Archive for the ‘Peace Corps’ Category

Nigerien Agriculture – from my experience

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on March 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm

(For the record – in English – someone from Niger is a Nigerien, someone from Nigeria is a Nigerian.) 

An acquaintance asked me to describe my experience with smallholder farmers in Africa, this is what I ended up writing for her.

My most intimate experience was as a Peace Corps volunteer living in a rural Nigerien village.  Farmers would generally have “ownership” or at least control over 1-3 hectares of land where, if the rains were perfect, they’d grow enough millet and sorghum for most of the year.  Land was not “owned” in our northern sense though, it was apportioned by the village chief or county chief (Chef du Canton).  Farmers could not take out loans against their land titles, there are no titles per se.  So, if a farmer wants to improve his yield – the options are (and all include money):

  1. To work WAY harder: rehabilitating degraded soil which you need tools or to employ manual laborers for, in which case they need the funds for these tools or laborers, which they almost never have.  Animal traction is difficult because of the soil but it depends on the geography.
  2. To purchase fertilizer/improved seeds: all the various scientific studies about Niger (google ICRISAT) and farming millet show that the only way to improve yields is to use fertilizer or invest in improved higher/faster yielding seeds.  For this you need money, but it also entails significant risk because this is an entirely rain-fed exercise; if you invest in fertilizer or improved seeds and the rains are inconsistent or otherwise deficient, you lose your investment.
  3. Irrigate: This is almost a non-starter as it’s so expensive or the field has to be in a perfect location close to a water source.  Definitely possible for some farmers that I knew along rivers or seasonal lakes, some of them invested in pumps and would irrigate their fields, planting more water-intensive crops such as maize.

The other issue is the whole market situation – most of the farmers I knew were straight-up subsistence farmers.  They were almost never selling their harvest unless it was a dire situation or something unusual like a wedding.  They otherwise needed the food to survive, and barely survive.

I found that in general my villagers were experts at managing their risks, they knew the bare minimum they had to do to avoid a huge loss but to keep their family alive.  In rough years like in 2005 and I think 2009/10 (I can’t remember the last really bad year) they lose/deplete their coping mechanisms, which are basically selling assets like their cattle/sheep/goats, sending family members away to earn money (sometimes young children), or migrating to urban areas as a last resort. These really bad years used to be far enough apart that people could recover, but now they’re closer together, leaving people vulnerable.  Also, population growth, even with intense family planning interventions from the government and NGO’s, is very high (something like average 7 living kids per Nigerien mother) so any improvements are negated by population growth; there’s not enough to go around.

In some cases the environment has degraded slowly enough that villagers still maintain their mental model of their home villages being a place where Allah should allow them to farm – but the land has become so degraded and dry over time, through deforestation and erosion – that harvesting a survivable crop is all but impossible.  These people make up the majority of those accepting WFP food distributions and literally living off of aid.  There are ways to rehabilitate the land; there’s a thing called “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” that has had great success using indigenous trees and grasses but it takes years to show an effect.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now


What do people do all day?

In Career Development, International Development, Peace Corps, Strategic Management on April 26, 2013 at 12:47 pm


An intern asked me about what I do all day, what my job is like.  So here’s what I told her.

At my last job, Program Development (writing new proposals and devising new programs) and Program Operations (general day to day management) were both done by the Program Officers.  Here at my new job, it’s more of the latter.

