Archive for the ‘Growing Up’ Category

Transitions, 2015 Version

In Career Development, Growing Up, Home Life, Humanitarian Response, International Development on October 20, 2015 at 9:57 am

It’s time for another career transition. I’m leaving my job with Catholic Relief Services. I know many will think I’m crazy. And maybe I am a little bit – but this is a decision with two very great reasons justifying it: family and timing. I want to share my reasoning because this is illustrative of a lot of people around my age, where we’ve got a young family and are still trying to develop our careers and figure out what we want to do.

On Family…

My CRS job has had me traveling at just over 30 percent. This is actually less than the JD had required, and not nearly as much as some of my other colleagues on the Humanitarian Response Department, who are up in the 50-60 percent range. I thought being able to work from home, being much more available when I’m home, and relocating my family to our forever home in California to be near extended family would help mitigate the effects of me traveling a lot. Maybe if my travel were more predicable, but my trips have come with at most three to four-weeks’ notice. The Nepal trip had me on a plane within three days, and I was gone for four weeks. Almost all my trips are at least two weeks, if not three or more.

To do this job right, I should be willing to go whenever and wherever I’m needed. I feel like I’ve cut a few trips short when I probably should have stayed longer… it felt like doing a better job would have required more from me, and consequently more from my family. As time went on, trips were getting harder and harder for me. I’ve written about this in previous blog posts. Each departure would hurt just a little more, the homesickness would nag at me – right around the two-week mark as I would reach the home stretch I would start to feel worse – more homesick and less productive. It wasn’t good for me, my family, or my employer and colleagues.

In the end – CRS and my position deserved more. The coolest aspects of travel and the work itself were not making up for the negatives. I was tired of missing my kids’ events at home, being the dad who’s almost never around, and having adventures without my family with me to share.  I was also risking my professional reputation by not giving my all. Maybe I’m hard on myself with my self-assessment, but this is my perception. So overall: I loved the job, loved to work for CRS, but the travel was going to push me and my family to a breaking point, probably in the near term. And, even if I wanted to remain with CRS and continue to develop my career there, the options would have almost certainly involved either more travel or moving, two things we’re not prepared to do any longer. My last day with CRS is this Friday 23 October.

On Timing…

I was offered a job with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (aka “MIIS” – www.miis.edu) as a Career and Academic Advisor. I’ll be advising about 180+ students in the Development Policy and Practice Degree program. This is the degree program I completed in 2007, with a Masters in Public Administration. I know the MIIS team pretty well, and have collaborated with them for years. They very generously gave me the Alumni Volunteer Service Award in 2012 – one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me. They proactively recruited me over several months and showed sincere interest in having me come be a part of the team. I demurred when I hadn’t been with CRS for a year, but I was swayed after two long trips to Nepal.

Maybe I could have played coy for another year or two and tried to hold on to my operational Global Development -Humanitarian Response career a little longer – but see above on family concerns… and I would much rather take a job where I’m recruited and they’re psyched to have me, rather than me sticking it out a little longer, my family hitting a wall and I go begging for a new job… I just couldn’t delude myself any longer. Plus there are other pretty decent benefits that made working for MIIS an attractive option. Besides decent benefits (health plan, retirement, annual leave, etc), it’s a super close commute to my home, and I am happy I’ll be able to leave my work at work. I loved working from home but it will be nice to be more turned off from work after hours. Overall I’m excited for the change and I’m surprised how happy I feel about being more anchored into my community. This will be like a real homecoming for me in many ways.

So – while I have absolutely loved working for CRS, it was time for me and my family to make this change. I’m hoping to dig into the academic side of poverty alleviation, program management, and humanitarian response, and to parlay my experience into trainings and ultimately teaching. My pipe-dream is to somehow get a PhD before I’m 50, but I’ve probably already punished my family enough, that’ll go in my parking lot for a while. I start at MIIS on 26 October.

Gratitude and Growth…

CRS has been everything I hoped it would be, and I’m so grateful they approached me for this position last year. I consider my supervisors to be good friends now – they’ve always been supportive and helpful, among the best supervisors I’ve ever had. My recruitment colleagues have been great – they all really care about CRS, the mission and values, and projecting them from a candidate’s first impression of CRS all the way to on-boarding. I think this translates into recruiting the people that CRS has in abundance – dedicated to improving the human condition, committed team players, nice people, super smart and fun to work with – the kind of team you don’t mind working with for 10 years or more. CRS’ retention rates confirm this. It’s an awesome place to work.

And working within the Humanitarian Response team has been a truly humbling experience. It’s been an honor to work with this team, I’ve learned more in the last 15 months about real humanitarian programing than I did in my previous six years with IRD and RI. They’ve got strong leadership, some very smart people, the kind of high-caliber, good humored, and dedicated humanitarian professionals anyone would want to have as colleagues. CRS has the resources at their disposal to do what they feel needs to be done, rather than looking for what a donor will fund – and they can support a robust monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning (aka, MEAL) system that helps contribute to the state of the art of humanitarian response. I feel better about walking away from the humanitarian sector after having worked for one of the most effective humanitarian NGO’s in the world. They’ve shown me what a thorough, well-done job looks like.

