Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Your role in international development

This week's readings shined a light on the big, scary, question surrounding all of our service projects: do international development efforts even work? The Gates Foundation argues that, yes, international aid projects have contributed to an unprecedented rise in the global standard of living. And the article by Hobbes suggested that it works, but only on small-scale, highly individualized projects.

Both of these articles made me feel much more confident about my research's potential to help the community. My project will be tailored to the specific region, so it will not have the issues of being a duplicate project from an unrelated part of the world. And if countries like Bolivia are already open to and creating growth, then my project can give another push to the already-spinning gears of progress.

But despite these positives, international development comes with many responsibilities. The Gate's Foundation essay explained what is probably the biggest of these obligations, and that is to ensure that the community is at the center of the planning and execution of the project:

"Are the recipient countries in charge of figuring out where health clinics should be built and training the workers? Are donors helping local teams build up the expertise they need to put the Western experts out of business? Are the best performers sharing the lessons they’ve learned so other countries can follow suit? This has been a big area of learning for the foundation."

If you follow this type of thinking, a lot of the other responsibilities will essentially just fall into place. But there are a few other responsibilities that I want to highlight.

First, I think a huge responsibility is to realize that your service work is often, metaphorically, curing the symptoms and not the illness. My research project on how to address microenterprise issues in Cochabamba will hopefully help a few business owners have more income for their families. However, this does nothing to alleviate the greater socioeconomic and macroeconomic issues that caused these business owners to be of low-income in the first place. These greater changes can only come from policy initiatives from the domestic government. In the meantime its fine to provide services to address some of the issues, but I think at the same time, international development workers must look to see what the bigger reason is for the existence of the problem they are addressing.

Piggy-backing from that, the next key responsibility is to make an impact in a way that progresses policy changes. This can be done in many ways, ranging from encouraging locals to vote for pro-business laws to the volunteer writing to their state senator to end trade-distorting farm subsidies.The volunteer must try to make the service expand from just addressing symptoms to addressing broader issues.

Finally, this brings us to the international participant's responsibilities after returning home. The chief responsibilities once you've returned is to spread the knowledge you have acquired. Your experiences in country have so much value for dispelling myths about international service and xenophobia in general. And when you discuss what you have learned, it is important to tell the narrative in a way that emphasizes community involvement and eliminates the misconceptions of PlayPump-esque failures. If we change the narrative of international service, global volunteerism will hopefully follow and evolve so that all participants become responsible partners who truly empower the community and think sustainably.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ethical service engagement

The readings this week synthesized many of the service ethics concepts we have been discussing throughout the semester. It was a nice refresher to see concepts from our class room discussions, FSD training, and online readings come together in a cohesive research paper (Reisch) and list of standards (Hartman). The supplemental case study I chose was the University of British Colombia project in Ghana, and it was easy to see how the service ethics concepts from the theoretical pieces directly applied in the field. Here is a summary of three overarching principles I saw in all of the readings.


Sustainability is not a new topic to our class. It has been one of the most central ideas in our understanding of community based learning from day one. However, the extent to which sustainability is fragile was really hit home by the readings this week. The paper by Reisch really made me think about how many different ways service could be unsustainable. One example was health volunteers teaching local health professionals how to perform a certain procedure or check up. Even if the local professionals learn the procedure, if the local patients feel that the foreign volunteer performed the procedure better, they would lose trust in the local doctors and not want to come back for the procedure. This made me realize just how complicated sustainable service could be. Simply laying down the foundation for the transfer of skills isn't enough; volunteers must also make sure to not act superior or more qualified than the local professionals in order to send the message that the skills they are teaching can actually be carried out after they leave. Sustainability is clearly very complicated and could be a much more difficult part of my trip that I had anticipated. The Hartman paper suggests that the best way to ensure sustainability is to consistently send volunteers each year to continue the project. Unfortunately, the nature of Loewenstern makes this type of continuity difficult because each student's project is distinct year to year. However, the case study of the UCB presented alternate ways to sustainability. Although the UCB program does consistently send volunteers each year, the annual projects themselves are well received and sustainable. In the scenario with book making, I thought they did a very good job of making sure the project would continue on in the community. Their book making activity taught the local teachers so much that the teachers themselves requested a workshop to learn more about how to create these books. The community actively taking an interest in learning more is the strongest sign that the project will be continued long after UCB leaves. In terms of my project, if I can find a way to generate curiosity in my research topic among the people at the research center, hopefully the community will want to continue my work after I leave. Combined with leaving consistent records and maintaining transparency in my research methods, I believe my project could easily become sustainable for the long term.

