Sarah, from the UK, was a Progressio development worker with CRIES (Regional Coordinator of Social and Economic Research), Puntos de Encuentro, CCER (Civil Coordinator for Emergency and Reconstruction) and CISAS (the Centre for Health Information and Services) in Nicaragua who did her first placement between January 1998 and August 2001, and his since done a number of three month placements and continued joint work.
What have you done since leaving Progressio and what do you do currently?
Before I applied for the placement in Nicaragua I was a lecturer at Middlesex University, lecturing on the Development Studies programmes. When I saw the advert I approached my Head of Department and talked to him about the possibilities of leaving the University for the two years of the placement. He was supportive of this and so when I was offered the placement I took a ‘career break’ from the University. This meant when I came back (a little later than the initial 2 years proposed!) my job was still waiting for me and I continue to lecture International Development at the University.
Please describe your role and the partner organisation that you worked with as a Progressio development worker
Since first arriving in Nicaragua in January 1998 I have worked directly with four organizations – CRIES, Puntos de Encuentro, CCER, CISAS. When I first applied to CIIR (which later changed its working name to Progressio) it was for a post working with an NGO that acted as a regional research coordinator across Latin America and the Caribbean (CRIES). I was to work with them to develop the gender perspective in their work, working closely with my ‘development partner’ Ricardo, but also across the network. For various reasons the post did not work as planned – they were not as receptive to gender as might have been thought given their request for a gender expert (not unusual!) and their understanding of gender differed greatly from mine. As things were deteriorating in the placement, so Hurricane Mitch crossed over Nicaragua and Honduras bringing persistent and torrential rain leading to wide scale and highly destructive flooding and mudslides. Every person in the country looked to see how he or she could help. As an academic I did what I knew how to do - collected information and contacted those that knew what and more importantly, what not to do. At this time I left CRIES and went to work on producing a document from the information I had found, to be published and distributed by the feminist NGO – Puntos de Encuentro. This short term association developed into a relationship now in its fourteenth year! My work with Puntos at this time also led to working with the coalition of NGOs that developed to respond more strategically to Mitch – the CCER. Puntos’ membership of the CCER sought to ensure a gender perspective in the processes, projects and policies of the CCER. I worked with the CCER in developing a three stage national survey of the impact of Mitch – the Social Audit – that aimed to monitor poverty and well being over time. I also worked with them to develop their advocacy materials and in particular their national ‘alternative’ plan for reconstructing Nicaragua and later a civil society national poverty reduction strategy. This work also led me to work with my former ‘partner’ from CRIES and we finally enjoyed a close and productive working relationship. It also led me to work closely with the head of another NGO and a key feminist activist in the country, and in later years I also worked directly with her and the NGO she leads (CISAS) on various advocacy projects.
What inspired you to become a development worker?
Having done a Masters in Latin American studies and spent time travelling in Central America I then went on to do my PhD at the LSE focusing on female headed households and based on research undertaken in Honduras. From there I went straight into the job at Middlesex. The placement in Nicaragua offered an opportunity to apply my knowledge and to learn new skills.
What struck you most about Progressio’s development worker model/approach?
The main thing is the idea of skill sharing – since I have worked at Puntos I have learnt many new skills from understanding the production process of a TV show to how to write projects attractive to donors, but probably most importantly - how to work collectively. The people I have worked with are not people who need to be ‘developed’ I work with people who are highly professional and highly skilled and my skills complement theirs. This is the beauty of Progressio, they recognise that not all development needs to be about working directly with those in poverty, sometimes it is important to work with those who seek to influence decision makers or change the national policy environment, or change how the population understand a particular issue, such as HIV or same sex relationships. Progressio also recognises opportunities, for example rather than coming home when my first project started to fail, I stayed even longer than planned as I shifted projects from CRIES to Puntos. They are also flexible in how people work - as illustrated by the fact I worked across Puntos and CCER - and when – offering me a series of three month placements after I returned to the UK to allow me to lecture during the academic year and work with Puntos my Summer ‘holidays’.
