A transition in Myanmar, reflections on sectoral work in development agencies

This week we’ve heard the sad news that the leader of our partnership work in Myanmar is leaving us, to return to the health sector. She’s a medical doctor, and although we are very sad to see her leave, we wish her the very best. We will look back at our beginnings in Myanmar and think of her, with admiration and gratitude for how she helped us get started in a complex environment, in exactly the right way!

As a medical doctor, it’s understandable that she would want to return to her first “calling.” Her transition reminds me of a similar moment in my own career, where I made the other choice, for reasons that have stood the test of time, for me.

The story also links to a previous blog here, about development work and disintermediation…

I was educated as an engineer. While I thrived as a student of engineering, and enjoyed most of the projects I worked on after finishing my education, I can’t say that I ever felt a strong “calling” in that direction. So when I finished my Masters degree, I applied to join the Peace Corps in an engineering capacity. I looked at the possibility as a chance for adventure and growth, and perhaps had some inkings of a “calling”…

Luckily, in late 1983 I was accepted as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and (also luckily) was assigned to work as a Project Head at the Cañar provincial office of the “Instituto Ecuadoreano de Obras Sanitarias” – IEOS. The Ecuadorean Institute of Sanitary Works.

I had no experience with designing or helping build water projects, and had only been in Ecuador once, as a tourist, a few years before. But the engineering aspects of my work as a IEOS Project Head were familiar territory from my education as a Mechanical Engineer, and I spoke some Spanish. So, off I went on Valentine’s Day, 1984.

That was a great two years.  Along the lines of the argument that Enrique Mendizabal makes (even though this was 30 years ago!), connections focused on a technical area of our work can be very fruitful (he of course goes farther with that argument than I do!)  In this case, the work done during those two years lives on.  Which is perhaps a story for another day…

Later I joined an INGO and was posted to a Field Office in Colombia, in an entry-level management role.  During those early years of my career in the INGO world, I often wondered if engineering wouldn’t have been a better path for me.  In Colombia, in fact, I tried to hedge my bets by managing water or sanitation projects myself, alongside my core management duties.  Development work seemed so much fuzzier, and much longer-term: wasn’t engineer clearer, easier to see results in the short term?  The water projects, the waste-disposal projects…

Of course, I stayed in the INGO management and leadership world and, for me, that was the best choice.  Yes, it’s fuzzier than engineering and, yes, the results take much longer to emerge.  But today, almost exactly 30 years since I left Boston for Azogues, Ecuador, my calling is clear – accompanying people in their struggle for social justice.  I don’t regret, even for a moment, having transitioned away from engineering.

We wish our Myanmar colleague every joy and success, and fulfilment back in the health sector.  That’s her calling.  We will miss her.

A very interesting point of view from Enrique Mendizabal – “unmediated support is the future”

Many of us are wondering about the future, or even the prospects for survival of our sector.  Myself included!

There is so much doom and gloom about this in our sector that I’m starting to have some contrarian thoughts.  For example, one of the fundamental drivers of the creation of INGOs is human compassion.  Even if solidarity is under pressure because of the economic stresses faced by people around the world – and the unsustainable levels of economic inequality that we see now – human compassion is likely to still be a strong driver of behaviour.  People will still want to accompany those less fortunate.  So the work that INGOs will still serve as a vehicle for human compassion…

Of course, the way that INGOs work must change, because the context has changed dramatically.  In that light, one of the highlights of the recent ACFID Universities Network conference in Sydney late last year was the keynote address by Enrique Mendizabal.  He argues that, in today’s world, studying “development” is much less useful that studying technical areas such as public health, or education policy, or engineering.  In other words, what development countries need now is to learn from successes (and failures) in Australia and Europe, etc., rather than more general “development assistance” as such.

Very interesting point of view, which I can see much merit in.  What might be missing here is a sense of the politics, and the political economy, of development: if development assistance were to be only focused on technical, sectoral support, does that mean that development becomes apolitical?  

No matter.  Enrique’s provocative, insightful, entertaining, and highly recommended notes are here.


Reflections on “Understanding quality in services supporting women survivors of gender-based violence”

Levels of violence against women in places like Papua New Guinea are unimaginable, with ChildFund Australia’s research finding that two out of three women there have been beaten by their husbands.  PNG’s rich and strong culture has many strengths and characteristics we can learn from, but the levels of violence against women there, and in other countries in the Pacific and elsewhere must be unacceptable from any human point of view.  

How to reduce these appalling levels of violence?  If we consider the challenges that development agencies work to overcome, the human rights that we seek to advance or protect, reducing violence within families must be one of the toughest. 

Michaela Raab and Jasmin Rocha have contributed a very insightful and useful article: “Understanding quality in services supporting women survivors of gender-based violence,” published in “Development in Practice” Vol 23, No. 7, September 2013.  The article does not offer guidance for project design, implementation, or evaluation.  There are no case studies.  Rather, the authors offer a very useful framework for understanding the quality of services that address violence against women (VAW).  

Based on literature reviews, and reflection on a number of VAW projects across three countries, implemented by partners of a range of Oxfam International members, the authors have developed a model for understanding the quality of VAW services; the model has five components:

  1. Access (to services);
  2. Human Resources (the skills and attitudes of those who work to help VAW survivors);
  3. Service Process (the methods and procedures used);
  4. Co-operation and Coordination (linkages to other services to avoid re-victimisation); and
  5. Desired Results (resolution of the particular situation, ensuring women’s health and survival).

I particularly appreciated the emphasis given in the model to how survivors are treated – with dignity and respect – given that this is highlighted as of great importance by the women themselves.  

The model will be useful to any agency working to tackle violence against women.  It seems useful and practical, but (as the authors point out) the article, and the model, do not address issues of how to design and implement programs that reduce these shocking violations of human rights.  We need more models of successful interventions.  And since an enduring reduction in VAW will come from societal changes, legislation and enforcement, etc., these models will need to be holistic and multifaceted.

This is no criticism of the Raab and Rocha – they have sought to develop and share a model through which we can understand the quality of VAW services, and they have succeeded.  

I look forward to the results of the work that the authors are planning to “develop context-specific tools for quality monitoring and evaluation.”  Meanwhile, the article is highly recommended – a preview can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09614524.2013.809696#preview.  The corresponding author is Jasmin Rocha, Global Evaluation Research and Learning Officer at Oxfam International <jasmin.rocha@oxfaminternational.org>.