Community centered standards

Community centered standards go hand-in-hand with sustainability. As mentioned above with UCB in Ghana, a large part of what made the book making project sustainable was that the community wanted to do it. However, community based standards go far beyond simply making sure that a project is what the community actually wants and needs. The Hartman piece listed a lot of elements that I had never thought about such as community preparation, timing, and even group size. For example, if you're planning a project, even if the community leaders have expressed that they want this type of project, you must still put in a lot of effort and preparation to debriefing the community members of what exactly is coming. You must remember that you are a visitor and cant just surprise the community with something you have planned. Even the size of the group of volunteers must be clearly communicated to the community. If the organization only has the facilities to host a few people, bringing more could create a crowd in the building and interfere with the day-to-day happenings of the community center. These communications can be hard, especially considering the power imbalance issues discussed in the Reisch and Hartman pieces. Volunteers coming from abroad from a large institution like a university can be intimidating, and it is easy for a power imbalance to take hold where the community members views and needs fall to the back burner. Therefore it is the responsibility of the volunteer to initiate this communication and keep the project community centered. For my project, this will be something critical to remember. I dislike discussing a project in its incomplete stages and much prefer to just reveal the final product once is it finished. This type of thinking is not possible in a community centered project, and I will have to remember to communicate every step of my research with my community partner.

Pre-trip preparation and classes

Something that was different in these readings compared to what we have read before was the importance of pre-trip preparation. The Loewenstern program has a required pretrip class where we learn about service and community, so preparation on those conceptual bases are covered. However, reading the case study and theoretical pieces reminded me that service projects also require a lot of preparation directly related to the project. So far I have had little communication in direct regard to my project, and I have had no communication with the community partner through which I will be researching.  Up until now the general message I received from the readings was that it was okay to go into your trip not knowing what your project will be and then solidifying the goals once you are in country. However, this week's readings were far from that. For example, in the Ghana case study, the UCB had been communicating with the community over several years and had a strong relationship and understanding and set of goals already in place. There is no question that this was a huge reason for the project's success. Now I feel like I need to be more proactive in getting in contact with my community partner since my departure day is less than two months away! I will contact my service provider soon and try to get in contact with my research organization so I can get an idea of what they're already working on and how I can build upon on what they have in place.

The readings this week were very help and I especially enjoyed the case study. I hope to find more case studies of research based projects because those will be helpful in advising my own research methods. These three concepts on research ethics really got me thinking about challenges in service, and I am glad to have had the chance to consider these points before departing on my trip. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Independent study paper

This summer I will conduct civic research through Foundation for Sustainable Development in Cochabamba, Bolivia for nine weeks. In Bolivia, I will work with CADEPIA (Chamber of Small Business and Artisanship) to study microenterprise development in the area. I will work in the organization’s Marketing Program, which aims to find new markets for clients’ products, negotiate with wholesale buyers, and assist with exportation. Part of my project will be conducting a market analysis to provide local entrepreneurs with information necessary for starting successful businesses. I am excited to fully develop my research objectives once I arrive in Cochabamba. In this post, I will go more in depth about my research in Bolivia this summer. 

