh, before I forget, you are all invited to my house tomorrow night for supper."
A quick note before I continue: Awkward silences. They seem to be the standard conversational garnish in all of our interactions with Indian locals, particularly with GV staff members. I can’t tell if it’s language barriers, cultural differences, or what, but there it is.
And so, after the whole teams’ hearts stopped while Joe invited us to dinner, and there were no words to use, we experienced yet another awkward silence. Only this time, it was a silence brought on by mixed emotions and internal screaming, not just the standard awkward sincerity that we usually have in our talks.
We all eked out some, "Yeah, sure, great, thank you…" remarks.
Joe looked at us, and with an awkward "Ok…." biked away from us. We panicked after his leaving, worried that our week-long dream of Saturday’s ice cold drinks and different foods had come crashing down. What are we going to do?! All of our talk of Berhampur for nothing?! Both honored at the privilege of dinner with Joe & heartache from the idea that we were still stuck on campus, we brainstormed what was the best way to go about the situation. And so, we decided to eat 3 dinners today (Saturday): 2 in Berhampur, and 1 after coming back at Joe’s house.
A few minutes ago, Joe’s wife came to us and offered dinner tomorrow instead of today, so that we could paint Berhampur red tonight. The news couldn’t have come in any better form.
We arrived in Cape Town on July 7th for a month-long study on community health in South Africa. After a few days of classes and site visits to various health and treatment centers in the surrounding townships, I began observing at Sonke, an organization which works to strengthen government, civil society, and citizen capacity to support men and boys to take action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence and reduce the spread of impact of HIV/AIDS. Sonke uses a broad range of social change strategies including working with government to promote the development of new policies, advocacy, activism, and community mobilization to ensure deliverance from government, strengthening organization capacity among partner organizations, using communications and digital stories, community education, and research. Main sponsors include USAID, PEPFAR, UNICEF, and University of California. This is particularly relevant as South Africa has the highest incidence of rap
e in the world, domestic abuse is rampant, and women have little value associated with them; behaviors which developed from a variety of historical, cultural, and economic circumstances.
In the township of Khayelitsha, which is the second largest township in South Africa (nearly 1 million residents), I observed Sonke’s One Man Can Campaign, which focuses on community education including workshops, community events, murals, door-to-door campaigns, street soccer festivals etc. I attended several community hospitals, where Sonke’s representative (who was a local man of about 30 years old) used the waiting room filled with approx. 75 patients, as a platform for disseminating sexual health information and gender sensitivity, talking about current events (such as an ongoing rape trial), providing information on health resources, and then attempting to create a dialogue within the waiting room. They partnered with another NGO, Treatment Action Campaign, who informed those waiting on HIV and treatment options. This was important because the link between sexual violence and HIV is not well understood. Although women were more vocal then men, both used the time to sha
re opinions and fears, ask definitional questions of rape, and voice anger/concerns; since forums like this are not often available, the participants were happy to have this opportunity and thanked “Sonke” as we left. The hospital has become more than a place of treatment, but a place to become educated and participate in dialogue; a town hall meeting feeling. We also attended a men’s clinic, which was housed in a trailer about fifty feet away from the hospital, which gives information on men’s health, trains on gender sensitivity, testing, treatment, and counseling. The room was filled with men of all ages, actively asking questions and engaging in discussion. The counselors and nurses were from surrounding townships and were excellent and passionate teachers. The greatest part of the experience so far is understanding that people really want information, particularly on health, and are seeking it out wherever they can; unfortunately the places to find these resources are often far from their homes and expensive to reach.
More on Sonke and other orgs soon to come!
July 10, 2009
Here in Meheba Refugee Settlement FORGE employess about 30 people to manage and coordinate our various projects. While FORGE sends new project managers every year–and the occaisonal consultant like me–the regular employees provide all our institutional knowledge and really run the day-to-day operations. In addition to our employees, there are a number of refugees in Meheba who have adopted FORGE into their extended families and look out for us mzungus to make sure we’re ok. There’s Minos, the bike repair man who can build a reliable mountain bike from spare parts; “The General,” the Don Corleone of Block G who operates daily transport to and from Solwezi and knows everything that’s happening in his community; Boas, the bartender who sells no alcohol (a good thing) but always has cold sodas; and the spiritual leaders: Isaac (the imam at the local mosque) and Boniface (the pastor at the largest church in Meheba). Then there is Bridget.
Bridget is Boniface’s wife and she is an expert tailor. All you need is to show her a picture of a dress and provide the fabric and she can pretty much do anything on a hand-cranked sewing machine. She is also the type of woman that every community needs: welcoming, friendly, motherly, and all-around nice. Whenever I am in her area I always try to stop by her house for some gossip.
We learned today that her father had passed away yesterday. Because he still lives in Eastern Congo there was no hope of Bridget or her children attending his funeral so a grieving ceremony began at her house. In Meheba, mourning lasts for 3 days during which friends and family gather at the home and provide support. At Bridget and Boniface’s this meant wall to wall people sleeping in their home and a large gathering sitting outside under tents. The family is expected to provide food and coffee for all the mourners. Those of us at FORGE provided some food and spent about 3 hours at the house today.
I haven’t known Bridget too long, but in a short time she has become a good friend and it’s been hard on all of us at FORGE too. I never know what to say when someone has lost a loved one, but I like the Meheba way of mourning. Sometimes all that’s needed is a hand to hold and some solidarity.