What did you enjoy most about your role, and of your experience as a development worker?
Interestingly for me it is not a ‘did enjoy’ since my relationship with Nicaragua and with Puntos continues and for example an abstract written via skype and e-mail, between people in the UK, US and Nicaragua, has just been accepted from us (Puntos) to design and deliver a workshop at this years meeting of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). What I continue to enjoy then is the work - the topics I work on and the people I work with.
What were some of your main achievements while working as a development worker?
A few years back I and Brian my partner were presented with a plaque from CISAS recognising our 10 years of contributing to the development of Nicaragua – that was a surprise, but also suggests others view us as having made a personal contribution to the country and the people. I would, however, not say I have personal achievements from working as a DW but collective achievements. This is as it should be given the ethos and form of working that Progressio promotes. With the CCER I am proud of the Social Audit project and enjoyed the challenge of being part of the team putting together the different ideas about reconstruction and poverty reduction into one coherent proposal. With Puntos I worked on numerous projects and continue to do so. Rather than saying what I enjoyed/enjoy I would say what makes me smile is when I talk to people about Puntos and find myself saying ‘we’ - we are doing this, we believe that – even though I am no longer ‘officially’ working with them. To know I can use this term, that I am considered an integral part of the make up of an organisation like Puntos is the achievement.
And what were some of the key challenges and lessons learnt?
Too many to mention! My first project did not go as planned, for example, but my Country Representative was fully supportive and backed me working with Puntos and, through that the CCER, and through that ending up having a close work and personal relationship with the person I supposed to work with in the first place! Working across two organisations was a challenge at times, especially when working on the CCER proposal for reconstruction, which saw many late nights and early mornings. Also a challenge is the current financial environment. Puntos has seen many changes over the years and like many organisations has struggled to keep afloat, some of the decisions made and changes brought about have not been easy to work with or accept. However, the wider aim stays the same and the key is to talk about concerns openly, present your opinion and position, but when decisions are made accept them, even when you do not agree, and work as best you can to ensure they succeed.
Did this experience change you as a person in any way?
Yes! In my case my partner came with me as, what was termed, my ‘dependent’. He did not speak Spanish but got the bus up the University twice a week to learn. The bus was packed full of people with many pick pockets, and on arrival at times he was confronted by tear gas and running battles between the students and the police. Other highlights of his day included continually having to mop floors and hand wash everything – I am in his debt for coming, and staying! However, after Mitch his talents were recognised by Progressio and he too began to work for the CCER, using his IT, data analysis and GIS(Geographic Information System) skills among others, skills later shared with CISAS. We have both then had a shared experience of living and working in a country other than our own, lived through hurricanes and earthquakes, with stressful work environments – including working together - very late nights, and lost weekends. However, we have met many friends – not least the Country Representative – and have many fond memories of a country we came to see as ‘home’. Such a large block of time, so many experiences, mean that you cannot return from a post the same as when you left.
Did your experience as a development worker influence your career/ future direction, and help you to get to where you are today?
It did not change my overall career path as I was and remain an ‘academic’. Throughout my time with Progressio I have continued to write and publish – including publishing with them. What it changed is what I work on, how I work and how I am seen. Living through Hurricane Mitch means I have developed a research interest in ‘disasters’, while working with Puntos means I now write on communication strategies and how TV soap operas can spread positive social messages, for example. I continue to publish in academic journals as is expected of me by the University, but rarely under only my own name but now as collective pieces. I also write versions of the same documents to be presented to donors, to be used by feminist activists and for the people of Nicaragua – disseminated via the feminist magazine of Puntos, La Boletina. I have been labeled by others as a ‘scholar practitioner’ someone who uses their knowledge for practical outcomes. Working with Progressio gave me the chance to lobby directly government ministers in Nicaragua and here in the UK in an attempt to shape policy and bring real change. As such my extended career break has been career enhancing.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming a development worker?