Background & Analysis
Country Specific
While in recent years Bolivia has been one of the fastest growing countries in South America, it has historically been a country plagued with many difficulties, economic and political. Bolivia’s per capita GDP, $4900, is the lowest in South America, and there is a huge wealth disparity between the rich and poor of the country. I hope to design my microenterprise research to analyze this disparity more closely.
Bolivia’s current president is Evo Morales, and he has served in this position for over 10 years. The country has traditionally been known for short-term presidencies, coups, and political unrest, so the stability of the Morales regime is a welcome change. Morales is also distinct because he is the first Bolivian president of native descent. Bolivia has the highest population of native peoples in South America, so the election of Morales is a victory for these people who have traditionally been oppressed and underrepresented in government. In Cochabamba, the region in which I will be working, the majority population is native. Therefore it will be important for me to understand these social and class dynamics before conducting my research.
            One of the most prominent events in Bolivian history is the “Water Wars” of 2001. The “Water Wars” happened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when an American firm privatized the water industry and caused water prices to surge. Citizens took to the streets in opposition, starting the largest protests in Bolivian history. The protesters were angry not just because of the high prices, but also because of the foreign domination that this event symbolized. The American company eventually left, and water prices returned to regular rates. However, the suspicion against foreign influence still remains. This sentiment is something I will have to be cognizant and cautious of during my service.
In modern times, the most significant development in Bolivia is the growth of its natural gas industry. Export revenues from natural gas have pushed Bolivia into having the fastest growing GDP in South America. However, Bolivia still struggles from a lack of sufficient infrastructure to fully grow its gas industry. The country is currently dependent on foreign investment to fund this crucial infrastructure. Additionally, because the price of oil and gas fluctuate so widely, a gas-dependent economy is somewhat controversial and creates political heat for Morales. While Cochabamba isn’t too involved in Bolivia’s gas industry, I hope to address in my research if the growth in export revenues has in any way improved the lives of the people of Cochabamba.
Issue Specific
The issue that my research will explore is microenterprise development. Microenterprises, “mom and pop” businesses of ten or fewer employees, are huge in Cochabamba. In 2001, over half of economically active Cochalas worked for microenterprises. Fencing production is an example of common microenterprise in the region; the province has over 22,000 fencing businesses.
Microenterprises are prominent stepping stones for low-income people in Latin America to generate stable income and savings. Therefore their successful development is crucial in regional economic development for places such as Cochabamba. A common impediment to starting a microenterprise is a lack of funds to cover the startup costs. Bolivia, however, has been ranked top five in the world for expanding access to financial services (such as loans) for underserved populations. This makes the path to microenterprise development much more accessible in Cochabamba. Despite these positive assets to the microenterprise sector of Cochabamba, there are several aspects of these industries that could be approved upon.
One category in which the industry is lacking is the preparation of business owners for developing microenterprises. Studies have shown that micro entrepreneurs often lack access to services such as marketing, training in formal business skills, and technology transfer. Increasing accessibility to programs that teach these skills could be a way to improve the livelihoods of Cochabambans. A potential research project in relation to this category would be to study if there was a demand for these types of programs, and if so, how best to make these programs accessible.
Other impediments to microenterprises are more institutional. This is when local policies or institutions create complications for starting businesses. For example, despite Bolivia’s growing access, less than 5 percent of Latin American microentrpreneurs have access to formal financial services such as banks to make deposits. Furthermore, business regulations, tax regimes, and licensing requirements can make it even more difficult for microentrpreneurs to expand and develop their businesses. Research in this category would be more policy related and address what legislation could be created to make financial conditions in Cochabamba more conducive to microenterprise growth.
Microenterprises can also faces struggles that are more market based. For example, researchers studying a village in India found that a common problem microenterprises there faced was a “heavy reliance on local markets for procuring inputs and selling outputs.” This made products less competitive and generated less-than-optimal revenues for business. I could conduct a similar study in Cochabamba and analyze what market-related factors keep microentrpreneurs from reaching profit maximizing revenues or outputs.
Evidently, there are several different approaches to analyzing microenterprises. Choosing which of these categories to carry out my research will be difficult, but the organization I will be working for, CADEPIA, will be a huge help in making my decision. .
Breaking News
Country Specific
Currently, the biggest breaking news item in Bolivia is the collapse of a bridge connecting Cochabamba to Santa Cruz. The bridge passed over a small river whose currents were especially strong due to heavy rains and flooding. The force of the currents caused the supporting pillars of the bridge to break, leading to the collapse of the whole bridge. A bus was driving on the bridge when it collapsed, but firefighters were able to rescue all the passengers who fell into the water below. Locals claim that the bridge collapsed due to poor maintenance from the government.
            This story exemplifies the country’s significant and wide-spread infrastructure problems. Bolivia is known for dangerous roads and bridges, and travel within the country can be very unsafe. Even though the government recently commissioned the construction of several new highways connecting major cities, little has been done to repair existing roads and bridges. Infrastructure is also an issue when it comes to building pipelines and facilities for the country’s growing oil and gas industries. For both safety and economic reasons, Bolivia greatly needs new infrastrucutre.
            Another prominent story in the news is that Bolivia has started negotiations with Uruguay to gain access to one of its ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Bolivia wants this port through to lower its dependence on Chile, the only country through which it currently has ocean access. Having this additional port would allow Bolivia to export more goods. Uruguay and Bolivia do not, however, share a border, so in order to get its goods to the port, Bolivia would have to cross through part of Argentina, Brazil, or Paraguay. Bolivia used to have its own coastline before losing it to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1883. Bolivia and Chile today have a contract that gives Bolivia special access to certain ports, but Bolivia claims that Chile repeatedly violates its contract and does not provide fair use.