So, day to day, I’m basically providing oversight and guidance to the field program managers (through the CD’s) to make sure the program deliverables are being met, on time, and on budget.  There’s no incentive in this business to come in “under budget” because we are a non-profit, we don’t and can’t profit from being efficient.  Monthly fund requests come my way from the country finance managers, and I make recommendations.  Yesterday one FM requested about $85,000 for May, which I thought was too low, it should be closer to 120,000 or more, as it’s for a $2.5 million project for 12 months.  You can’t just divide it by 12, because about 25% of the budget will be charged at HQ as indirect/overhead and salary/fringe benefits charges (part of my salary, a finance person, and any others that can).
Also, I review all the donor-reporting for the technical programs (i.e., not the financial reports).  For the USG programs I am the main POC for my counterpart at USAID, OFDA, or BPRM.  So I submit the reports to the donor.  After I finally visit the field I’ll have more context and be able to contribute a little more to the reports, to make them more useful.  They become public record, it’s US taxpayer money funding USG projects, so in the end someone somewhere (like a reporter or an auditor) could make a FOIA request and read these reports.
Also, there are procurement requests where I have to provide approval.  Recently  one of my programs requested to purchase approximately $40,000 of “hygiene kits” and I had to coordinate about 6-7 signatures from staff spread out all over the world (finance people in Baku and LA, operations people in San Francisco).
Working on proposals can be fun, I got to work on an assessment in Niger and Burkina Faso earlier this year for my last job.  You come up with a ton of questions, gather the quantitative and qualitative data, and work as a team to come up with a solution design.  The writing can be fun because you feel like you’re fighting for people who need help.  It can also be exhausting because it’s like writing a thesis, USAID likes these proposals to be rigorous.
So, in general here at my new position, this is a line-them-up and knock-them-down type job for now.  You have to be able to keep organized and to prioritize.  It gets a lot cooler when you get to visit the field and get a little more connected to the beneficiaries.  In general, other than being a Peace Corps volunteer or maybe a doctor for MSF/Doctors without Borders, most Americans that work in international development are removed a few steps from the beneficiaries.  But hopefully we’re doing more good than harm. 🙂

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.

Guest Post: UCSD Prospect Interview

In Career Development, International Development, Peace Corps, Uncategorized on November 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

I was interviewed by Alexsandra McMahan, (@a_mcmahan) UCSD Student and CEO of the online international relations journal “Prospect.”  Below is the entire interview as published.  It can also be found at this link.

By Alexsandra McMahan
Staff Writer

ImageImage by Scott Webb, used with permission from the interviewee

It was the fall quarter of 1995 and Scott Webb needed a few extra units to graduate from the University of California, San Diego. Most of us find some sort of answer, but not everyone expects that answer to determine the path of their future. In Webb’s case, he filled his spare units with French and his future with a career in West Africa. Webb began as a Muir College student and now works as a program officer for International Relief and Development (IRD), one of the largest USAID implementers.

It all began when Webb was a senior at UCSD and needed one more class to graduate.

“I took French at UCSD and it was awesome, actually. I needed an extra few units my last semester, and it was offered. I actually registered for German and then I heard some French and thought it sounded really nice. It ended up actually impacting where I went in Peace Corps… it’s the whole reason I ended up in West Africa.”

Webb’s time at UCSD was short but undoubtedly influenced his decision to join the Peace Corps – something most would consider the pivotal moment in his life.

“I went to Muir College, and graduated in ’95; my major was political science with a minor in sociology. I only went to UCSD for two years after transferring from community college and I kind of had to jump right in. It took me a couple semesters, but I landed on poli-sci. At that time, they didn’t really have an International Relations major. I ended up studying mostly foreign policy and policy development and things like that. While I was at UCSD, I was wandering around the Price Center one day, and they were having a career fair – there was a Peace Corps table there. It always had appeal to me: I saw the commercial when I was a little kid and that had always interested me. And I’ve always been surrounded by international people, my dad’s a scientist and he always had lots of colleagues from all over the world working with him.
So the Peace Corps recruiter said, “Hey, what’s your major?”
I said, “Oh, Political Science with a minor in Sociology.”
And he was like, “Oh, we could use you!”
I said, “Really?” and I was hooked.

