Tuesday, November 30, 2010

$10,000 in December: A cause that is personal to me

Training of trainers for an ex-combatant reintegration initiative in Bogota, Colombia

Dear Readers,

Let me start with a confession: I find making fundraising requests uncomfortable. These are difficult economic times for many, and the causes that deserve our attention are plentiful. I write to you, however, because this cause is personal to me. I believe in it and have benefited from it. I have benefited from your generosity and support and it is to this generosity that I turn now.

I want to write to you about my Insight Collaborative fundraising challenge.

The Insight Collaborative Fellowship offers young people with a background and interest in conflict management the opportunity to design and implement projects that benefit populations in conflict and post-conflict communities worldwide. Insight Collaborative Fellows receive $25,000 to support these projects -- tied to a promise to raise the same amount for the Fellows who will succeed them. Past Fellows have worked in affiliation with the International Criminal Court, United Nations organizations, and NGOs in countries ranging from Kenya to Sri Lanka, Somalia to Nepal, and Lebanon to Liberia.

As an Insight Collaborative Fellow myself, I learned and practiced much more than conflict management. I designed and implemented a curriculum of post-conflict reintegration for Colombian ex-combatants; I contributed to the development of programming for conflict-affected mothers in rural Guatemala; I helped a baby into the world in Northern Uganda and designed a training program for Arab women parliamentarians in Egypt. I, too, was exposed to the workings of the United Nations and community-based organizations -- but far beyond that, I was shaken by the shoulders, moved by the world, and jarred to rekindle my faith in humanity.

I now hope to pay this action forward by enabling the Insight Collaborative Fellowship to continue to exist.

I hope to raise $10,000 in the month of December in support of future training for Fellows and the continuation of conflict management projects worldwide.

If 500 of us each donate $20, we can meet this goal together. There are a number of ways in which you can contribute:
  1. Make a tax-exempt donation in the name of Roxanne Krystalli by clicking here.
  2. Share this link with your employer's charitable giving division, if there is one, or with related corporate donors who would be interested in supporting a Fellow. There are various avenues for recognition of corporate sponsors and I would be delighted to discuss them with you.
  3. Spread the word on Twitter or Facebook by copying this link.

If you would like to learn more about Insight Collaborative or apply for a Fellowship, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Without the inspiration and strength I draw from you, none of my work in the past year would have been possible. Without the funding from Insight Collaborative, many of our paths would not have crossed. Without your support and encouragement, I never could have designed the projects that I have and embarked on adventures I have greatly cherished. Thank you very much for your friendship and love and I hope you can join me in supporting a cause that has essentially been at the root of a life-changing journey.

With gratitude, and the warmest holiday greetings,

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Somebody check the Kinneret: Thanksgiving, by way of toilet flushing

In October, I decided that home is where the mosquitoes are. And then all of a sudden the desert heat left us, and so did the mosquitoes, and I had to come up with less itchy signals of home. This month's reference point comes in the form of toilet flushing.

Not having grown up in an English-speaking country meant I missed out on all the expressions about pee and poo and everything in between. Luckily, as a 20-something in Israel, I get to atone for this early childhood shortcoming. Even though I work as far from a kindergarten as humanly possible, I find myself sing-songing: "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down." The water level of Lake Kinneret, the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee, is decreasing worrisomely. As such, it becomes impossible to wash an extra dish or flush the toilet in Israel without someone reminding you that you are one-handedly killing the Kinneret. It is, by necessity, a country of environmental conservation, at least when it comes to (toilet) water. Flush erroneously and you shall be rewarded with a Glare.

Seeking to fulfill the athletic ability requirement for both people in this relationship, Elijah chose to bike 60 kilometers today. [The last time I did 60 kms of anything that did not involve more than two wheels was when I thought it was a good idea to trek through the Amazon in the rainy season.] The intrepid biker returned home smelling delicious. When I informed him I had--uncharacteristically--already showered more than once today, he exclaimed, "Oh my goodness! Somebody check the Kinneret! Is it still there?!"

