Tag Archives: development

The Next Phase

10 Aug

For those of you who have been following my adventures, I recently moved to Washington, DC to start a new job!

My new neighborhood

 I am the lead international communications and marketing associate for NCBA CLUSA International. A little bit of background on who they are and what I do:

The NCBA part stands for the National Co-operative Business Association and is the domestic trade association for co-op businesses. We host conferences, advocate for the co-op business model on capital hill, and connect co-op businesses across industries. Some businesses you may have heard of, but may not know are co-ops are REI, Florida’s Natural, Cabot Farms, and Ace Hardware. We also represent groups like food co-ops, rural electrical co-ops, and credit unions (1 in 3 Americans is a member of co-op). To be a co-operative business you must adhere to seven cooperative principles:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic (Members contribute equally to and democratically control the capital of their co-operative).
  4. Autonomy and Independence (if they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources they maintain democratic control and co-operative autonomy).
  5. Education, Training, and Information (so that members will be good decision makers, and so the general public will better understand co-operatives).
  6. Cooperation among Co-operatives (strengthening the co-operative movement by working together).
  7. Concern for Community (work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members).

The CLUSA part stands for the Co-operative League of the USA and is the name most commonly seen on our international work. Part of my job is to unify the two sides for a cohesive NCBA CLUSA brand that works domestically and internationally. On the international side, we truly believe in a community based approach, that works to strengthen groups and service providers to improve livelihoods through market-based approaches (as opposed to humanitarian aid, which comes only in a crisis). That’s a lot of jargon. Basically it means we work to strengthen groups and businesses on the ground through connecting them to outside markets, or making them more efficient, or improving nutrition.

Because of this cooperative foundation, a large chunk of our work is strengthening farmers co-ops, training in conservation agriculture, and nutrition led agriculture (innovations and strategies that work with assessing each community’s individual needs). These help to build resilience in communities. Food security gaps and climate change cause small shocks to be devastating, but increasing nutrient outputs (like planting yams or carrots in communities with Vitamin A deficiencies), or strategically farming with better irrigation techniques make those shocks (like drought or flooding) easier to resist. Because co-ops are community based, development solutions are community based. We work with mother’s groups and women’s savings and credit institutions. We’ve done work with youth and governance, because politically involved youth form community organizations. We work with coffee growers and co-ops and then link them with purchasers in the US (a co-op to co-op trade model that keeps prices fair). We train and support groups all along the agriculture value chain. We are one of the first organizations to start work in Cuba, which is starting to grow its economy by broadening the space for co-operatives.

Personally, my job is the tell these stories. To be able to share the best practices of innovative development in the field. I am helping to redesign what’s presented on our website (coming soon!), opening communication flows with the field teams, and promoting our leaders and techniques as innovators and best practices in the industry. Eventually I will be able to travel out to our projects (overseeing a current portfolio of 17 countries and 21 projects – as of August – projects open and close all the time as they finish their cycles).

My joy is telling stories, and these are the best stories to tell. The stories of overcoming challenges, of seeing opportunity and making the most, of going from barely making it to sharing wealth with others. These stories are why we in the international development industry do the work we do. Every one of the numbers is a story, and it’s my job to make that real and accessible to all of you back here.

So that’s my new job. I moved across the country, and back from Africa to start this next phase. I’m looking forward to a whole lot of new experiences, and meeting some interesting and inspiring people.

From grad school to Peace Corps and now NCBA CLUSA, I’m still telling these stories. But now, I have a lot more potential projects to cover and a wider platform. I will continue to update this blog with more of the personal side (with lots of travel photos!), and you can always see the work I’m doing here.


When It’s Hard

19 Jun

The past few weeks have been hard. Yes, no water and electricity hard. Yes, harassment hard. Yes, procrastinating on my thesis hard. But those are normal. I’m talking one of my best friends going home hard. Two of my other best friends encountering one of the scariest moments of their service hard. And having moments where all you do is count the months, days, and even minutes down hard.

It’s hard because these things aren’t happening to me. If I actually sit and think about my past few months, some amazing things have happened: friends from America visited, my sitemate got engaged!, I was in India for chrissakes. But coming home to a lot of uncertainty, melancholy, and old fashioned frustration brought me down fast. And now I feel guilty for feeling blue, which also makes it hard.

