I was a development worker in El Salvador between 1997 and 2000. I worked initially with APSO (Irish government technical assistance) before moving to Progressio in March 1998. From 1998-2000, I worked with Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Anaya Montes (MAM)/Red de Mujeres para la unidad y el desarrollo in the field of gender and local development. This basically involved working with women in low income communities to prioritise their development needs and accompany them/document their advocacy strategies. I was part of the education team in MAM so worked closely with my Salvadoran colleagues, using popular education techniques for capacity building both within the organisation and with women leaders.
We know you as a development worker, and a gender specialist, could you tell us what you are doing now?
I am a lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow where I continue to work on gender issues and specifically the issue of violence in Central America. I teach courses in Gender and Development, Human Rights and Latin American Politics.
And in what ways did your placement with Progressio assist you to get where you are today?
Living and working in El Salvador was most definitely a formative experience on both personal and professional levels. Working with women who struggle against very difficult circumstances to work for their families and communities taught me a lot about peoples’ capacity to face adversity. This made me both angry and curious at the same time. Angry at continued injustices and curious to research more questions about ongoing violence and injustice in peace time. I chose to pursue these questions through further study and, on finishing my posting in El Salvador, I began a PhD at the University of Liverpool. My PhD thesis and subsequent research was directly shaped by my experience of working with women in low-income communities and seeing how multiple forms of violence inhibit and shape their everyday livelihood strategies. I returned to El Salvador for a year’s intensive fieldwork from 2001-2002 and have been back every year since to do research and also to meet old friends.
What strikes you most about Progressio’s Development Worker model?
Progressio's development model is particularly innovative in that it locates development workers (DWs) as part of an ongoing strategic programme to provide the space for genuine exchange between the DW and his or her colleagues. I particularly like the horizontal model of exchange since it allows both parties to learn from each other. I also think that such a model has a really important place in development education more generally since it builds relations across communities beyond the individuals involved. People in my home town became very involved in a solidarity project with El Salvador after the earthquakes in 2001. They raised a sizeable amount of money for a house-building project but also quite a few people took part in exchange visits between Derry and El Salvador. This meant that the element of exchange went much further than my time in a particular organisation or my job description. I think this combination of the commitment to work against injustice (broadly understood) and creating personal/political relations based on mutual solidarity is central to Progressio’s ethos.
How would you describe El Salvador as a place to work as a Development Worker?
El Salvador is a beautiful country, with a very brutal political history. I lived in San Salvador, the capital which is a big, noisy city with lots of US style fast food restaurants, shopping malls and crazy traffic. Fear of crime dominates a lot of what people talk about and this was certainly challenging for me. San Salvador may not be the nicest of cities to live in and this is largely down to the urban development model shaped by very exclusionary economic policies. Nonetheless, I love the energy of the place. I arrived in rainy season so for the first few days in the city, I did not notice the volcano since it was covered in cloud. One day walking up the street I suddenly noticed this massive volcano in front of me! The volcano dominates the city so my powers of observation were obviously lacking…Seeing the volcano still fills me with amazement.
The country is the smallest in the region so it is easy to travel about and Las Melidas (the organisation I worked with) had offices in different regions and I spent a lot of time in the countryside. It is fascinating in such a small country to discover each region’s political history and how this informs/constrains their development concerns.
The country is beautiful and relatively unexplored and - although a cliché - the people are very warm and welcoming. I remember thinking in my first days there that everyone had a story to tell. Thirteen years on and I am still not tired of hearing those stories!
What were your main challenges, and how did you overcome them?
In El Salvador, the security issue dominates peoples’ conversations and this can be exhausting. Basically, you need to follow local advice. Working in another language can be a challenge but I found people to be very patient and helpful. I had worked in Latin America before and had studied Spanish, so did not do language training but all DWs have language training if necessary. The local Progressio staff – Carmen and Rebecca – and Osvaldo in London were extremely generous with advice whenever needed. The other DWs were also great to work with and we had regular meetings to learn from each other/share experiences.
What do you miss about being a Development Worker?
I miss the energy of working in a team that works for gender justice, the constant buzz and the sharing of political ideals and ideas. I also miss the huge range of people one meets through this work: community activists, women leaders, colleagues and friends. As I said, I love hearing peoples’ stories so going to work and learning about other peoples’ lives and their struggles was a hugely enriching experience. I am lucky in that i get to travel to Central America on a yearly basis and my research allows me to keep in contact with many people I met while a DW.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a development worker?
Go for it!