GivingADamn


The job search of a young, still-not-sure-exactly-what-I-want-to-do twenty something can lead to many interesting places. Over the course of my RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) career search, I’ve come across a number of interesting news wires, about 26 different careers I could pursue, and quite a few remarkable people. One of those remarkable people was Melissa Lamson, the founder and president of Lamson Consulting, LLC. Melissa is an award-winning global cross cultural consultant, specializing in cultural transformation. She has worked with everyone from Cisco to MTV to the embassy of South Africa (to name a few).

When I came across Melissa’s site, my first thought was “This is a career?! Awesome.” The second, after about an hour of research and devouring Melissa’s website, was “How do I become her?” I researched more and became a bit disheartened at my finding another career path to obsess over that seemed to be one of the smaller niche enterprises (read: difficult to break into). Discouraged, I emailed Melissa asking for more information on her background, her career path, and any organizations she admired. Amazingly, she wrote me back and a week later we chatted on the phone for about 45 minutes.

Our conversation left me smiling – this was really a career I could see myself in, and with Melissa’s guidance, I now had a solid place to start. To make things better, at the end of the phone call, she asked me to write a post for her blog “The Globalist Blog” on my experience working with Stomp Out Malaria this past year. After a week of many drafts, below is the final result. Enjoy!

 

Lessons on International Project Management in Developing Countries

Or, How to be an Effective Program Coordinator for 17 Countries, 3 International Organizations, 60 Field Representatives, and 3,000 Volunteers Across Africa

When I accepted a position as the Communications Manager & Field Representative Coordinator for Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, I had no idea what I was doing. It was one of those jobs where my boss gave me a two-line position summary, a 50-page initiative project plan, and a week to write up a job description complete with a timeline and indicators of success.

Looking back, that vague of a start seems a bit sparse given the magnitude of our initiative, but it also illustrates how projects tend to operate in the developing world. If your organization wants to do well, flexibility and patience are the name of the game when generating your program and coordinating your employees.

My inaugural year operated on a steep learning curve strewn with missteps, but by the end of that time I developed a foundation of principles to follow when coordinating such an initiative. Here are three things that will set your international program off on the right foot, especially when working in developing nations:

 

1) Prepare for failure. The training that our field representatives (or employees for the purpose of this article) received was arguably the most thorough of any program in Peace Corps. We flew them into Dakar for an intensive 10-day training led by top professionals in international malaria prevention; we covered everything from malaria science to behavior change to program management; we gave them endless online resources and access to experts in the field and in the states. What we didn’t do (for our first training groups at least) was talk about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Instead, our employees left ready to dive into their work the moment they touched down at post. For some, this approach generated good results, but for those who were met with continuous roadblocks, the frustration was enormously de-motivating after such a fervent build-up at training.

Though discussing aspects of projects that could go wrong can be intimidating, it is essential to the durability of any program. Indeed, if someone had not told me to “plan for projects to not go as planned” in the beginning of my time as a field volunteer in Senegal, I would have assumed that I had done something abnormally wrong to have failed. But failure can be imperative: it often reveals insights to our programs that we would have otherwise missed.

There was a noticeable change in our employees’ resiliency once we talked about failure. Their attitudes during troubleshooting conversations went from disheartened to resolute, knowing now that their projects not going smoothly was to be expected. This attitude was crucial when it came to our organization meeting its goals – undoubtedly teams that are irrepressible in their drive to overcome can propel a project towards its desired outcomes at an extraordinary rate.

 

2) Cultivate a team, even if you have to don virtual pom poms. International programs do not lend themselves to a tight-knit “office culture.” Employees often work alone, at posts that are separated not only by international borders but also logistical obstacles such as power outages, dial-up internet, and transportation strikes. If open and continuous communication is the backbone of an effective team, developing countries seem to be built to incessantly thwart employee bonding and therefore the success of a program.

Having our employees consistently talk to each other about what they were doing and how things were going seemed like an easy part of their job to me, but my employees soon taught me otherwise. I realized that if I was going to get my team to exchange information, it was going to take daily coaching before it became a habit.