It’s hard because I can’t talk about it here. Events that have unfolded that caused some of our best volunteers to choose to go home were out of their control. They were political, and violent, and scary. And because they are political, and violent, and scary they are secret and we are told to keep it so. I had grown used to daily life, and I forgot how close to the edge this country can be. And then we go back to daily life- so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

My town was “unaffected” by some of the larger issues. That’s why I’m still here. But protests still happened, bullets still flew, and people still died. Over a housing issue. Had those other events not happened, would the police in my town have been so quick to pull triggers? Had a student not been killed last winter, would our town’s university joined in? Is there a point to asking hypothetical questions? Not really, so we go back to daily life – so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

When I lived in Jordan, I worked at the Center for Defending the Freedoms of Journalists. A mouthful, I know. But it was about giving people the right to mouthfuls. We worked to defend freedom of speech. Remind politicians what international laws they had signed. Represent journalists in court. And encourage good journalism, reporting on the issues. I personally worked on putting a grant together for election coverage training. But, y’know, that’s the Middle East. There’s an election coming up here next year. But I’m told I probably shouldn’t mention my former job.

One of the projects I’m most proud of has been setting up a student newspaper at the university. It’s really more of a literary magazine, with student and administration submissions. It is nowhere near objective or free, the administration must approve each and every copy, but at least it’s one space where students can submit at least fiction and basic events coverage and start to think about how powerful information can be.

As volunteers we love the communities we are in. We have created friendships and working partnerships that only living somewhere for two years could forge. Clearly we want our towns to be stable. But being American, you get caught in a philosophical hard place. One of the Peace Corps goals is to share American culture – what is more American than free speech?

But it is hard. And the more it goes on, it makes it hard to care. I wasn’t born here. These aren’t my issues. Keep your head down, your job is health and behavior change. Stick to hand washing. Stick to HIV testing. Stick to girls empowerment? Stick to leadership skills? You see how this could grow sticky.

So I stick to two years. What I can do, I’ve tried to do. What I can’t do, I’ve tried a little to do. But then I can leave. My neighbors can’t. So I get it, change is slow. It’s hard. But when it’s hard, we go back to basics. Work with young girls, work with health, work with education. If these things grow, so will the number of people willing to engage the tough issues.






International Woman’s Day – A 5K Celebration

16 Mar


Last weekend, Ethiopia held its annual WomenFirst 5K to celebrate women’s achievements in Ethiopia. Over 7,000 women came out, decked in yellow, to run or walk to five kilometers in Addis Ababa, singing, leading cheers and supporting each other. Last year, a bunch of volunteers ran for ourselves. This year, we walked for our kids. Over two days, with events and activities, over 20 volunteers brought together 40 students from their towns all over Ethiopia to learn about gender equality, how to support each other, and ultimately to participate in the biggest woman-only footrace in Africa. Here are some photos from an event over 10 months in the making.


stretching before the race


at the start


PCV Cam showing Ethio Spirit

PICT0118 PICT0087 PICT0086 PICT0084 PICT0079

Some volunteers also brought young men to support the girls. They made signs and led cheers at different stations along the route. They were the only men supporting the race, the rest simply stood there. These boys are the change. They are the next generation. Gender Equality is not just about women, its about gender, and it’s about teaching boys to support their mothers, sisters and daughters.

One of the sessions - women's health

One of the sessions – women’s health

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap report, Ethiopia ranked 118th out of 136 countries for gender equality. Over 200 Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia work in Education, Health, and Agriculture sectors, but all are expected to work on gender issues, which span all sectors. For more (better)  photos, check out our “official photographer”‘s blog, and keep your eye out for a video I’m putting together soon.

A Passion for Prevention

25 Sep

For the past week or so I have been in Senegal on the West side of Africa learning about best practices for malaria prevention programming both broadly and for Peace Corps volunteers. Waaay over here:

All the way across the continent - First time to West Africa!

All the way across the continent – First time to West Africa!

Over two weeks we are learning more about malaria and mosquitoes (anopheles female variety of course) than I could ever want to know. Did you know they rest perpendicular to the wall? Did you care? But in the middle of the science, the entomology, and the  details of funding schemes, we are also sharing best practices, practical programs and visiting a beach or two.