My blog, twitter feed, and public Facebook page has been pretty quiet since I’ve worked at CRS, in fact this is probably the first time I’ve even referenced them in my blog other than linking my LinkedIn profile in my “about me” page. I’m hoping to be more active on my blog and through social media as I ease into my new job and start learning about and sharing new things. I’m genuinely excited for this change and I look forward to what’s to come!


Career Advice Part 4 – Your first year after grad school

In Career Development, Growing Up, International Development on March 17, 2014 at 9:43 am

Career Advice for After Graduate School – Navigating your first few years

So much advice is given on how to get that first job, but what about how to navigate the critical professional development period within the first few years after graduation?   There are going to be many forks in the road, hopefully my advice can help you make the right decisions, or at least help you decide when to decide.

Recent graduates and those entering the into their new professional reality for the first time need to recognize and plan for various milestones during the first year of their career, to lay a solid foundation for fulfilling professional growth.

This post is meant for relatively recently graduated professionals entering into their new industry for the first time, and this is mostly based on my experience in the international development/humanitarian relief sector.  You’ve got your first full time job, and you’re not starting up or owning your own organization.  Most Masters students are qualified for a higher-than-Entry-Level position, such as Program Officer, Associate Program Officer, or similar positions.  You may not be a director but you’re not the most junior person at a team meeting.

Here is what you can expect during your first year or two…

The first 6 months:

  • Employer Expectations:  The employer sees/perceives/expects that…
    • Unless you went to graduate school as a mid-career professional with a longer employment history, you were hired because you showed promise.
    • You have a great background that prepared you for the mission you were hired to contribute to fulfilling.
    • The interviewers and hiring managers liked you enough to want you around every day.
    • They needed you in that position as much as you wanted to get the job (at least that’s what you convinced them of in the recruitment process).  You’re filling a role they need someone to play.  They need your gifts.
    • You’re important to the organization, and they want you to succeed.  No one wants to waste his or her time on a gamble that won’t pay off.
  • Learn!  Know the organization.  Know the people you work with.  Read every document possible that has any bearing on the programs or activities under your purview.  Read the rulebooks, the laws, and the regulations.  How does this place actually work?  How does X task really get done?  What are competitors doing better or worse, and why?
    • Think of ways to improve every system around you, all the timeAlways have ideas.  Share them.
  • Identify mentors: Rarely do you find a perfect all-purpose mentor.  You may have several mentors in your career.  Recognize the strengths of those in more senior positions, and ask lots of questions!  You don’t know everything, and that’s OK.
    • You were hired because you knew a little bit already.  Try to pass that on, especially to those less senior than you, and anyone else who will accept what knowledge you have to offer.  Do this forever.
  • Communicate: With your boss, especially.  Regular meetings, reviews, emails, reports, and make sure they’re organized and concise.  People need to know what you’re doing.  Take care to be thorough and accurate.  Know what is expected of you and communicate your expectations. 
    • If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.

After a few weeks:

Ask yourself:

  • What job in this organization looks the most fun/fulfilling/rewarding?  This is totally subjective to you.  Many people at many levels do jobs in different styles.  One Country Director or Grants Manager will run things completely differently than another, but still will get the job done.  Once you’ve learned about the kinds of jobs you like and the tasks that you like doing – get better at them.  You won’t advance unless you deliver.
  • What do I really not like doing?  Once you’ve figured that out – ask yourself: Why don’t I like doing that?  You may surprise yourself.  It may be that something simple within an unloved job duty is derailing you from realizing it’s not that bad, or that you actually do like doing the task.  Maybe you have preconceptions about the kind of person who likes doing those things – you could never have pictured yourself doing those things.  Keep an open mind.  You never know what you’ll end up liking.  Try difficult things, be brave. 

At the end of 6 months:

  • You should have an idea about the sustainability of the organization.  Q. How is my job security?
  • You should know how to be effective, where everything is, who to tap for the best solutions you can’t provide yourself.  Q. How do I get things done and deliver?

At the end of 1 year:

  • The Organization/Employer: You should know if you want to stay with the organization, if it is a positive environment for you professionally and personally.
  • Take your pulse.  Are your career goals the same as 1 year ago?  Is what you enjoy now what you thought you would enjoy?  Do you really want to do X? (Manage people, do complicated detail-oriented tasks, write a lot, live abroad, etc.)  Keep track of your big wins and areas for growth.  Check your job pulse often.
  • You will change.  That’s OK.
  • Write it down – even if you’re going to cruise in what you’re doing for a while, make sure your CV and LinkedIn is current.
  • What do I need to get better? Do you need more training?  Certifications?  Another degree?
    • If it’s time you need, do the time.  Be patient.  Get better at it and your time will come.
  • What is next?  Are you happy to cruise for a while?  Otherwise, you should have your eye on the next level up.  You know the jobs you like and what you want to try. What is the position you want next, and what do you need to get there.
  • If you feel sincerely that you’re ready and the organization can’t give you that promotion, then another organization needs your gifts.