UC San Diego is reputable for its scientific degrees and steady stream of pre-med graduates, but not necessarily for political science majors with minors in sociology. For Webb, it was very memorable to actually have a recruiter want him. He shelved the memory for a few years after graduation as he began working an office job – one he quickly learned to hate. “Sitting on my butt not doing much, I could see my next 20 years ahead of me and my colleagues,” Webb said, “and I just thought…there’s more that I can do.”

Webb decided to visit the Monterrey Institute and inquire about applying. They suggested because of his grades he “do something a little more remarkable, like join the Peace Corps.” Although Webb was now married, this idea floated around in his head for a few days until he asked his wife Andrea whether she had ever thought about joining the Peace Corps. Her response? A resounding yes. That was it: for the next two years, Scott and Andrea served as Peace Corps volunteers in rural agro-pastoralist communities and assistants to Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa. Because of Webb’s French study at UCSD, he and his wife were placed in Niger, and he has remained involved in West Africa for the past 10 years. Webb claims his initial work with the Peace Corps was a “huge introduction” into development as Niger is “always in the bottom five of the UN Human Development Index” and like Ethiopia unfortunately seems to “serve as a poster child for famine.” “It was really a big eye opener,” Webb admitted during our interview, and the experience has influenced his current work for International Relief and Development.

After the Peace Corps, it was a “bit of a ride,” but Scott made it his goal “to get back into international development.” After a stint as a Peace Corps recruiter and some time at the Monterrey Institute, Webb began working for IRD as an International Recruitment Officer in March 2008 and is currently a Program Officer for IRD’s Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems Unit.

Webb’s decade in aid work has taught him a lot about what works and what does not.

“The aid world is always more complex than it seems from here in the US. In the NGO world, there’s a great blog called “Stuff ExPat Aid Workers Like.” It’s a really cool blog that goes into this whole world of people that go abroad for decades. They make their career and they live overseas. Secretary of State James Baker, from the George H. W. Bush administration, wrote a book and he was saying there was a thing called ‘clientitis’. It’s an international relations term where, in that context, Foreign Service Officers can become enamored and supportive of whatever the host government says. I think to a large extent, many aid workers can sort of fall into that. But systemically, I think that the aid world really is a learning industry and is more in touch at the grass roots level than most Americans.”

Specifically, Webb believes that more NGOs are learning to not repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. As things move forward in his work with IRD, Webb predicts an aid machine that has learned from past mistakes but continues to utilize successful programs to create micro level development projects.

“You know, something I’ve really seen is people putting a huge emphasis on not recreating the same problems of the past. The Title 2 food programming is moving toward local procurement [of goods]… I think there are healthy evolutions, and the Obama Administration with Rajiv Shah as the head of US Agency for International Development (USAID), [has] put some people in there that I think are really interested in bringing it to the 21st century, where we’re really learning from all of the mistakes that have happened in the past. You know, billions and billions of dollars have been spent in international aid. And really, pretty much from the early 1960s until the early 1990s, it was totally ineffective because it was all involved in cold war rivalries, just plugging tons of money into communist/non-communist nations. We’ve learned a lot since then, and I think, in the coming years, you’re going to see lean, targeted, inclusive projects. When I say inclusive, not just the NGO going someplace and having total control over something, but [instead] an NGO partnering to facilitate linking the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable people to things like product or commodity value chains and better education systems. That is how things are evolving.”

He envisions the continuation of programs such as Feed the Future and a shift towards projects that partner with the private sector. Because we live in a global capitalist structure, Webb argues that successful aid projects in the future will be dependent upon the ability of aid organizations to work with the private sector firms that control the world’s capital.