            Bolivia’s attempt to gain this additional port reflects the overarching national priority of reducing dependence on foreign countries. A trend of the Morales’ presidency has been forging new relations with world leaders to diversify Bolivia’s interests and reduce monopolized influences of the past. By having two ports instead of one, Chile no longer has sole power over Bolivia’s export industry. These events are huge leaps forward for Bolivia, a country that has traditionally been exploited by foreign powers.
Issue Specific
A significant current event related to the economy is Bolivia’s recent agreement with the United States to support the efforts of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency. In 2008, Morales broke relations with the DEA in an effort to win votes from constituents in the coca-growing parts of the country. This resulted in Bolivia losing preferential trade status and lead to a reduction in exports to the United States. Today, however, Morales has consolidated his power, so he no longer needs to support coca to win votes. Therefore he can now work with the DEA to reduce cocaine production and gain the benefits of being a preferential trade partner.
            This development with the DEA is significant to microenterprise development because microenterprises are a prominent alternative employment for those who leave the cocaine industry. Therefore the decrease in the production of coca would mean a surge in microenterprise development. Furthermore, increased exports to the United States could potentially stimulate demand for goods produced by local business. Improved relations with the United States could also lead to more foreign investment that would bring infrastructure improvements that local businesses could use to transport inputs and outputs. Bolivia working with the DEA is a positive advancement for local small businesses.
             Another economically related piece of breaking news is that the COB, Bolivia’s workers union, have gathered to demand rights for workers in various Bolivian industries. The COB said that they would like to meet with Morales, and they came with a list of demands including a raise in minimum wage. They also inquired about the creation of a “Social Commission” which was promised to them during their last meeting. The commission would be responsible for monitoring workers’ access to health, education, and other benefits.
            Workers’ rights are significant to microenterprise development for several reasons. First, if workers have lower wages, they will have less disposable income to spend on goods produced by microenterprises. Second, if wages in the industrial sector fall below a certain level, people will begin to leave the industrial sector and turn to microenterprise to make a living. Both these trends would create an interesting dynamic for microenterprise in Cochabamba, so the progress of the workers’ rights movement is something that should be closely monitored.
Local Faculty/Community Connection
I spoke with Dr. Eric O. Fisher, guest lecturer in the economics department, about my project in Cochabamba. Although he didn’t know very much about Bolivia itself, he spent a year in the Peace Corps in Morocco so he knows a lot about foreign service. Additionally, he teaches a class on international trade, so he has a lot of insight into international and developmental economics.
            The first thing Dr. Fisher told me was some advice on service ethics. He told me that the people of Cochabamba are going to teach me a lot more than I will teach them. This is a very important point to remember during a research project. Research attempts to gather and analyze knowledge, but it easy to overlook the local knowledge and non-traditional sources of knowledge when you are in the field. Dr. Fisher also gave me advice on the economics side of the project. He gave me several ideas on potential research questions based on studies done in places like India. He ran me through a few hypothetical situations and got me to start thinking about what it will be like to actually be researching in-country. He also pointed me toward a few textbooks on microfinance and books on Bolivia. It will be easy to integrate this information from Dr. Fisher into my project, and talking with him really helped me start planning my research project.
            The community organization I spoke with is MoneyThink, a national organization whose aim is to increase personal finance and financial literacy skills in low income students. MoneyThink goes into schools and gives lectures and workshops to help kids think about personal finance and making budgets for when they get their first jobs and paychecks.  While the research I will be doing in Cochabamba isn’t about personal finance, the work that MoneyThink does is the closest equivalent project in the United States. Starting small businesses is a very different process in the United States, and most people who do so have formal training in business or easy access to information on how to run a business. Conversely, many students in the United States have lack knowledge of personal finance, so MoneyThink is a good alternative way to continue my service.
The Houston branch of MoneyThink is led by a Rice University student, and he told me there were a lot of ways to get involved such as being a student mentor. Mentors go into schools and do activities with the kids such as budgeting and talking about savings. After coming back from Cochabamba I could become a student mentor and continue to combine service and economics in a way that is relevant to the United States.
I wanted to do civic research in Bolivia because I’ve always been interested in developmental economics and international service. I was born in Sri Lanka and I lived there for six years, and whenever I go back to visit I am always interested in seeing how businesses there develop and how these business contribute to quality of life. I wanted to explore this topic more in the frame of Bolivia. I chose Bolivia because it’s a beautiful country and I thought it would be a great place to solidify my Spanish skills. My friends who are Bolivian or who have lived in Bolivia told me that it is an absolutely wonderful place and that I would really enjoy living there for the summer.
Some questions that I was not able to address in this paper are more data and statistically related. Information on specific figures about the economy and industry in Cochabamba are difficult to find, but it would be nice to have more exact figures before jumping into the research. CADEPIA, the organization I will be working for, probably has some solid numbers in their records that I can access once I am in-country.
Some further topics I would like to explore in Cochabamba are the recent fracking and anti-fracking movements in Bolivia. The country’s oil and gas supplies are getting low, so some want to turn to shale fracking to access more resources. However, there is a fast growing opposition movement, especially from indigenous people and environmentalists. I hope to learn more about these sentiments while I’m in Cochabamba, but I think these energy policies are beyond the scope of my research. I would also like to look more into the macroeconomic health of Bolivia  such as its currency, inflation, and GDP growth. Its recent economic success could make it a very educational case study. I’m sure these macroeconomic elements will come into play during my project and I will have plenty of opportunities to research and discuss them.