Rinse and repeat.  During your first few professional years, you’ll get better at a lot of things and know a lot more, and you’ll become fluent at your job.  If you’re delivering and growing, momentum and advancement should follow.  Hopefully you’re happy with what you’re doing!

Breaking Face

In Gen X, Growing Up, Home Life, Kids, Politics on October 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm

So some of my friends may have noticed I had a mini meltdown and stormed off Facebook a few weeks ago.  I’ve barely been on FB for the last month.

Here’s the story…

The breaking point happened to be a stupid debate with some friend of a friend on one of his posts.  It was a sensitive issue for me and I was feeling angered and annoyed, one of those feelings where you want to come back with a howitzer of information to crush the dude, and I had all these terrible negative feelings about it.  Then, there was just a crush of other political rantings from other various groups I had followed during the last few election cycles (god FB has been around forever now)…  I was annoyed with what I was seeing, then mad that I was mad.  That was what moved me to take a Facebreak.

What got me to the edge was this long process where I had just been feeling more and more unable to focus.  My concentration has sucked lately.  I was having trouble staying focused on detailed tasks for a long time, getting distracted, either by an email notification, a tag on my FB app showing something… all the various essential viral articles, memes, and other junk that comes across FB and twitter that you just have to check out, otherwise your finger is off the pulse of modern culture…  OMG, OMG, look how many likes I got on this… wow, who was that person who commented on the article I posted?  Who is this person I let friend me a while back?  How do I know this person?

In summary, a flush of information that was requiring more and more mental energy from me to keep on top of, with increasingly diminishing returns.  There’s been this idea of cognitive poverty where the more decisions you have to make, the more tired your brain is and the less effective you are at complex tasks to higher levels of thought.  I was already feeling the crunch of having to make more micro decisions in my average day before having to care about my online image.

So to sum it up, I needed a break.  I needed to make a change.

In the last several weeks, I feel like I went through a bit of a Facebook withdrawal period.  It’s not like I went offline entirely.  I still posted stuff to twitter (@voxsouley, go there if you missed me…) and I connected with people on LinkedIn.  I use HootSuite and generally have been just unchecking FB, to avoid having to go check on how people “liked” me or not.  But I did start to think about the day to day things that I had felt moved to put out there, and it was a good chance to question what I really want everyone to know about my day.

It was kind of a relief to get off, not have to check through the likes.  To be immodest, I felt like I was kind of starting to get the hang of FB, I was getting “likes” on a lot of my posts.  I had a consistent following of a handful of people that seemed to pay attention to what I was posting, liking it or commenting on it, even bits that I’d just kind of re-posted without adding any comment or value.

Once I mistakenly reposted something from an old HS acquaintance of mine that was against my generally liberal progressive leanings, and within moments there was a veritable uproar of 4-6 people (which for me is a lot, another reason I needed to log off and chill) chastising me and debating amongst themselves.  I felt the need to take it down (and did) as I was afraid of how it would look.  Indeed, that might have been one of the seeds of why I went on a FB hiatus. Having to care so much about what you put out there, to fastidiously curate your online life, can really be a pain in the ass – it’s like adding another task to your workday that you’re not really getting paid for.  At least no one is paying me yet.  Who knows, maybe I’ll get a real angle and be the next “I fucking love science” but that’s pretty highly unlikely.

I have slowly started to get back from time to time, ideally using my new perspective and freshly honed FB self-control.  I realized that despite all the junk, it’s nice knowing the people I know, I miss the happy moments that people share – when their kids do something great or they get the new job or notice something beautiful and share it.  That’s when modern social media is worth it, and that’s what I’ll strive to share from here on out.  There’s already too much negativity, I don’t need to add to it.

Speechifying on Decisions and Career Development

In Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Peace Corps on January 20, 2012 at 9:07 pm

This is the text of a speech I gave at the UCDC Winter welcome reception tonight, 1/20/2012.

Good evening everyone! Thanks Melody for that great introduction! I’d also like to thank the alumni volunteers Sarah and Paulina, and also Lexi Killoren for inviting me here tonight to speak with you. I learned that today was her last day with UCSD. I’m excited to be here and to be reconnecting with UC San Diego after 15 years. My parents still live in Carlsbad and I’ve passed by UC San Diego over the years, things have changed a lot – you’ve got new buildings, new colleges, even UCDC wasn’t yet an option for me back in the early 90’s.

And, by the way, I’d like to say that UCSD made me try something new again, I wore a suit all day on Casual Friday! Thanks for that. But I’ve also decided not to wear a tie, in honor or Friday.