What do you know, it still is. But let's go easy on the flushing.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for water. For good plumbing, and for toilets. For loved ones who monitor my flushing and nurse me back to health. For the doctors, peace-keepers, peace-makers, development specialists, and volunteers who go out there and give. For those who jar imaginations and plant inspiration. For those who keep us safe, and those who love us from a world away. For the moments at which I can feel the universe winking. This Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for love. Because, as Morrie taught me, "love is the only rational act."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday Moments: Pomegranates and Derek Walcott

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." A Sunday at John Lennon Park in Havana, Cuba.

When I first got hit by the truck (remember that? we can almost laugh about it now. almost.), I was worried about all the things I would not be able to do. One would imagine that pain would block out worry; instead, it magnified my frustration at not being able to sweep the living room whenever I pleased (which, they tell me, was far too frequently). A few weeks later, I sweep freely. I am still not "in the field." None of that volcano-climbing-needs-assessing-curriculum-designing-hurricane-dodging of 2010, Volume I. And yet, I am amazed at all I was able to actually do from my bedside. I can now read basic Hebrew. I know nearly as much about the status of Bedouin women in the Negev Desert as I do about broken bones. I even know Prince William is engaged (because I spend that much time on the internet). But the most valuable new discovery has nothing to do with the British throne or Hebrew script. It is a lesson that Lainie tried to teach me while she was raising Miro, and a lesson I could only embody and fully comprehend years after leaving Harvard Square. 

"You do not always need to do."

I have reveled in not doing recently. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of Derek Walcott's "Love on Love":

The time will come
when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome [...]

In that spirit, Mondays will be for acknowledging what it is that makes me stop. For listing the moments, words, songs, images and wanderings that make me smile, think, and be grateful.

1. Pomegranates: My mother lied to the pre-school day care center about my level of toilet training. She and my father were both working, my grandparents lived in different cities, and she caught her baby-sitter smoking next to a two-and-a-half-year-old version of me. So, preschool it was. My two earliest memories of schooling thus involve staring at a mini toilet with sincere confusion and eating pomegranate seeds that my teacher offered me when she cut open the fruit. I remember being surprised by their sweetness more than 20 years ago. I do not know how 20 years passed without my tasting them again - especially considering that I once lived with a dear friend whose perpetually stained fingers gave away his love of the fruit. I spent my Sunday afternoon marveling at the sound the seeds made when I cut the pomegranate open; an opening and reshuffling of sorts that reverberated with life. I needed the marvel, beauty and taste of winter. I now also need a Tide stain-removing pen because, more than 20 years after that first pomegranate seed tasting, I still eat like a pre-schooler.

2. Diamonds: I am now listening to King of Diamonds  by Motopony and finding absolute joy in it.

3. Explorations: I stumbled on Doorways Traveler during the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign. Lisa Field Elliot's honest, heart-warming, candid observations of the world, tinged with positivity even in moments of hardship, gave me some of my mojo back. Her photography in Uganda traveled me back to a beloved place I first experienced almost a year ago and reminded me of exploration, fearlessness, and a relentless pursuit of happiness.

4. Revisiting: David Foster Wallace, circa 2005, on - what else - life and the pursuit of happiness. He, his insights, and his writing are dearly missed.

5. Light: August of 2010 was a long string of 're-entry syndrome' for me. The pamphlets for those who work in conflict zones warn of disorientation, a feeling of loss and lingering dissatisfaction upon return to what was previously a familiar world. They do not warn you, however, that you may find yourself sitting across someone who asks you "what you do for a living", squints at you while you respond, and follows- up with "so... are you like... a nomad?" I do not know if I am...like... a nomad. The squinting questioner was, however, basing his question on some real data. I had spent the year living out of the same two suitcases. I did not rent an apartment anywhere permanently. I did not own a cappuccino machine, or a television, or a subscription to anything that did not fit in a Google Reader. This week, I took my first step towards non-nomadic life.

I now own a lamp. 

A small lamp that casts hues of blue light on our white walls. It could almost be portable. It is the only thing I own that I did not possess before arriving at my new home, and it is grounding me. 

