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.

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