I was invited to speak to you about how I got into my career and field. I’ve been thinking about this since I was invited to speak, and you can draw a direct link between my time at UCSD and where I am now. The stage was set for me, but the spark for what was to come came to me while I was exploring my options one day back in the mid 90’s. What I’ve learned is that building your career is based on making key decisions based on what is most important to you. I’m going to talk to you tonight about the decisions I made that brought me to where I am now.

I always knew I wanted to help people. I think this comes from my father, who has devoted his career to developing cancer drugs for pharmaceutical companies. My mother also volunteered at my elementary school extensively while I was growing up, eventually spending 3 years as the PTA president. This was an early influence on my career.

I also have always been interested in working internationally and learning new cultures. This is also due to my father, a scientist who always had international colleagues on his teams and over to our house for dinner all the time. I liked the different cultures, accents, styles, and languages. This probably played a small part in attracting me to international development.

As Melody mentioned, I work in the International Development field. What does that mean? Well, generally speaking, it encompasses all material and technical assistance to disadvantaged people in developing countries. Like any industry, international development is segmented and you can specialize – We can help build roads to facilitate more commerce, reconstruct housing after a disaster, provide hygiene training to reduce infant mortality, and help make local government more responsive to their communities. I have colleagues who are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, as well as anthropologists and journalists. Then you have someone like me.

I’m what you would call a generalist. I never majored in a technical field – in fact, one of the reasons I ended up where I am is because a Peace Corps recruiter feigned interest in my Political Science studies at UCSD.

As many of you know – UCSD has one of the best medical schools in the world. In the early 90’s when I was a student, it was clear that computer science and engineering degrees were going to pay dividends – but I just couldn’t find any interest in those fields. I had no idea what I would do with a Political Science degree. I just liked studying foreign policy and other cultures. I thought that maybe I would become a Foreign Service Officer, but I hadn’t really heard my calling.

So one day, I happened upon a grad school fair at the Price Center. There were two tables there I came across that ended up being important later on in my life – the Peace Corps and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The Peace Corps recruiter, when I told him my major, said, “Really? We could use you!” And I was just naïve enough to really love hearing that and gathering all the brochures. This was before the web had caught on so information was scarce… I also spent a few moments at the Monterey Institute’s table – it seemed like an interesting place, you learn to work internationally and you have to be proficient in a language before you graduate.

Those two UCSD experiences parked themselves in the back of my head waiting for another day. I graduated in fall of 1995, moved up to San Jose, and got engaged to my wife Andrea. I got a job working at a computer store where I worked my way up from shipping and receiving to corporate sales. At 22, I had a job where my colleagues were both in their 50’s, one of them putting his daughter through college. I was on a track that I wasn’t enjoying, but I learned two important lessons – that it’s liberating being sincere, and that I would never enjoy selling something unless I believed in it.

I decided that selling computers wasn’t my calling; I wanted to get out of it as soon as I could. I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school so I started to look into that option. I remembered the Monterey Institute from that career fair back at UCSD. I drove down and visited the campus, where the dean told me that with my relatively, ahem, mediocre grades, that I’d need to do something else international to be a competitive applicant, “like the Peace Corps, “ he said.

My wife had already had her epiphany and had, apparently, secretly filled out most of our applications and had ben waiting for me to come around… in fact maybe she was collaborating with the Monterey dean I spoke with… regardless, once we learned you could serve as a married couple, we decided to join the Peace Corps in fall 1996.

My mindset when I went to Niger was that this was going to be like the “army for hippies” for me – something super difficult and life changing that would set me on my course, make me an adult, and get me to the next step, which at that time was going to graduate school. I figured that I’d have 2 years to experience new things and think about what I want to do. It ended up being so much more. I went to Niger with few expectations other than to expect it to be really difficult and hopefully I’d come out of it with some kind of life direction, and my marriage in tact! Which, I’m happy to say, it is, this April we’ll be celebrating our 15th anniversary.

A little bit about Niger – it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, in the last 10 years it’s actually held the bottom position in the UN Human Development Index a couple of times. At the end of the 90’s, Niger’s infant mortality rate was around 20 percent, the literacy rate was less than 10 percent for women; annual income was less than a dollar per day. It’s the children that really affected me – these kids had no control over where they were born, the choices their parents make, or the policies their governments put into place, all of which have had an effect on their current situation. I was born to middle class, educated parents who gave me every possible opportunity to thrive – I’ve had more luck than I needed, which living in Niger made clear to me. In Niger, I decided to devote my career to helping those whose parents couldn’t give them what mine could.

I know I have only about 15-20 minutes to talk, but to describe my Peace Corps experience in a nutshell… The poverty was shocking, scary, and one of the most profound things I’ve experienced in my life. We lived in two round mud huts with grass roofs in a small rural village of 50 Fulani herder families. We communicated in Fulfulde and I worked in the fields and gardens with my villagers. I managed a village-based literacy program and wrote a proposal that helped build about 10 garden wells. We extended for a 3rd year to become volunteer leaders and moved to a city where I spoke more French and was exposed to more traditional NGO’s and their work. My last 6 months, I worked for the Carter Center on Guinea Worm eradication.