“The big thing in my world right now is Feed the Future…. Feed the Future is actually the future. It’s the way that food aid projects and agriculture assistance projects are going, so that’s what we’re really concentrating on in my department. What those projects really entail, like I was saying, [are] partnerships with the private system. At the core, we have a capitalist global system. Nothing will be sustainable unless people are making enough money to provide for their families and strength their communities. To a large extent, I see NGOs building the capacity of small-holder farmers, so that those farmers are able to gain credit from private investors. Then, NGOs and private sector partners connect the people producing something with whoever’s going to process it, whoever’s going to ship it, whomever adds value and ultimately, to the consumers. So, Feed the Future projects are really going to be a tightly bound group of NGOs and private sector groups… There are lots of businesses, corporate interests, that are going to ship and process the food…. What we’ve done in the past, as far as agricultural aid, is we get people producing for themselves, and you give them improved practices, so they can produce just a little bit more for their family, and maybe they can sell a little bit in their local markets. That increases their income a little bit and their nutrition a little bit, but, you know, it doesn’t advance their country forward, it doesn’t create international income, it doesn’t get them involved in the global system. These developing countries in Africa — they have a massive oversupply of labor. The unemployment rate is really high. So you have big time rural to urban migration and that’s just because there’s no money in farming. But to a large extent, a lot of these places have a comparative advantage to grow something… There’s a lot going on. You’ve got the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which helps encourage investment in African companies and things like that. That’s very tied into Feed the Future, they tout that a lot. Basically, as I can see it at IRD, we have to make partnerships with the private sector where we help strengthen the value chain and guarantee the value of private investments in vulnerable small-holder farmers. That’s a root thing I think is going to happen [with IRD] and other NGOs as well.”

When asked what critics of aid to Africa, such as economist Dambisa Moyo were missing, Webb contended that it is not so much what they are missing but instead what they should focus on in the future.

“You have to look at aid in the context of how it’s evolved in the last 50 years. Like I said, the first 40 years of aid you can pretty much write off as Cold War. There’s been a lot of very, very well-intentioned work that has been done over the years and there’s been a lot of really smart people that have gotten PhD’s studying what has been done, but a lot of it has just been very directive. The same way that the ‘Washington Consensus’ – from the 60s to the 70s, with the IMF and the World Bank dictating policies to countries that the OECD countries would never follow – that’s rubbed people the wrong way. One thing I was thinking about when you brought this up was that Moyo’s book came out a couple of years ago. It predates the Arab Spring, and I think the Arab Spring offers a really good example of people in their countries helping themselves outside of the modern development system. Unfortunately, in many ways, it just has had to be violent because these are dictators that are keeping people down, but also, from that angle – dictators keeping people down – many of these African countries have just terrible inequality. You’ve got people that are just at the very bottom of the poverty ladder. Jeffrey Sachs has some really good work that he’s done on this…I highly recommend his books. But I think, at a core, what I care about is helping the most vulnerable people. Most of the countries, at least in the places I like to work like West Africa and in particular the Horn of Africa, you know the most vulnerable people are very disadvantaged. They’re often members of a culture or ethnicity that is somehow disdained by the ruling elite, and they don’t have a chance, really. The system is not fair, in many many ways, from the local person’s standpoint. If governments want to help themselves, and if Africans want to help themselves, it’s hard when the system is not fair. And I would go further, too – the governments of these countries, even when they are well intentioned and doing well, like Ghana… they’re doing pretty well, relatively speaking, but they also had advantages previously…The global system is just flawed. When you look at the WTO and the global trading regime, its stacked against these poor countries. Aid or no aid, it’s not a fair system. I see what I do as being able to work for a very large NGO that can have a huge impact in places where there are the most vulnerable people. I’m not there to work with the elite and have stuff trickle down. I’m there to work with the poorest of the poor.”

Webb admitted IRD had received contention within the aid community because of their massive growth during the Iraq War, but stood by the solid work IRD had done for the Iraqi people.