My strategy for cultivating this routine was through daily Google chat check-ins and monthly phone calls. During these conversations, I encouraged our employees to share their ups and downs: if people told me about things that were going well, I asked them to proclaim it on our private Facebook group; if I was approached with a problem, I’d connect that employee with one in a different post that was dealing or had dealt with the same issue; if someone had developed a great project, I asked him or her to upload and share the plans though our Google docs folder.

The pom  poms came out when I would emphasize employees’ efforts in order to build momentum towards a group conversation. For example: “Hey look at this great project Team Ethiopia is doing – I bet a few of you could adapt this for your own initiatives,” and so on. At times I felt silly with my relentless “sunshine” cheerleading, but eventually the group began uploading their project reports and discussing frustrations on their own. Result: a cohesive team that sustained their international conversations even after I had left the initiative.

 

3) You are a guest, so build some clout before you implement something new. After arriving at their posts, some of my employees were constantly frustrated when their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers wouldn’t take heed of their calls to action. This was especially true for those implementing our program in countries that had never focused on our goal (malaria eradication) before. It didn’t matter that my employees were also Peace Corps Volunteers – it mattered that they were coming in trying to start something new, and the local crew was not having it. 

Why should the established local groups do as my newly installed employees said? My team may have been experts in their field, but the local working crews were experts in their environment. Sure, we could have relied on their boss ordering them to do as we said, but in terms of sustaining the change we were brought in to initiate, that plan did not have much longevity.

This is especially true in developing nations. When you are starting a project in a new country – even if it’s through the same company you worked for elsewhere on the globe – you are still entering the work culture of a different group, and that makes you an outsider. Western styles of business will not bode well in, for example, many African countries. If you were to walk into a boardroom and jump directly into your meeting (as one might do in America so as not to waste anyone’s time), the local population would consider you rude for not greeting them and engaging in small talk before you began the meeting.

Obviously, the principle here goes beyond small talk: if you, as a guest in a country, want people to care about what you’re trying to do and say, you need to first make the effort to show them that you care about how they operate and exist. This means spending your first few days (or week) of business getting to know people, learning how their officer operates, even gaining a few business proverbs in the local language. After that, you will enter your project not as an outsider who acts as he or she knows better than the local workforce, but as a new business partner who will build something with the established crew. This approach gives local work teams the opportunity to take ownership in your initiative, which means employees who care and thus will work harder towards your desired outcome.

 

Successfully managing projects that operate internationally requires a profound approach. Companies that work in developing nations are often in some way trying to better a population’s wellness while they meet their own goals. In these situations, it is important to keep the adage in mind that it is not enough to be well intended in your efforts to do good – organizations must be critical of their own work and constantly adapt in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome for all parties involved.

These are principles that worked for me, but as each country and culture is different, so will be the avenue organizations need to take in order to get their job done. If these ideas do not work for your project, then let me then suggest empathy. As our initiative was trying to figure out the best way to function, what led me to the above foundation was constantly putting myself in the shoes of my employees, my managing team, and those we worked for. Coordinating international projects means coordinating a wide spectrum of people, and when you can align their needs with the goals of your company’s, you will not only realize your goals, but also enable their results to last.

Advertisements

Did you know that pregnant women are four times more prone to malaria infection than at any other stage in their lives?

What will YOU do this year to Stomp Out Malaria?

And now an anecdote from my friend William who is currently in Vietnam:

I’m in Vietnam right now, went out for lunch and saw this fruity watermelon cocktail at the table next to me. So i asked the waiter if i can get that too and she just laughed at me… Turns out, they only give that to women cus its women’s day.
As they should. Another good tale: read about Africa’s Girl Power.

It’s 00:56 here, which supposedly means that I should be snoozing but I’m a bit too wound up to sleep. Not wound up in the too-stressed-to-stop-my-mind-from-reeling way I was from this past November through February, but in a I’m-so-excited-about-things-that-are-awesome-that-may-or-may-not-happen wound up way. Don’t get me wrong, I 100% prefer to be kept up by thoughts of a good nature rather than the taxing ones, but the late night tossing does make me worry for tomorrow’s workday. Either way, since I’m committed to being awake (or more importantly to a late night snack) I may as well use the time to catch up with you.