It was really my last 6 months that focused me – I was the regional representative for the Carter Center for Eastern Niger. I managed the office, disbursed funds and drove all around the bush monitoring the program. When I realized that this was like a real international development job, I decided that this is what I wanted to do. All the things I’d come to care about were there: I was helping people in one of the poorest places on earth, working internationally, and speaking different languages. It was also a great bonus that my wife was right there with me.

After Niger, I worked as a Peace Corps recruiter while we lived in San Francisco and started a family. I got a Masters in International Relations from San Francisco State. One of the schools in my recruiting region happened to be the Monterey Institute of International Studies – MIIS as we call it. I had a chance to reconnect with that school and ended up re-enrolling in graduate school to get my Masters of Public Administration, which I finished in 2007.

Since early 2008, I’ve been working for IRD, where I’m finally working on the kinds of projects I’d envisioned all those years ago in eastern Niger. I actually got to visit Niger and our old village for IRD in September 2010, one of the best experiences of my life.

I want to tell you about where I work. IRD, which stands for “International Relief and Development,” is an international non-profit, non-governmental organization, or NGO. Our mission is to reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable groups and provide the tools and resources needed to increase their self-sufficiency.

I’m a program officer, I manage and monitor programs being implemented in the field. In the last 2 years I’ve travelled to Iraq, Niger, Chad, Kenya, and most recently – Ethiopia, where I was able to help start up an emergency water trucking program benefitting over 20,000 people along the Somali-Ethiopian border.

Recently, IRD initiated our end of year campaign around the theme, “Why I care.” I loved the simplicity and sincerity of this question, and I thought it applies well to what I came to talk to you about tonight. All of you care about something. You care about your family, your friends, and your education. But in your time here in DC, many of you for the first time will be exposed to a new world – the professional work world. This is a great opportunity to learn about what you really care about – not necessarily the grand themes of market policies or governance – but about how you like to work, what you like to work on, and what you would like to learn.

So, the lesson I’d love you all to take away from me tonight is that seemingly unconnected events and decisions can end up shaping your life, in ways you could never have imagined. A random conversation here, a bit of advice there, all build up and start making sense after a while. Here you are in Washington DC, in the middle of your college career, trying to figure out what you’re going to do, who you’re going to be – some of you might be starting to stress out about it. My advice to you is to take it day by day, keep your eyes and ears open, be flexible. Make your decisions when you need to, based on what you think is important, and change course if you don’t feel right. Pay attention to what you care about. Never stop learning, and always have faith in yourself.

Thanks very much!

I’ll be happy to take your questions.

Eleven to Twelve

In Career Development, Growing Up, Home Life, Kids, Travel on January 1, 2012 at 11:18 pm

I had a few minutes and decided to go ahead and throw my hat into the ring, however briefly, for a new years blog post. 2011 was actually a very crazy year for me. A ton of stuff happened, to me and in the world, and it was surreal and exciting, exhilarating and exhausting.

In a nutshell, my wife and I welcomed our 3rd child, a son, into the family in April, after which I got to take 3 months of paid paternity leave. I went to Africa 3 times for work, once before and twice after the paternity leave. At work I was moved back and forth between teams twice, while finally getting a long overdue promotion… And in the end we remodeled the kitchen while 3/5ths of the household, myself included, were on antibiotics. Lots going on.

Watching the world move… While I was in Chad in January I watched as Tunisia overthrew its ruler and the Arab spring began, which became an undercurrent in the background of all international news the rest of the year in all my travels. Also during my time in Chad, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey, Niger and subsequently killed in a firefight, this lead to the suspension of the Peace Corps program there which I had hoped to reconnect with in my future work with IRD. It was also a sad event as it meant hundreds of long time Nigerien Peace Corps staff were going to be out of work. Not to mention the sudden cutoff of all their various projects.

In the late summer, after my first few weeks back at work, I was asked to travel to Ethiopia to assist with emergency drought relief proposals and project start-up. It was a long 3 week trip but one of the best of my career so far. After about 3 weeks back, I ended up going back to Africa, spending almost 3 weeks in Nairobi, a less good trip for me but still interesting and reasonably productive given the circumstances. Quadaffi was killed while I was in Nairobi, a pretty brutal counterweight to how it went down in Tunisia earlier in the year.

So, from where I sit now, looking back, 2011 was a really big year for me, personally and professionally. 2012 will bring a lot of new opportunities and chances to grow and learn, as well as to teach. Hopefully I can get more of my thoughts down as I go!

The Return of Souley

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Public Health, Sustainable Development on September 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I just got back from visiting Doutouel, my old Peace Corps village in south-western Niger. It was such an incredible day, I’ve got to get some of my thoughts down before I crash.

Here are the big observations.