Elijah suggested that we could get a cappuccino machine for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whatever cross-denominational-non-denominational holiday we celebrate this year. Much as I miss frothy milk (hello, white world problems), I am still wondering whether that would push the boundaries of my decluttering. For now, we can bask in the glow of warm, blue light. 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If  bees are few.

Friday, November 19, 2010

For the girls closer to home

Perhaps I could start by telling people that values matter. - Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Infidel

In the past week, over 100 writers, photographers, and humanitarian workers chose to focus their attention on women and girls. The Girl Effect. Marjory termed the Girl Effect a "catalyst of dreams." Marianne asked what we can do when countries, communities or even program beneficiaries "do not want the Girl Effect." Josh highlighted the importance of raising young boys to respect girls and Heather reinforced the point that in order to effect meaningful change for women and girls, we need the active involvement and participation of men.

These people moved me. Some made me laugh, others made me cry, and all made me think.

Now I must admit, I am anxious.

I am anxious about what happens to awareness campaigns once the spotlight moves on to another cause: Child soldiers, sodium tablets for Africa, cleft syndrome. They are all worthy causes and in need of attention - as is this one.

I am anxious because of the cynicism these campaigns sometimes trigger in those who are not a part of them. "Message fatigue," they call it. "We are tired of hearing about women and girls and poverty and development." I am worried and frustrated by the portrayal of some activists in this field as mere "raging feminists" or of their words as fluffy.

Nothing combats cynicism better than knowing your message.

Know why women and girls deserve the media attention they have earned in the past week. Figure out what prominent organizations in the field are actually doing and how they are doing it. Question them on their measures of success, read about their impact. I am inspired by how personal this issue is to many people. Nothing like a fire within oneself to continue to feed one's drive.

I am also anxious about the other girls.

I am anxious about the girls who are safe and secure and away from conflict zones - the girls who would (thankfully) never be beneficiaries of my programs or answering my needs assessment questionnaires. The girls who can feed themselves just fine. I am anxious because every day that I work in this field, I see these girls mistreated as well.

I hear derogatory terms towards women being thrown around lightly. I confront a (false) dichotomy in the public treatment of women more frequently than I would like: the perception that they either fit into the likeable/warm/fun category or the smart/effective/cold/distant category. I know enough women who transcend these lines in the sand to be inspired every day -- I just wish they would be met with that same recognition. I feel helpless when I see girls being treated as just 'pretty armcandy', or the girls themselves retooling who they are in order to be more likeable and popular. I am anxious about Anita and Sanchita in the Girl Effect videos - and I am anxious about the girls closer to home as well.

In some senses, it is harder to launch campaigns for the girls closer to home. But the wrap-up of this stage of the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign for me is about applying the principles that we hold true for the girls in developing countries to the girls closer to home: Encouraging their dreams, treating them with respect, supporting the development of their capabilities, investing in them as equal partners. Remembering the many hats they wear: mother, daughter, professional, lover, wife, girlfriend, role model and beyond -- and treating them as the wearers of many hats, and not just as the holders of a singular identity. And finding ways to become advocates for the challenges they face, co-partners in devising solutions, and defenders of the principles of integrity and respect that we hope can govern all human interaction.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Girl Effect

Ana, a microcredit recipient in San Mateo, Guatemala, with two of her children. She is one of the women whose stories I have had the privilege of hearing in the past year. 
S was forcibly recruited into one of the Colombian guerrilla groups when she had barely finished high school. Her then husband told their young children that their mother had died when she was taken away to the mountains to join the fight against the army. In her eight years in the guerrilla, she was taunted by military commanders, assaulted, and insulted in every way that can violate a young woman's integrity. One day she quit the guerrilla, which resulted in a death order to her name because the commanders perceived her to be a liability. She fled the site of the conflict, became an Internally Displaced Person in one of the poorer areas of Bogotá, tracked down her children, and began to build her life anew. I met S when she participated in my post-conflict reintegration training for ex-combatants in Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia. Her gregariousness, optimism, appetite for life and learning, and affection towards all human beings around her would never suggest the brutality that she had observed. She is now a community leader and is continuing to implement our curriculum of post-conflict reintegration at Centers for Reconciliation around Colombia. Her energy travels with me.