(2014, November 6). Five Latin American Countries among Top Ten with Best Environment for Financial Inclusion. Inter-American Development Bank. Retrieved from http://www.iadb.org/en/news/news-releases/2014-11-06/global-microscope-2014-environment-financial-inclusion,10975.html.
(2011). Leasing the Rain. PBS Frontline World. Retrieve from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/bolivia/thestory.html.
(2011). Economy. FEICOBOL: Fundacion para la Feria International de Cochabamba. Retrieved from http://www.feicobol.com.bo/economy.
Rodriquez-Garcia, Rosalia. (2001). Microenterprise Development for Better Health Outcomes. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books.
Sirinivas, Hari. (n.d.). What is a Microenterprise? Global Development Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.gdrc.org/icm/micro/what-is.html
Kingman, Chrstina and Carol Newman. (2015, January). Social capital, political connections, and household enterprises. World Institute for Development Economics Research. Retrieved from ISSN 1798-7237.

Smith, Isaac H. and Kristina Seawright. (2014, Novemeber 6). Social Innovation Through Development Franchising: Compensating for a Lack of Entrepreneurial Expertise and Connecting to Formal Supply Chains. The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation, 49-52. Retrieved from ISBN 978-3-319-04050-9.
Tobar Pesantez, Luis. (2015). Competitive Analysis of Small and Medium Enterprises in Ecuador. Revista International Administración & Finanzas, 8 (3), 79-92. Abstract retrieved from ISSN 2157-3182.
(2015, February 15). U.S., Bolivia: The Pieces Are in Place for Improved Relations. Statfor Global Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/us-bolivia-pieces-are-place-improved-relations.
(2015, February 28). Floods bring bride down in Bolivia. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/bolivia/11441947/Floods-bring-bridge-down-in-Bolivia.html.
(2015, February 26). Uruguay Signs Deal with Bolivia Granting It Access to the Sea. TeleSUR. Retrieved from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Uruguay-Signs-Deal-with-Bolivia-Granting-It-Access-to-the-Sea-20150226-0014.html.
Rocha, Jose. (2015, February 25.) COB quiere reunión directa con el Presidente. Los Tiempos. http://www.lostiempos.com/diario/actualidad/economia/20150225/cob-quiere-reunion-directa-con-el-presidente_292402_645102.html.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