The millet is awesome there this year. The rains have been good, they anticipate harvesting in the next 3-4 weeks. They seem to have planted their usual mix of millet and sorghum, with squash and various leafy greens growing near the huts. One of the all-star gardeners helped a fellow villager construct his own new garden well, on their own.

They got a primary school! Right after we completed our PC service, in 2001, the government of Niger built a Primary School. Over 100 kids attend it, they’ve had four classes now. Only 5 kids fully graduated on to the next level so far, but that’s 5 kids more than had ever even had the chance before. And, just the fact that the children of Doutouel will have at least exposure to education means that a lot of development indicators will improve – girls will get married later and have fewer children being the most important, in my opinion.

They also have a health clinic! I was totally surprised to see this – Doutouel is a pretty small village – only about 660 people, plus the outlying areas that are administratively coupled with Doutouel. But it’s far enough away from the main clinic in Torodi, the market village, that people used to wait until grave circumstances to bring sick people to the clinic. The clinic used to be seen as where people go to die, not where to maintain one’s health.

The road is well traveled! The French paid for a road to be built from Torodi through Doutouel to the next largest village, Adare, which is about 25 kilometers from Torodi. The road is clearly the main reason the government finally came around to giving them a school and clinic – they could finally reach it. There was a bush taxi there when I got there. It was such a pleasant surprise. Getting down to Doutouel from Niamey used to take pretty much a whole day, depending on how we would get there. Today I went in an NGO vehicle, in perfect condition, and stopped for no one until Torodi. If we hadn’t had to stop along the way to pick up a PCV and visit the local functionaires, I could have been from my hotel in Niamey to Doutouel in less then an hour.

I cannot overstate how medieval my village used to seem when I was there from 1997-1999. You could mostly only walk there – the land cruisers could make it but with great difficulty – in fact my villagers brought out some old pictures of when they helped us pull a land cruiser out of the nearby river. But there was almost no modern technology in my village other than radios. Now, several people have cell phones. There’s the obvious clinic and school. There is a school teacher who lives there and is almost like a Nigerien Peace Corps volunteer, especially in the way he seems to act as a kind of ambassador for the outside world.

I was happy to take a current PCV with me, a young woman from Boston, just starting her second year as a PCV. I don’t want to use her name or give away her village, but having her around was very helpful for bridging the gap between PCV’s in the area. After spending the day with me, hopefully she has a sense of all the work that was done in the area for more than 20 years before she got there. She was also nice enough to use my camera to take pictures of my visit so I could concentrate on my Fulfulde and greet as many people as I could.

I was so deeply moved to see our best village friends still there, doing as well as I could have expected. My neighbor’s kids were doing great – the two oldest kids are basically adults now, with kids of their own. Even the youngest, who used to be very sick with constant ringworm, looked to be thriving.

I must stress that Doutouel was and still is a very lucky village, environmentally. Even in a bad drought year, they still have a seasonal river that they can use to water their gardens. They’re Fulani herders at heart, so they take good care of their animals. They have a low water table, and multiple coping mechanisms during lean years. They even have a granary that was built with the help of another NGO. I didn’t show up empty-handed, I brought them a whole sack of millet which they put in the granary for when they need it. So as far as Niger is concerned – they’re not a village that is a candidate for blanket feeding.

Still, they never have done all they possibly could. For instance, I’ve always thought they could easily plant rice or sugar cane in their vast water basin that gets annually inundated, and then sell it to buy food. But property rights make that difficult – it’s been brought up to them before but the organization and complications involved, and the newness of it make it too difficult for them now.

Overall, I was deeply moved – like, trying to keep it together moved – to see my old friends, and to see the positive changes in Doutouel after just 10 years. Every step I take in my career, when I encounter a question about appropriate technology or a development intervention, I think about what my villagers would do. It was so rewarding to see the key things being attended to: Primary Education, Public Health, and Infrastructure.

I hope to return the next time I visit Niger, which hopefully won’t be another 10 years from now. After all, it’s so easy to get there now! And my villagers can call me now!

Going back

In Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps on September 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

It’s as official as it’s going to be, I’m going back to Niger, where my wife and I served as Peace Corps Volunteers from 1997-2001.  I leave on Saturday, arrive on Sunday, and will be there for the next 2 weeks.

This trip represents a lot of different things for me.  Primarily, it’s a career development opportunity – I haven’t had many opportunities to get the long-term field experience that a lot of my peers have, so I need to take advantage of these chances to work “in the field.”  For me at this stage of my career, I couldn’t be more pleased with the situation – I am the only Program Officer at my NGO backstopping Niger and Chad.  I get to work on my Peace Corps Country, which is a nice full-circle opportunity for me in my international development career.

However, I’m hoping that this can be more of a beginning rather than a full-circle ending – kind of like the next phase of my life.  Peace Corps Niger is a large part of my identity.  I spent nearly 10 years as either a Peace Corps Volunteer, Recruiter, or former recruiter (while in grad school); working at my NGO represents the main 2nd phase of my career, especially since I started in the programming sector on the Iraq team last year.