More on the conference later, but Monday night we had the opportunity to attend the launch of malaria prevention program in one of the villages outside of Thies (pronounced Chezz) lead by a man who has a personal connection to the cause.

Monsieur Elhage has started malaria prevention programming in Senegal in over 10 villages around the area. Starting by walking door to door, he garnered support from village chiefs, women’s groups, and community leaders so that in a country where malaria is endemic, these villages have had 0 reported cases this year.

The "trois Toutes" (3 Alls) program- The whole family, the whole year, every night

The “trois Toutes” (3 Alls) program- The whole family, the whole year, every night

A skit about the importance of a bed net, and seeking prompt care

A skit about the importance of a bed net, and seeking prompt care

But these results have been the blood sweat and tears of over a decade of advocacy. One morning in 1999 his daughter fell ill, and asked her father, then a photographer for UNICEF, to pick up apples and oranges in the market. He went to work, bought the fruit, and mid afternoon received a call from his sister telling him of death of his 12 year old daughter Ami only 10 days before the start of school. A severe malaria epidemic rocked the region that year with children and pregnant women dying for no apparent reason.  After a gathering with the health workers in the area, Elhage began to understand his daughter had died from malaria.

What was worse, she could have been saved had she been treated quickly, or prevented the bite. So Elhage rededicated his life to malaria prevention education. Working at the village level he employed a few different strategies to get buy in from the community. He worked with the women’s groups, youth, and village leadership to develop a health community committee and fund. The fund would pay for education supplies as well as treatment costs for malaria cases.

The village clean up celebration

The village clean up celebration

Leaders of the health committee and women's groups

Leaders of the health committee and women’s groups

With push from village leaders and a mass bed net distribution from the Senegal government (in partnership with the US’s President’s Malaria Initiative), confirmed malaria cases dropped in these villages. But there was still a hot spot of infection – students coming back from summer vacation who had visited families in other villages or towns and were coming back with malaria. To combat this migration effect, the schools developed a “vacation card” and kit that gave the kids nets to take on their trips with them.

The "vacation" card

The “vacation” card, it says: “I will protect myself from malaria, I will sleep under a bed net”

In addition to the health education and bed net distributions, village chiefs put together a “night watch” group that would go around to houses in the evening to check if bed nets were up. If they were not, the household would be fined $5 (USD) – a LOT for the villagers.  The fines would be added to the community health fund. This was a completely internal idea, and worked to keep usage rates high, even in the dry season.

As malaria rates went down, funds needed to treat cases also shrank, freeing up the community health fund  to dream up bigger and better projects. Elhage began to advocate larger development goals, and he developed three philosophies needed for moving forward: politeness, cleanliness, and punctuality (a frustration for any aid worker across the continent).

Politeness, Hygiene/Cleanliness, Punctuality

Politeness, Hygiene/Cleanliness, Punctuality

For his hard work in malaria prevention and social behavioral change, the head of the President’s Malaria Initiative (Admiral Tim Ziemer) presented Elhage with a medal. Elhage has continued to promote vigilance against malaria infection and other small scale development goals.

Obama on a Medal

Obama on a Medal

Elhage talking us through his work

Elhage talking us through his work

As we hear about best practices in malaria prevention across the continent, it is always important to connect with the people who have poured their lives into the cause. People, like Elhage, who have worked for decades and pursued his message and worked with community members to affect change. Change that was home grown, and sorely needed to protect against a deadly disease. His story, while tragic, was one of the most motivating moments of the conference. With stories of his success, we volunteers can head back to our own communities and hopefully support people like Elhage.

The Fire Age

28 Jun

They don’t think before they speak, they make stupid decisions, they hit on anything with legs… in America we call these “Teenagers.” In Ethiopia, this stage of life has a more colourful label – The Fire Age.

I stumbled across this term the day I had to sit in an auditorium of 500 high school students. Lost in a sea of hormones, I was surrounded by high school boys just wanting to “practice their English,” which of course necessitated my phone number. Describing this phenomenon to my co-worker he said, oh, of course- they are in the fire age.

