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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.


My new blog

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2010 at 2:20 pm

I am testing out WordPress.  For the last couple of years I’ve been annoyed with blogger, and wordpress looks like a good option.  Thanks for taking a look at my blog posts, and thanks for your patience if you’d been waiting with baited breath for me to start a new blog!

DPMI at the Monterey Institute

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2009 at 2:04 am

I did a short little video blurb for the Development Project Management Institute course at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Positive Generation X Article

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Why Generation X Has the Leaders We Need Now – Tammy Erickson – HarvardBusiness.org

This is an excellent article, I’m looking forward to the book. I would have dated Generation X a little later to encompass those born between, say, 1964 (after JFK) – 1979 (people born in the 80’s don’t seem Generation X-ish to me).

It’s nice to see a positive representation of our generation – that we’re pragmatic, hardworking, and innovative. We are not slackers! The Baby Boomers just thought we were, but we were just fed up with the more narcissistic and hyperbolic aspects of their culture.

I would never, for example, expect any entitlements from a company or the government. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t welcome them, though. Long Term employment and pensions, social security, etc – I know when I’m old I’ll only have the work I’m doing and the assets I build up over the next 20 years or so to sustain my wife and me. That and hopefully whatever my parents leave me.

I try to channel my cynicism into something positive – taking care of myself and my family, trying to do a good job, always trying to learn and be a good husband and father. If I can make a positive contribution to society I’ll be happy.

President Tandja in Niger as a new Big Man?

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2009 at 1:13 pm

My friend at Niger1.com posted an article about President Tandja of Niger. His constitutionally mandated second and final presidential term is up at the end of this year, and it’s not clear whether or not he’ll step down:

President accused of breaking his word in third term bid

He publicly stated that he would step down after the November elections and a new president is sworn in, but he’s suddenly wanting to re-do the constitution, like so many other modern-day dictators, to remain in power.

I haven’t followed Niger close enough to truly comment on his time there. I was disappointed with the way he handled the recent Tuareg rebellion; he could have taken a page from Malian president Toure’s book and started talking to them right away instead of lumping them with terrorists and drug dealers. Niger is still in the bottom five on the UN Human Development Index, and 8 years is a long time – there could have been much more meaningful change during that time.

I don’t know entirely what to think of this. I would bet the villagers of Niger would like Tandja to stay, they like his stability and he’ll probably go down in Nigerien history as a great president like they perceived Kountche to be. But this definitely looks bad from a diplomatic/foreign policy perspective.

Defending Young and Inexperienced PCV’s

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I just read an interesting article on DevEx about a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. The author is a volunteer with VSO in Zambia who is professionally blogging in DevEx about volunteering, and he has some good counter-arguments for those who disparage the Peace Corps for sending young and inexperienced PCV’s to developing countries.

For anyone who has worked in development – you know that behavioral change takes a long, long time. Crockett – the author of the article – highlights that many development experts who disparage inexperienced PCV’s wouldn’t be able to hack it in the village for 2 days, let alone 2 years. And it takes a lot more than an afternoon presentation with free food to convince subsistence farmers to change their farming styles for the better.

In Niger – it was common to have a demonstration field. You get the village chief to cede some land to you for a couple of years so you can experiment with the new methods you are sent to teach. The novelty of a foreigner working in the fields already attracts attention; if you carefully practice what you were taught in training, you can really help people see, over time, that you can increase your millet yields and use compost effectively, for example.

The other thing is that it is more than just the work – it’s the intangibles that count. Each PCV is an American Ambassador. They leave two years of stories behind and the villagers never forget “their American” or their Americans…

So as long as there is the money and the political will – we should remember that sending intelligent, articulate, and motivated young people (possibly without too much professional experience) to serve as PCV’s in remote countries is not a waste of time.

My CV as Visualized by Many eyes

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm

This is very cool, here’s how a visual word-count of my CV looks after running it through IBM’s “Many Eyes” website:

State Funded Student Loans?

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Got this article emailed to me through my UC San Diego Alumni email subscriptions…

University of California – UC Newsroom | State budget contains $115 million in new cuts for UC, stretches UC’s total budget challenge to $450 million

Basically the UC system is going to have a huge operating deficit if they maintain current levels, they’re going to have a $450 million shortfall of funding from the state. That’s a mind boggling, huge amount of money, although I know the recent near-trillion-dollar stimulus has made us numb to the sheer size of these sums of money.

Basically, if the UC System wants to maintain current enrollment levels they’ll have to raise tuition fees. My initial reaction to this is that students will be taking out larger student loans, which will be a direct transfer of money from the federal government to the UC system. Then, this debt will be bought by the various banks that are allowed to handle student loans (I’m thinking of the Stafford and Perkins Loans, since these are all I have experience with.)

Why not start issuing student loans at the state level? Is this done? In a way, this could help future revenue streams, as students will slowly pay them back with interest. Not that states need to become banks, but it’s not like they aren’t issuing bonds already, holding debt.

I’m not a credit expert so I don’t claim to fully understand how it all works. But this might be worth considering.

Mr. Mom

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Just check out this article on being a new dad and fitting it into your professional life:
Working from home: Not for every ‘Mr. Mom’ – CNN.com

It’s so funny how parenting evolves. I found that we could quickly master taking care of one infant; within a few weeks of living at home with dependable adult schedules, the baby gets into a rhythm and becomes relatively predictable. It’s funny how Lubin talks about the “emotional roller coaster” of going back to work after being out a whopping 2 weeks! My guess is he’d be on an emotional roller coaster with a 2 week old baby in any case.

I was lucky when our first daughter was born. I was a federal employee, and entitled to 3 months; I took two and a half. My daughter was born at the beginning of November, which worked out perfectly for taking all of November and December off, and then I went back to work part-time in January, going all the way back after Martin Luther King Day, if I remember correctly.

It was one of the best times of my life. My wife had intended to go back to work at about the same time. She was able to ease back in part time for two months, after taking 2 full months off.

It’s such a critical time in a baby’s life, you don’t get it back, it would be great if we could support more official, paid time off.

I’m being bad blogger, because I don’t have the time or patience to really backlink anything and get anything up here supporting how I feel. But I wanted to get this blog post up here, in any case.

BBC NEWS | Africa | The pitfalls of Africa’s aid addiction

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2008 at 8:04 pm

This is a great article – the video at the beginning is excellent as well.

BBC NEWS | Africa | The pitfalls of Africa’s aid addiction

Any of us that have lived and worked in Africa have seen this firsthand – how anything from the developed country aid-organizations can end up being packaged and resold in the parallel markets. I admit, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger I once bought cans of tuna from my local grocer stamped “Gift of Denmark.”

The larger issue is the strategy behind the development aid. I’ve harped on this in several previous posts, from the One Laptop Per Child project to the Food-for-Peace initiatives – that the aid interventions need to be much, much more participatory, and allow for the indigenous innovation and motivation of Africans to shine through.

It’s a bad cycle. Our agriculture policies enrich our farmers at the expense of those in less developed countries, which we then sponsor aid projects to help, which further enriches our farmers and agribusiness.

The other problem I struggle with philosophically is – is it truly better to let countries specialize in their comparative advantages, or is it destructive to the environment and leaves countries vulnerable to violent commodity-price swings? I don’t know. And I’m not in school any more so I can’t spend a lot of time really looking into it.