L is a 15-year-old girl in Portoviejo, Ecuador. I attended her quinceanera, the celebration of her 15th birthday and a type of welcoming her to adulthood. This welcome is not a warm one for L. At the age of 15, orphanage directors admit that she is too old for her chances for adoption to remain viable. At 18, she will no longer be able to live at the orphanage and will have to find a new home of her own. L has never known a family other than that of the orphanage and a home other than the home between its walls. As she stood in a princess-like dress on her quinceanera, with salsa music blasting and the rest of the kids dressed up in their Sunday best to wish her well, her smile was tempered by sadness. When I talked to one of the program directors about it, she said "well, I cannot imagine that she is not a little bit scared about her future."

I have met courageous yet fragile and vulnerable women in the Middle East, East Africa and Latin America. There was the mother of 13 children in Guatemala who asked me if I am infertile because at my age, she already had five children. Or the women of One Mango Tree, a social conscious enterprise which employs war-affected women in Northern Uganda. I have drawn strength from their stories and inspiration from their resilience. I have thought about what could have happened when these women were eight, and twelve, and thirteen years old to stop their lives from going down the path of being forcibly recruited into guerrillas or only knowing an orphanage as a home. I have also found strength in the example of those who dedicate their lives to supporting women and girls. The Greg Mortensons and Zainab Salbis. There is more to be done and more to learn. There are more ways to serve. Today, let's take a moment to think about how.

This is my contribution to The Girl Effect Blogging Campaign. Read the rest of the stories, think about the women and girls who inspire you, and the women and girls whom you can help. You can start at www.girleffect.org

Monday, November 8, 2010

Revisiting Amichai

Walking through Jerusalem and the holy sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Revisiting Yehuda Amichai and absorbing autumn light. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Defense of Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof seems to have triggered a development storm. While America contemplates its post-election landscape, development practitioners are debating what Kristof termed D.I.Y. development aid. Dave Algoso offered an eloquent rebuttal to Kristof's highlighting of individuals who took the initiative to delve into development projects largely alone. Many more have jumped into this debate, some of whom did not take Algoso's kind and thoughtful approach to the argument and instead took to the opportunity to criticize Kristof's way of conducting humanitarian work at large, as well as his attitude towards reporting it. I do not fit squarely into either camp of this debate. I have been a recipient of a fellowship to design and implement conflict management projects worldwide, but have also been affiliated with UN agencies, NGOs and community-based organizations. I am not strictly a journalist, humanitarian or development worker, but I do write, report, design and implement humanitarian projects in conflict zones. I have been skeptical about Kristof's occasionally self-aggrandizing tone about development and humanitarian endeavors, but I have also been inspired by his writing, by his and his wife's projects and by the way in which he uses a forum as powerful as the New York Times editorial page to shed attention to issues of vital importance to communities worldwide. With a full understanding that my identity and own biases affect my perspective on this topic, here is my take on the D.I.Y. development debate.

Algoso's skepticism in the FP piece begins with a theme that has troubled me as well in the past year:
Here's one critical question: How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?
It is indeed a question of local community involvement and investment and, in turn, a question of the project's response to communal needs and its eventual sustainability. I agree with Algoso that this is not a question we ask ourselves enough -- but "ourselves", in my mind, includes individual development workers and institutional aid agencies alike. How frequently do we laugh (and cry) at the development projects that ignore local customs, traditions, and myths and, therefore, fail to have the intended impact? The toilets that flush automatically and scare the locals out of using them, hence failing the goal of increased sanitation. The doctors who ignore the myths and customs of Haiti, resulting in patients not visiting them and not receiving care, as Paul Farmer narrates in the early chapters of Mountains beyond Mountains. Perhaps the institutionalized programs of the UN and assorted NGOs in each field have a greater capacity for finding the answers to these questions and increasing the impact and sustainability of their respective projects -- but it has been my experience that too often they, too, fail at asking the questions at all, making Algoso's concern of serving the beneficiaries' best interest one that troubles individuals and organizations alike.