SMART goals

The three main "SMART" goals I want to achieve for Loewenstern revolve around the same thing: asking questions. Asking questions applies to my pre-service goals, in-country research goals, and my language and culture goals. Asking questions is hard for me because it requires being vulnerable and letting people know that I don't understand something. But because I'm going to a country I've never been to and doing a project I've never done before, its pretty obvious that there's going to be a lot of things that I don't understand. So in order to actually conduct a successful research project and be a respectful and courteous outsider, I have to make it a goal and force myself to ask questions. Here's how asking questions fits into each one of my SMART goals.

Pre-service: ask professors, ask books, ask the community
Because the Loewenstern I'm doing is community research, there is a lot of pre-trip reading and learning I have to do before hand. It is essentially the literature review part of the research process before I go into the community and figure out a research question. But I have never conducted an independent research project before so I need to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. I've already begun talking to some professors, and they have been extremely helpful in recommending books and articles to read. My pre-trip SMART goal is to keep this process going.
  • Specific: My specific goal is to meet with at least two professors to formally go over my research plans and get their advice on community based research- despite its differences from purely academic research. 
  • Maintainable: This goal is maintainable for the next few months that I'm on campus because I will be surrounded by professors.
  • Attainable: There are several economics professors who I know well, so it is definitely possible for me to meet with them.
  • Relevant: My project will be researching microfinance, so having the input from economics professors will be very relevant to what I will be working on.  
  • Timely: I have about two months until the semester ends, so that is a strict deadline.
In-country: ask the community, ask the organization
FSD's research program is relatively new, so when I get to Bolivia, the organization I'll be working for could have some gray area for what exactly they want me to do. While the community assets will determine the project, I will still need to make decisions on how the project is carried out and what tools and methods I can use. So I will have to keep checking in with the organization to make sure that we are on the same page and I am fulfilling their expectations.
  • Specific: My specific goal is to check in with my organization's leadership at least once a week to catch them up on what I am doing and ask them for feedback.
  • Maintainable: When I get busy, it will be temping to skip the weekly check-in, but I will have to be sure that I stick to regular meetings throughout the summer.
  • Attainable: After I overcome my initials fears of asking questions, it should be attainable to schedule a weekly meeting.
  • Relevant: My time in country is so limited, so I dont want to waste a single day that I have there. These weekly question and answer sessions will make sure that what I am working on is relevant and useful to the community.
  • Timely: Once a week, maybe Mondays, sounds like a good time frame to achieve this goal.
Language and culture: repita por favor
I'm pretty comfortable with Spanish, especially once I settle into it for a few days. But there will still definitely be cultural and language barriers when I get to Bolivia. (When I was talking to FSD, they mentioned a siesta-type midday break, and I am getting nervous for it because I'm not used to just dropping what I'm doing and taking a break midday.) I will certainly be asking a lot of people to speak a little slower and re-explain jokes and references to me. It will be an experience but I think overcoming the barriers instead of retreating into friendships with other Americans in-country will be worth it.
  • Specific: If I'm lost in a conversation, ask for clarification instead of laughing along and pretending I understand.
  • Maintainable: I'm sure this situation will come up many times so it will be maintaible. I think this is the only goal that will be easier to complete as the summer goes on because I will be more comfortable with asking for clarification
  • Attainable: I will have to overcome a lot of shyness (and pride) but I think I will be able to do it  if I started with just my host family and then moved toward coworkers and strangers
  • Relevant: Knowing the culture and language is a big part of my reason to come to Bolivia, so this goal is definitely relevant. Being more adjusted will also help with the research project when it comes to interviewing and communicating with business owners.
  • Timely: This one is a little harder to make a timeline for, but I can make it timely by setting benchmarks. For example, the first week I can require myself to ask for clarification at least 2 times a day. For the second week, I can require it for at least 3 times a day. And so forth until every marginal week I need less clarification.
I believe that these three smart goals will help me be a more effective and useful researcher and help me feel at home in Bolivia. Asking questions- and setting goals for asking questions- is definitely the best way to learn and grow! 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thoughts on international service