“Conceptually, working at IRD and it being a huge NGO, we’ve had projects [where] other NGOs have thought that IRD was too close to the military, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had two very large projects in Iraq; we had a program called CSP (Community Stabilization Program) that was about three and a half years and ended up being about $465 million dollars. At the time, it was the largest contract ever given to an American non-profit NGO. It started out as a smaller project, but as the Iraq War wore on, we took on more cities and it became a really huge project. I think a lot of good work was done. The goal of the project was at its core, to stabilize communities. IRD sees their development continuum as “emergency relief” where there’s been a shock to the system, like a disaster or a war… when that happens, you provide relief, like shelter and water and food and clothing that the people have absolutely no chance of getting on their own because the system has been totally disrupted. Then you’ve got stabilization, where you have to inject activity into the economy and into these communities that the government or other organizations in the local non-profit sector can’t provide for themselves. Then you’ve got development, which is really long-term stuff, along the lines of the food projects I mentioned before. In Iraq, we had the Community Stabilization Program where we had offices in about 15 cities. I actually got to work on this for about a year as a backstop, one of several backstops because it was such a huge project. I got to go to Baghdad at the end of ‘09 for about two weeks, which was really a very interesting experience. The colleagues I was working with were there all the time – I felt like I had to go, that it would be disingenuous to not go. It was a very interesting, huge project. We sent staff to different cities to set up an office where they would do income generation activities, youth development, community building… at its core, it was basically to flood a place with vocational training and youth development to keep young men busy, so that they would not take up arms and there would be less attacks and less insurgency.

Webb described the positive effects from these efforts.

“IRD published the final report… and you know, they were able to establish a link. I wouldn’t say it’s iron clad because there’s always exogenous factors that can affect whether conflict in a place is going to go down or not. But a lot of Iraqis had really good experiences. We have lots of really passionate Iraqi staff now that worked with us for a long time. When I visited them in the field, it was really one of the most inspirational trips of my life. To work with the Iraqi staff… I mean, here we are, Americans, staying in a compound where you can’t even leave it, and every time we left the compound, we had to be in an armored car, with a bulletproof vest, and 20 security guys worrying about getting me from point A to point B. And you know, our Iraqi staff, they call that commuting. I actually felt embarrassed because I thought, “these guys, this is their home. they’re just going to walk out of the compound, and out of the walls, just get home. Why am I so special?” It was very inspiring to talk to them. They were experienced professionals.”

After ten years as an aid worker and volunteering for the Peace Corps, Webb has had many opportunities to lose sight of his inspiration to work in the NGO field. Webb addressed what aid workers ultimately do to stay motivated and engaged.

“I always think of my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, living with rural agro-pastoralists, and the choices they had available to them – I just try to think of that all the time. I look at these people that I’m working with, and my main thing is that I really want to listen to the local people. All the solutions are there, all I’m doing is facilitating access to resources. That’s how I see my job. Helping vulnerable people access resources that they wouldn’t have had available to them otherwise because, like I was saying before, the system is unfair, their government doesn’t have the means to do it, or something horrible happened like a disaster. That’s how I keep inspiration. I want to help the most vulnerable people.”

If you are interested in learning more about Scott Webb’s work and following the progress of IRD’s projects, check out their website, follow Scott’s personal blog, or look up IRD and Webb on Twitter.

Skittishness and homecoming

In Foreign Policy, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Peace Corps, Tchad on February 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve been home from Chad since Friday evening.* The flight out of Chad was fine, my flight from Paris to DC was delayed, but otherwise fine.

Spent my last evening in Chad drinking, basically. I got to hang out at a very cool Ethiopian restaurant, the food was great, and I got to have a couple of beers under the stars with my feet in the sand, so to speak. The problem was my sudden anxiety when I got to the restaurant.

A few weeks ago, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped by Al Qaida from a busy restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger. The restaurant was a regular expat hangout, in the middle of the neighborhood where all the NGO’s are, including the Peace Corps and their hostel. The poor guys were killed before their kidnappers were subsequently attacked in a failed rescue attempt.

This kidnapping had ripple effects; the Peace Corps program in Niger was suspended indefinitely, and travel is generally going to be more difficult in the region. Personally though, this whole thing had me freaked out from the second it happened.