The answer, for both institutions and individuals, lies in needs assessments. Ensuring the work serves the interests of the beneficiaries becomes easier when we ask the beneficiaries what they hope to gain through their participation in a development initiative. What do they hope to learn? What kind of skills would they like to develop? Which of our proposed topics do they find more interesting and which are less relevant? A needs assessment extends beyond participant interviews; indeed, other NGOs, community-based organizations and aid agencies in the field can offer great insight as to the best and worst practices in a particular country or project sector. Many of Kristof's critics would argue that 'this is not the stuff of amateurs' and they may be right. Training development professionals to conduct and supervise these processes correlates well with effective project completion. However, this need not be as esoteric a process as it currently appears: Individuals with curiosity, a commitment to project sustainability and adaptability to local needs and cultures, and meticulousness can apply this formula and avoid common project design pitfalls.

Similarly, Algoso asks:
How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?
My answer to this question mirrors my response to his previous one. First of all, funding comes from across the globe for UN aid agencies, NGOs and individual projects, so this is once again not a problem that is particular to the independent development practitioner. Secondly, a needs assessment and survey of best and worst practices in the field can minimize the risk of the project not fulfilling the wishes of its intended beneficiaries. It is for this reason that fundraising staff and project design and implementation staff have different mandates and are involved in different aspects of development programming. Indeed, a fundraiser cannot necessarily be expected to know the best public health interventions to minimize the spread of cholera in a particular region -- for that reason, epidemiologists, development workers and field staff have greater input into the design of the actual intervention. Skeptics will say that the greater the financial assistance of the donor, the more heavily involved s/he will attempt to be in the project implementation, regardless of his or her expertise -- and they will sometimes unfortunately be right. However, the fact that the source of funding comes from abroad, from outside the community that the donation intends to assist, does not mean the project itself will necessarily be foreign, incongruous, irrelevant and, consequently, of diminished impact.

Texas in Africa, a blog I greatly respect and a resource I consult often, added the following critique of Kristof's article:
The problem here is that Kristof is relying upon anecdotal evidence (NGO's he has encountered) rather than systematically gathered evidence. [...] Because Kristof's only research method is his personal observation, we can't be sure that he's not simply making general claims on outliers. He's not using data; he's using anecdotes. And anecdotes are a slippery slope on which to base claims about the kind of aid work that will best aid the world's poor.
I do not dispute that this appears to have been Kristof's methodology for writing this article. However, I do not agree that this is necessarily an erroneous approach.  Kristof did not submit an academic paper that posited to hold the truth to innovative, independent aid work projects. Instead, he submitted to the New York Times Magazine profiles of individuals whose story can inspire others to become involved in the field of development. Whatever happened to the power of the story? Why can the narrative -- indeed, the anecdote -- not be moving and successful in mobilizing others to action?

I understand that glamorizing these individuals' stories can provide false motivation and an inaccurate picture to aspiring aid workers. I further understand that the allure of this lifestyle and these profiled successes can draw people to this field who are not qualified to run their own development projects individually. The people in Kristof's article are role models and, yes, they are examples of successes. Some have called them "outliers" and they may be that as well. But critical readers should be expected to understand that Kristof likely did not highlight these stories as blueprints for exact repetition. The very function of a role model is as a source of inspiration, as a seed in one's brain that can grow into a good idea, a new path, and a source of further research. Kristof appears to understand the potential for "wrongful application" of his piece as well, so he makes sure to point out potential drawbacks and dangers -- and it is valuable to have other development practitioners contribute to the debate by highlighting the caveats and nuances and difficulties of this kind of work on which Kristof may not shed as much light. However, at the end of the day, I see nothing wrong with inspiring and moving people with the power of a story; in fact, it can be as compelling as an academic paper or scientifically-researched article. t is not as though we have too many individuals donating their time and energy to causes in the developing world. And if the problem is that some people who do not have the guts or the training to be in the development field end up feeling disillusioned or ill-equipped in Africa or Latin America or the area of their choosing, then the field itself, its challenges and its learning opportunities will either force them to seek guidance and education in what they have yet to master or push them out, towards a direction that is more suitable to their skills and interests. In this sense, I am an optimist. I believe that anyone who wishes to learn and succeed and make impact and goes so far as to take a leap of faith and jump right in the middle of the issues one cares about will find a way to make up for his or her deficiencies - will find a way to learn and be taught and be successful.