A broad term, it covers any eye-roll inducing teen behavior between the ages of 13 and 20-something. Community based culture or not, independent streaks abound in youth around the world.

It makes sense. Teenagers are teenagers whether they grew up in Ethiopia, America, Russia, or the Canary Islands. And they’re all crazy.


Moving so fast!

The cast of the HIV Drama

The cast of the HIV Drama

But that’s what makes them such good people to work with. Youth aren’t jaded. Youth are energetic, and youth don’t see a limit. They like to laugh (a lot at me), and they want to see a better future, because it’s their future.

Kids in Anbesame, a small village about 2 hours south of Gondar

Kids in Anbesame, a small village about 2 hours south of Gondar

Working with youth is some of the most rewarding work a Peace Corps volunteer does – if only for the instant gratification of a 15 year old girl telling you you’re cool.  And in the next month, we will have a flock of 15 year old girls descending on Gondar for Camp Glow (more on that later). God help us all. At least “fire” produces a significant glow. These girls will be leaders in their communities, and can channel that spark into bright futures, with only a few eye rolls along the way.

This year's Camp GLOW (Girls Leading our World) - 2005 Ethiopian Calendar (2013 for us)

This year’s Camp GLOW (Girls Leading our World) – 2005 Ethiopian Calendar (2013 for us)

An Aykel Tale

8 May

Last week I headed to Aykel for a combination helping Peace Corps do site identification, visiting Morgan, and running into my counterpart who was at a training (if he’s there, it means it’s work right?).

Doing site identification interviews with Peace Corps - buna break!

Doing site identification interviews with Peace Corps – buna break!

Aykel is the site of the other G8 volunteer in the North Gondar Zone, the lovely Morgan Davison, check out her blog here. It’s about 1.5 hours southwest of Gondar on the road to Metema (border of Sudan 120km away) and the capital of the Chilga region.

In Aykel- awful soil erosion, but cool photo

In Aykel- awful soil erosion, but cool photo

A sizeable town of about 45,000 Morgan is the only volunteer in her site. There are plenty of connections between her town and “the big city” that I live in. Many of her friends have family in Gondar, and the owners of my favorite juice place are cousins of her landlady.

Aykel also has many connections to the US. There are pockets of Aykel Diaspora all over the country, and talking to some of the people, they knew exactly where everyone from that town was living (a rundown of 10 in Denver, 30 in Seattle etc. ensued).

But the history of those immigrants is unique for this city. While people leave for many different reasons, a large group came through refugee camps in Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s during squirmishes on the Ethiopian-Sudan border. On a hike outside of the town, Teddy, the tourism officer, took us to a cave on the outskirts that a couple hundred people used as shelter during the conflict for about 3 months.


During the rainy season, the entrance to the cave becomes a roaring waterfall and the water at the bottom is believed to have holy healing powers since it sheltered so many refugees during the war.

The cave becomes a Holy Site

The cave becomes a Holy Site

Had to take our shoes off because of Holy Ground

Had to take our shoes off because of Holy Ground

Washing clothes in the "holy water"... drained to a trickle during dry season

Washing clothes in the “holy water”… drained to a trickle during dry season

Some walked from Aykel all the way to the border (about 120 kilometers) to safety. One such guy lived in America for years before coming back to invest in his small town, and now owns one of the best cafes we visited. An example of Diaspora development, returned investment and America’s role in refugee support finds a success story in this small town.

Thoughts on “Half the Sky”

26 Feb

One of the books circulating around Peace Corps volunteers here is seminal New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which he co-wrote with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The book chronicles a broad spectrum of women’s stories, both tragic and triumphant, in the developing world. Personal stories that encompass everything from fistula surgery in Ethiopia to sex trafficking in Nepal to the virtues of iodizing salt are discussed in the broader terms of international aid, gender and development, and the state of world’s women [spoiler alert: being a women born in the developing world is tough.]


While I generally tend to cringe at sweeping statements on development theory, with so many volunteers and now my mom’s book club picking up the book, I figured I should give it another read, especially now that I have a bit more firsthand experience working in the health sector here in Ethiopia. Drawing from my coursework and research from an MA in International Development, experience in Peace Corps and other jobs abroad including at the health policy level in Geneva, I came at the book with a different eye than the first time in undergrad.