Call me a defeatist or weak, but terrorism scares the crap out of me. I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, very far from home, and be kidnapped or killed because of this whole amorphous and hard to understand global war on terror.

I took a calculated career risk in 2009, working with Iraq programs, thinking that might earn me the chance to work on projects in more peacefully, chronically poor countries in West Africa. This chance ended up panning out for me, but now this kidnapping has really messed things up.

So there I was on my last night in Chad, arriving at the restaurant in N’Djamena, in the middle of a quiet neighborhood where other NGO’s and expats live. It was my very last night at the end of a long trip that I couldn’t wait to finish. Wouldn’t it have been just my luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

But after two grand Galas and a satisfying plate of tef bread and spicy meat, plus some informed words from my new friend, who is a young US Foreign Service Officer (and Mauritania RPCV) on his first tour, and I felt a little less stressed.

Being home has been great. A few weeks more, and my third child – a son – will be born. Who knows what my next trip will be, but I know I’ll put myself through another wringer emotionally, balancing uninformed fears and calculated risks.

* I’ve actually been home for about four weeks, but sat on this blog post until I had the time to look it over before posting. I know that isn’t saying much but thanks for reading this far! Ah life with full time work and always-on family.

IRD in Niger

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps, Philanthropy, Sustainable Development on October 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Note:  This post is also cross posted on the Official IRD Voices blog.

I love working for IRD because they sent me to Niger.  Most people wouldn’t make a statement like this, because by all statistical measures, Niger is one of the worst places on earth.  It’s the poorest country in the world on the UN Human Development Index, 182 out of 182.  Fifteen percent of children die of largely preventable diseases before reaching the age of 5.  Most people live on less than one US dollar per day.  Niger is currently emerging from an epic famine that most development experts consider being one of the worst in recorded memory – with up to twenty percent of the population considered to be severely malnourished, according to FEWS-NET.

I’m happy I went to Niger for two reasons – first, because I get to work for an organization that helps Nigeriens, among the most perennially and consistently vulnerable people on earth, and second, because I lived in Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1997-2001.  I had not visited since then, and this was the kind of homecoming I had always hoped for.  With the statistics that I highlighted above, I never wanted to come back to Niger as a tourist.

IRD has been operating in Niger since 2005, working under two consecutive US Department of Agriculture Food for Progress Title II grants, as well as grants from the UN’s World Food Program and UNICEF.  In total, IRD has monetized over 9,100 Metric tons of commodities, funding almost $ 4 Million in projects benefitting 170,000 people.  These proceeds funded our Pastoralist Livelihoods Project, which reconstituted goat herds decimated by drought and flash floods, provided cash for work on pastoral rehabilitations, and supported the creation of cereal and feed banks for women’s groups, all in the Abalak region of the Tahoua Department.

My colleague Mamadou Sidibe, a Senior Monitoring and Evaluation specialist here, was able to visit the sites in the northern regions of Niger, and IRD’s work indeed did make the desert bloom.  The simple act of paying local men to dig long trenches against the slope of a barren desert, has yielded hectare after hectare of arable grasslands, where the semi-nomadic Tuareg and Fulani herders can graze their livestock.  This has the benefit of both increasing disposable income to spend on food, and of decreasing the chances of conflict – wherein the herders encroach on farmlands in search of fodder.

Because of the current food security crisis, IRD Niger is also distributing almost 6,000 Metric Tons of food, including Corn-Soy Blend, Sugar, Beans, and Oil, on behalf of the World Food Program.  These Blanket Feedings, Protection Rations, and Free Food Distributions have been in the regions of Magaria and Tillaberry, and have benefitted 67,000 children and over 1,100 pregnant and lactating women.

IRD will soon be starting up a more long-term development project to compliment our emergency relief and stabilization activities – the World Bank funded PRODEX project, focusing on developing the Onion Value Chain.  This project will last for 4 years and help develop Niger’s competitive advantage in growing the highly regarded “Galmi Red” onion.