At this point we've known about our acceptance to the Loewenstern Fellowship for several months, but we haven't found out very much about what exactly our projects will be in country. So I was very excited for this week's training with FSD, a major partner organization that many of the students in the program (including me) will be working with this summer. The representatives from the organization were kind and experienced and taught us a lot about international service, but, disappointingly, they did not answer the number one question in most of our heads: what in the world am I actually going to be doing this summer?

Now that I think over everything we learned during training, I realize that that's okay for now. By not answering that big question, FSD reminded me of the most important factor of international service: everything is about the community. I learned that I have to go to Bolivia with no clear picture of my project because I don't yet have a clear picture of the community. No matter what project I craft in the comfort of my home, it's worthless if it's not what the community needs. 

And this is the the key to ethical international service.

International service is only beneficial to the community when the volunteer puts the community's interests above his or her own. This may seem like an obvious concept- I mean, you're going to this place to help...right? But what is "helping" really? 

Flying into a country and building a house or designing a business plan or organizing a human rights rally may be helpful to a community, but it may not be the help the community actually wants. During the FSD training we learned some valuable methods on how to piece together what exactly the community wants. It requires asking lots of people lots questions and gathering information without placing value judgements. Several weeks of your trip should be spent just figuring out your project. But this begs the question: "So if you have to look so hard for a project, then are you even needed there?"

I think the answer to this is that you have to spend time to properly  match your skills with the needs/assets of the community. You may have a lot of skills. And the community may have a lot of wants. But matching, those skills to those wants is a lengthy process. It's like one of those kids toys:

The community is like the sphere with all the openings. If you're a the hexagon piece, you're not going to fit in the triangle cut-out. You have to search around and find the hexagon cut-out before you can fit in. And just because you have to look for the cut-out, doesnt mean it doesnt exist. Similarly, in international service, you have to thoroughly understand and analyze the community before you find where your skills belong. Once you have gained an understanding, only then can you figure out how the skills that you have can complement the needs/assets that the community has.

This way of thinkings requires being uncertain and confused and uncomfortable for the months preceding your trip. You have to come to terms with the fact that you won't know your project until you get to the community. Once you get there and know your project, well.... I guess I'll learn more about that in the next few weeks.