But – it will be hard not to live in the past as I get back to a country I’ve grown to lionize.  As a recruiter, my Peace Corps Volunteer experience grew into this epic, heroic experience where I found myself and my career calling, overcoming the soul-crushing factors lined up against me.  Even now, I’m sure people are still sick of me saying, “When I was in Peace Corps… in Niger…in  Niger… blah blah” as I stand up and gesticulate and tell my guinea-worm project story for the Nth time.

The reality was probably more prosaic.  I was a decent PCV, I thought I learned Fulfulde pretty well (until I visited other villages with people who didn’t know the “Tubako” Fulfulde), I worked on a wide range of projects and even extended for a third year.  But I can’t say I lit the PC world aflame or did anything truly remarkable.  No volunteer of the year awards for me.  I got sick a couple of times, but nothing really awful.

I basically had the classic PC experience – I learned and gained WAY more than I taught, and it had a lasting effect on my career goals and life outlook.

So now, I’m preparing to get back and do something I never really did before – regular development work.  Niger is experiencing a crushing famine and has had devastating flash floods recently.  Niger is still the very poorest country in the world according to the UN Human Development Index, and the statistics that lead to that terrible ranking represent a non-famine year.  Niger’s reality is one of barely subsisting, on the knife’s edge of crisis, even in a good year.  I’m happy to be working for an NGO where I can help alleviate the suffering of Nigeriens, who are among the most vulnerable people on Earth.

With that in mind – I’ll have a lot on my plate these next two weeks.  I’m hoping to write about this as much as possible, and even cross-post my blog posts on IRD’s Voices blog and upload some photos to Flickr when I can.

Stay tuned.

What to do with myself?

In Capacity Building, Gen X, Growing Up, Home Life on June 21, 2010 at 9:45 pm

This blog post started as a frustrated Facebook update.  I couldn’t even bring myself to tweet it.  I go back and forth between Twitter and Facebook.  Before I go into the reasons for this blog post, let me just lay out the rules of how I choose to tweet or facebook…

I tweet when I know I can be brief and when I have a link I want to share that is somehow consistent with my online version of myself.  I’ve branded myself as a “Generation X Dad working in International Development.”  So, anything related to parenting (only if it’s suitable for public consumption), relief work, or John Hughes movies basically…

I facebook update more personally relevant things, like pictures of my kids, longer comments about things, or just basically when I want attention from my own personal zeitgeist.  I know that I will get at least someone to click the “like” button about 80% of the time.  If I don’t I feel despondent, which I hate that I feel… but I’ve already digressed.

No, but why I’m writing is that I’m feeling frustrated… And this is the worst reason to blog (but it’s my reason tonight!!)  There are just not enough hours in the day, and I have neither the space,  concentration, nor the patience to focus on a creative outlet.  But it still frustrates the hell out of me.  I have this internal picture of myself as Mr. Renaissance man – like when I was in early undergraduate college… I was a tennis player, photographer, musician, writer, traveller… the world is your oyster, the future is limitless.  Not that that was the happiest I’ve ever been, not by a long shot.  Think of how insecure and naive we all were…

I’m not saying I’m not happy – I love my life, I love my wife, my kids, my career…  I think what I’m really saying is that I had some free time tonight and was so overwhelmed by the open-ness of the space that I didn’t know what to do with myself.  Do I catch up on all the TED videos I’ve been meaning to watch?  Do I try to learn a little more about the Agriculture work I’m supposed to be a practitioner of now?   Should I write a blog post?

It’s just life with kids, Thirtysomething life, I think.  Things are always evolving.  Now we grow with our kids – when they need sleep, we make sure they have it.  When we need them home, we stay home.  I work in an office – I can’t work from home, and when I’m home there’s not really the space or time for a proper avocation.

Who am I kidding, I’m not the type anyway.  I’m all over the place, I’m now used to doing everything in little chunks, nothing for more than a few minutes at a time.  I am rapidfire, quick reaction, rash, and impatient.  The sooner I learn to work with myself rather than against myself, the more content I’ll be.

That’s the voyage I’ve taken you all on tonight.  Thanks for the company.

American phones and their consequences

In Growing Up, Niger on April 25, 2010 at 1:03 am

The two 15 year old Nigerien girls are still with us, they were supposed to leave one week ago but a Volcano in Iceland had other ideas.  Fortunately that’s better and the girls are scheduled on a flight for Wednesday.  It’s been a total roller coaster week at this point.

I think the trouble started before the Volcano issue.  The Friday before they left, the NGO hosting them was going to have a dinner celebration for all of them, giving them certificates for their 3 week trip and the various lessons they completed and presentations they gave.  However, the Chadien and Nigerien teachers with them thought that the $40 per diem they were going to get for their final two travel days was not enough.  They persuaded all the students (all of them about 15-16 yrs old) to boycott the dinner and refuse the money until they got $200 for the 2 days.

