Tag Archives: volunteer

The Programs of Menna

3 Jul

Over the past few months I have helped a fledgling NGO set up some communications (website, brochure etc.) Their main program is a daily meal that is really one of the first soup kitchens in Africa. The group started as a bunch of university friends who wanted to make a difference in their community. While they are still quite small, their passion has really made an impact.

Here is the video I put together highlighting their programs, their beneficiaries and some of their info. Check it out to see the type of work I’ve been doing, and some interviews with people in my city.

Sorry for the crappy quality – not much I can do with a flipcam and 5 hours of uploading.


The Volunteer Life Cycle

5 Jul

So the joke is we are officially one baby down (9 months in). Dodged the first bullet, only two more babies to go. Of course, 27 months is a long time, and the amount of emotional roller coaster climbs, dips, and loops can make a volunteer go a little crazy from time to time, or even from hour to hour.

But it’s all been done before, recorded, documented, lamented, and praised. When we were first presented with the “volunteer life cycle” diagram, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical. How could they know what challenges each of us would face? How could they know when our hardest or most exciting moments would be? But so far, they, the ephemeral Peace Corps staff around the world, have been spot on. My highs and lows and pretty much swung very closely to th

It's upside down, dips are good here.

It’s upside down, dips are good here.

Now, at nine months in, I’m supposed to be feeling more adjusted (check), more comfortable (check), at a language plateau (double check), overzealousness (yup), tend to compare with other volunteers (meh, my site is so different, I try not to), and frequent frustration with host culture (depends on the day, but harassment bothers me less even though the problem of consistency here bothers me more than before).

What this means is that as I pack my schedule with projects I’ll never be able to keep up with, I’m starting to make better Ethiopian friends, planning trips for the future, and for the first time I’m thinking 27 months is too short to do everything I want to do. But of course, talk to me in 3 months, when I hit a “mid-service crisis”… I’ll probably need to stalk up on chocolate in preparation.


PC Ethiopia Harlem Shake

27 Mar

Because you can dress us up, but you can’t take us out. Jumping on some YouTube bandwagons. I’m G8 Health (you’ll spot me around 1:15 or so I think).

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!