Taken as a whole, the book does a great job of achieving its goal of raising awareness and providing practical action steps for its targeted American reader. One of my biggest pet peeves is when works like this create outrage, but nothing ever comes of it. I really did like the concluding chapters that implore action and then provide some pretty concrete and realistic steps to back it up. But some of the underlying assumptions and larger trends I have to take issue with. Don’t get me wrong, Kristoff does an almost annoying job of going off on tangents that cover my arguments, but I just figured I should put these thoughts out there for people (my mom) to keep on the back burner while reading.

Firstly, the focus on grassroots is great. Clearly I love me some grassroots. As US foreign aid/development agencies go, Peace Corps is the grass rootiest of all. I didn’t do 3 months of language training for nothing (though “if I buy 2 will I get a discount?” in Amharic doesn’t do much for the local economy.) But having lived and worked in a few countries where if the government doesn’t want to do something, it just won’t get done, there’s only so much civil society can do sometimes (email me if you want to know more). Again, wahoo grassroots! But bigger international political pressure I believe is still incredibly important. Like the book points out, a focus on human trafficking as large as one on intellectual property theft will only happen if it’s perceived that the capital “A” American government gives a hoot (don’t pollute). So feel free to donate to that grassroots org AND write your senator, don’t pick one.

Speaking of donating to that grassroots organization, one of my biggest issues with the trend in charitable giving is the focus on administrative costs. While transparency and efficiency are incredibly important in deciding where to donate, the “low administrative cost” threshold is misleading. If an NGO is like a business (and no they’re not because they don’t focus on profits, but yes they are because much of them are run on business models anyway) you would never invest in a company that only devoted 5% of its resources to administrative costs. So please don’t only use that marker for donating to charity either. I would rather the logistics arm of Save the Children spend more on getting disaster relief supplies to the people who need it most than doubling the number of water filters to communities who are flush with aid. That decision/research is made by an administrative team. And if it’s not labeled as such in the annual report that gets sent to CharityNavigator.org it’s because these NGOs feel pressure to misrepresent numbers to fit this artificial “low admin cost” value.

Moving right along on economic value, one of the interesting studies cited in the book was about paying families to keep children (mostly girls) in school in Mexico. Cool. Economic incentive and girls’ education, I’m on board! Oh, wait. Economic incentive in Ethiopia has lead to a culture of per diem where literally every workshop, training, and even your own organization’s meeting on things that your own organization is doing and is PART OF YOUR JOB people expect to be paid extra for. I’m sure some very well meaning organization started this trend here to get people to show up to that training that one time and now it’s an epidemic and no will come to a workshop that is actually beneficial and maybe even work related if something is not offered. And now local NGOs with small budgets cannot compete with large foreign aid agencies. Unintended consequences I’m sure, but an incredibly difficult environment for a volunteer whose job is to transfer skills and has no budget to do so to work in. I’ll give a training on project design… and half of my budget will go to shay/bunna. I blow people minds when I say that people in American actually pay to attend conferences.

I think what is more important in that mini rant is the fact that silver bullets, as the book accurately points out, should not be taken for granted across the world. What works well in Mexico may not work so well in Ethiopia. What works great here, might be a disaster in Ghana. The larger message is that good development policy on the larger scale should still take in to consideration individual contexts on the ground (and back to grassroots- see above).

The point is, read the book. And then think about the book. And then do something about the book. But have a conversation, talk to that random neighbor’s daughter who did Peace Corps or that cousin’s cousin who works at USAID and see what they think about some of these issues. We are all on the same page, with the same goals. And as awesome as those personal stories are, it’s cool to make them personal to you.

Speaking of which, if you read the book and thought that was sad but now I’m pumped up but oh my goodness he just listed like 100 organizations that I haven’t heard of, do not fret. I’m going to pull out a few that I personally have come across in my work here in Ethiopia that maybe you can feel more inclined to visit their websites because of that personal connection:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

Population Services International

Peace Corps

World Vision

And some others that he didn’t mention, but specifically do grassroots work in my town (mostly with kids) and I like to think are pretty cool and might work with myself:

Kindu Trust

Yenege Tesfa

Gondar Aids Resource Center


Mahibere Hiwot Ethiopia

Happy Reading!