To his credit, the Director of the NGO and the program director stood their ground and refused to raise the per diem.  However, this left a tricky situation, with their impending flight. At that point I think everyone was tired of everyone and all assumed that they would all go on their disgruntled ways and wash their hands of each other.  When the flight delays hit, there were some things that needed to be decided and communicated.

That was the first problem.

We heard from the program director who was valiantly trying to contact Air France, Delta, the US Embassy, and anyone else who could have any effect on the flight delays.  The one person who was AWOL was the NGO director.  The kids were confused and homesick.  We tried to incorporate them into our weekend by buying them more food, taking them out for the day, and generally hanging out.  It was an OK day.  On the way home from my younger daughter’s gym class, I helped Nadia buy an African phone card – she gave me what I thought was her last $5 for it.  This foreshadows the other big problem…

The NGO hastily plans some other little excursions for the kids, to keep them occupied and out of the house.  By now we’re all tired of each other, they want to go home, we want our house and privacy back, and the cost of feeding two extra hungry (and picky) mouths is starting to stress Andrea and I out.

At some point Wednesday night, Nadia makes a phone call using her card, which runs out of minutes.  Unsatisfied with her phone time, she just dials direct.  BIG mistake.

I am now a HUGE fan of Verizon.  They called my wife Thursday morning and told her there had been an unusual spike in our monthly bill, someone had placed a $600 phone call the previous night.

I’ll just let that hang there.  $600.

We were shocked.  Really pissed off.  Andrea called me at work, in total shock.  She immediately told the girls and, I was told, they were all in tears.  To the credit of the NGO program director Gaddiel – he held it all together and promised that we wouldn’t be liable, that the girls had agreed when they signed on to the program that they wouldn’t use the host family’s phones.  Would have been helpful to know this previously…

And, Andrea was able to talk Verizon down and turn off international calling (we would use Skype if we need to).

But the consequences are that for the last 3 days, the girls have been all but MIA.  They just sit in their room.  All day.  Today, Saturday, we spent the whole day in and out of the house, we were here from about 2pm on, and it’s like they weren’t here.  They haven’t been eating their breakfast that we’ve prepared.  They didn’t eat lunch today.  They’re not coming out for our cooking.  Right now they’re using 1000 million gallons of oil to cook french fries.  They always offer me their food which is nice, but it’s kind of a bizarre and twisted host family situation, don’t you think?

In any case, it would be nice to salvage things with them to end this experience on a high note.  I still feel friendly towards them.  I don’t blame Nadia for being homesick and wanting to talk to her family a little more.  They’re 15 yr olds exiled far from home in a foreign land.  It’s still cool to hear Hausa, and their food, even cooked with what we have in the house, brings me back to Niger, which is also nice.

And, it finally was made clear to us that the NGO will pay us about $25 per day for the kids entire time at our house, which makes the money stress go away.  Would have been helpful to know that beforehand.  In fact, it’s not entirely clear to me at this point if the NGO would have compensated us at all if this delay and complaining hadn’t happened…

I’m still glad we did this, overall.  We’re just not going to do it again.  Not for a while.  And not with this NGO.

Host Family Life

In Growing Up, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on April 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm

For the handful of my followers, you’ll know from my twitter feed that we’ve been hosting two Nigerien exchange students for the past 3 weeks.  As I write this, they’re among the millions of travelers stranded by the Iceland Volcano eruption.  They were supposed to leave yesterday, they spent all night Thursday and Friday preparing to go, their reactions to the news that they might be temporarily stranded here was mixed.  One was stoic, the other dramatic – kind of in line with how they’ve been the whole time.

Azalia and Nadia are their names.  They’re here through an NGO called Visions in Action (VIA), who are implementing a US Department of State program geared towards bringing African teenagers and some of their teachers to America, specifically Washington DC, for civic education and cross-cultural exchange.  This particular group consists of 15 students and 4 teachers from Niger and Chad.  Through a colleague, I got an email from VIA asking for host families.  Since my wife and I served in Peace Corps Niger, and since it was only for a few short weeks, we thought it was worth the imposition.  We could repay some of the kindness that was provided to us when we were Peace Corps trainees in Niger more than 10 years ago.

Overall, I would say the experience has gone very well.  We can speak a mixture of French, Hausa, and English with them, so there hasn’t ben much of a language barrier.  The real barrier is the age old teenage vs adult issues that would bedevil any relationship between 15 yr olds and their adult supervisors.

As a parent of very young children – my two daughters are 6 and 3 – I wasn’t prepared for the strange hours and moodiness.  Maybe I expected the girls to be more outgoing, curious, or appreciative.  I was honestly naive.  They’re 15 yr olds, they miss their families, and – as much as they’ve been good about trying it – they don’t like our food.

I’ll hopefully post some more missives and stories about them in the coming days, it appears that the transatlantic flight situation is touch and go.

Plus, as always, I find myself overwhelmed with the need to get everything out in my blog posts because I don’t blog enough. There’s an outlet for everything, right?