Which brings me to the final point about independent development practitioners vs. institutional affiliations. When I was a junior at Harvard University, friends and classmates were going through the e-Recruiting system, whereby they submitted their resumes through an electronic platform to recruiters, mostly in the field of consulting and financial services (but also, in smaller numbers, in teaching and public service). Competitive rounds of interviews would follow and Harvard graduates would flock en masse to consulting firms and investment banks -- en such masse, in fact, that President Drew Faust acknowledged the pattern in an address to the Class of 2008 during Commencement Week. I was not interested in financial services (nor was I honestly qualified to be a consultant or investment banker). When I asked a friend with prior experience in this field what its appeal was, he earnestly said that it is good to receive this kind of structured training early in life; it does not matter in what field. It is helpful and valuable and significant to have someone teach a young graduate and young professional how to be a professional and how to function in the work sphere.

Even though I still have little interest in the field of financial services, my friend's words still resonate deeply. His argument is the same reason why it can be instructive to be a paralegal or to hold an entry-level job in the publishing industry: We all need to be taught and trained how to conduct ourselves professionally and development is no exception. In that sense, the title of Kristof's article may be misleading. "Do It Yourself" aid does not mean "do not ask for help, teaching, training or mentorship and assume that you know better than all the above." Capacity building initiatives for development professionals are catching on and they are initiatives in which I enjoy both participating and contributing to the design. Algoso and other critics of Kristof's article are right to point out that development is not easy enough to be a "Do-It-Yourself" endeavor. They are right. Where I diverge from their argument is in the ways one can be taught. There are mentors out there -- individuals with years of development and project design experience who will happily teach what they know. There are seminars and workshops and books and opportunities to learn outside strict academic or professional environments. Few of these ways of learning would be as structured as being part of a UN or other agency and I do know that all of these other ways of learning require the learner to take initiative, seek out mentorship and guidance and truly commit to amassing knowledge. However, I have found that such guidance and mentorship is available -- meaning that those independent development practitioners who actively seek out qualification and knowledge and instruction can find it.

In summation:

  1.  The problem of unsustainable projects or projects with minimal community involvement and inadequate response to the beneficiaries' needs is not particular to independent aid workers; it plagues aid agencies and independent professionals alike and its solution lies in comprehensive needs assessment processes and field evaluations on all sides.
  2.  Anecdotal, story-based evidence does not have to be less credible than academic, scientific data where the profiling of individuals is concerned, particularly when one of the purposes of these profiles may be to showcase role models. This methodology places an emphasis on inspiration and the generation of ideas and its intention is not to provide a single, ready, universal blueprint for individual development work. [Algoso is right to point out that Kristof does pick a homogeneously American sample of stories -- there are local leaders whose stories and projects are just as inspiring and there should be room for them in the NYT Magazine pages as well. Having read Kristof and WuDunn's Half the Sky, I do appreciate Kristof's awareness of this and his commitment - in the book - to highlighting the stories of a more diverse group.]
  3. "Do It Yourself" Aid does not -- and should not -- mean "Do It Without Outside Assistance, Teaching or Guidance." There are ways to become a qualified aid professional outside academia or institutional affiliation and it is doubly important for independent practitioners to take advantage of them. Mentorship, capacity development initiatives and the very nature of work and life in the field build aid workers' qualifications. I will, however, agree that institutional affiliations are advantageous in this regard; it is hard to compete with a rigorous training program and constant oversight as an individual.

Thank you for bearing with me and for contributing to the debate -- it is the passion and commitment of individuals to the field of development and to their respective projects that account for thoughtful, successful, sustainable initiatives and I am inspired to read about these programs, the individuals behind them and, indeed, their stories.