My visit to Niger was, to me, a working vacation.  I not only got to see old friends and refresh my local language skills, but I was able to combine my personal goals of helping Nigeriens with those of IRD – to help the most vulnerable people help themselves.

See pictures on the IRD Flickr Feed here.

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!

The Field

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Microcredit, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps on September 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I’ve been in Niger now since Sunday afternoon.  I built sufficient buzz amongst my little zeitgeist that people are asking me, “what’s it like to be back?”  That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked.

It’s awesome, really.  It’s good to be here, slowly getting into being here, getting to know the field office I’m supporting from HQ.  I kind of wish I knew more people here so I could hang out a little bit more, get out to the Grand Marche, etc.  I’ve got a whole list of things I want to buy while I’m here…  I’ve actually been working a lot.

The sounds are still there – the fast Hausa or Zarma, the revving motos, occasional prayer calls or African music.  Chaotic traffic.  Dust.  Some heat, although not nearly as bad as it could be, and to be honest, after a DC summer I’m loving the “dry heat.”

Because of the AQIM kidnapping 7 people, including 5 French, 1 Togolese and 1 Malagasy, France sent what seems like a garrison of soldiers here, and a handful of them were staying at my hotel.  I don’t want to get beat up by any French soldier that I could offend, but man if they don’t look silly in their short shorts.  They’re all decked out but with these 1980, daisy-duke camo shorts.  They almost look like they’ll break into a boy-band dance at any time.  But I digress…

The Niger River is really high, almost to touching the bottom of the bridge.  So I feel awful for the farmers and fisherman’s families whose campements next to the river have been washed away.

I’ve had Tele Sahel on for about an hour now while I’ve been online, and I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by all the industry that seems to have developed in Niger.  When I was here before, I remember the milk company and maybe the pagne company.  Now they’ve got lots of nice looking, Nigerien businesses advertised on TV (bottled water, various grocery stores, long-haul passenger bus systems, pesticides, hadj tour companies) which means they’re successful enough to pay for advertising, which is saying something here.

The other cool thing about Nigerien TV is they seem to broadcast a lot in Hausa and Zarma, in addition to French – in fact, most of the commercials are in either Hausa or Zarma.

As for the politics – all indications in my purview make it seem like the current military government is interested in helping regular Nigeriens.  My NGO colleagues say that the last Tandja regime was very anti-NGO and restrictive of many kinds of project, especially food-for-work.

A representative from Zain Mobile communications came and gave us an interesting presentation on using mobile phones to make cash transfers to rural beneficiaries.   We like this a lot and hope to integrate this – there are so many development advantages to this that it’s worth helping Zain enrich themselves and increase their customer base.  It promotes literacy and numeracy, the phones can be used for long term monitoring and evaluation, it does all the other proven things that cell phones have been linked to – such as what I’ve mentioned and other things like flattening commodity price fluctuations.

So, I’ll be more on my own with the local staff the rest of my time here, my M&E colleague Mamadou is heading up north for an assessment for the next 6 days.  Hopefully I can get some stuff done and leave the program in better shape than I’m finding it, which is not all that bad.


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.

Literacy Tipping Point

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development, Technology on September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

Just read this interesting article on a Literacy Project in Niger.

It’s a CRS project using cell phones in literacy projects. As it turns out, if you give illiterate people cell phones and include literacy classes, they will retain their knowledge and use their literacy skills to send text messages. This is brilliant and I consider this a tipping point: where literacy is increased, living standards will go up.

I worked on a village based literacy program in the Torodi area of Niger in the late 90’s, and one major thing that kept people from retaining their literacy skills was that there was nothing to read in Fulfulde or Zarma. If you give them something to write and read, they’ll use their skills. Otherwise literacy isn’t of much use to them in their daily lives.