I’ve decided that instead of giving all of you out there in interweb land a play-by-play of the past seven or so months as originally planned, I’m just going to highlight interesting events and projects that have busied my time since we last spoke. You’re really not that interested in what I did over home leave anyway, are you? Me neither. (Ok if you are, here it goes in bits: seafood, lots of rootbeer, lots of draft beer, my brother’s grilling, cheese, [noticing a pattern?] Boston, cigars, north end, bars, pizza, family reunion, Maine, driving, NYC, soft pretzels, DC, PC HQ office, dancing, more NYC, more cigars, comedy show, live band, Mexican food, more draft beer, 3am Chinese food, mom’s condo, awesomely bad daytime TV, shopping, rootbeer, wedding on the Cape, dancing, good whiskey, cigars, sleeping, ice cream, massive amazon.com order, back to Dakar in the gut of rainy season. Got to see all of my favorite people save about five, and the whole trip reminded me how much I missed you all and what exactly I missed about being en Amerik [which was apparently surprisingly easy to forget after 2.5 years].)

Anyway, back to interesting events and projects. In PC Senegal land there exists an organization called SeneGAD. SeneGAD (GAD for short) stands for Senegal Gender and Development, which is a group made up of volunteers who lead the country’s gender-based initiatives (girls’ camps, girls’ scholarships, men as allies/partners in female rights advocacy, talibe work, etc.). Though I wholeheartedly support GAD work, I’d never got involved in SeneGAD during my two years as a wee health volunteer down in Kolda. Then one day in Dakar, I was wondering around the PC office in my new 3rd year PCVL shoes and came across a sign for Safezone allies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Safezone is the name for LGBT awareness and sensitivity trainings as well as support groups that exist in many universities, organizations, and PC countries. Since LGBT rights are something that are important to me and since I’d worked pretty extensively with gender rights in Boston (FYSOP Gender Focus, focus on your gender!), I decided to heed the call at the bottom of the list asking for additional volunteers who would be interested in being listed as allies. And that is where things took an intriguing turn.

Through conversations with the volunteer who was leading the Safezone initiative, April, I learned that Safezone allies were running a training for the Host-Country National (HCN) staff of PC Senegal. This was interesting indeed: a Safezone training for our Senegalese staff? In Senegal, where Imams proclaim in major newspapers that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and so should be thrown off of a tall building? Where gay men are so taboo that two men can walk down the street holding hands and no one would dare to think they’re anything but friends because the idea of homosexuality is so far removed from the general consciousness? Well, all of that considered, the first staff training apparently went really well, “but that’s because it was the staff all-star group – all of the medical staff and language instructors who’ve been working with PC for years. This next group may be more difficult,” April explained. This next group was the other half of our training center’s language instructors and staff, and they were getting trained that Thursday. I agreed to help out.

A few mornings later I was prepping a training room with five of my good PCV buddies. They had all led the first Safezone training, so they divvied out the easier parts of the training agenda to me (vocabulary game and testimonial introductions) reserving the more touchy areas for the vets (what “causes” homosexuality? How do you feel about homosexuality? What do we expect from you in terms of support as a PC Senegal staff member?). Before the HCN staff arrived, we also planned out how we’d deal with the awkward moments that were sure to come: what if everyone is too embarrassed to talk? What if everyone is too afraid to talk? What if someone is aggressively homophobic? How are we going to respond to the religious views on homosexuality in Senegal? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these potential sticky training scenarios didn’t make me a bit nervous – they were significantly different in nature to the conflicts I’d dealt with when working Boston when working in gender rights and I didn’t feel very prepared. Plus, I didn’t know the majority of the new language instructors who were attending the training, so I didn’t have much clout to diffuse any sticky situations with. That and it was a bit obvious from everyone’s expressions when they filed in that they either a) weren’t sure why they had to be at this training, or b) were not interested in talking about the gays, never mind the Bs and the Ts.

But then, everything started to go smoothly. I opened the training with a vocabulary game that had participants match words with their definitions and then present to the group their matched definitions in their own words (interesting first activity when the words were ones like “transsexual,” “outing,” and “civil union”). My friend Steve continued the training, talking about the history of gay rights in America, around the world, and in Senegal. The staff told us about stereotypes they’d heard regarding homosexuals from their friends growing up, explained the Senegalese mindset on gays, and delved deeper into the religious community’s views of gay men and lesbians. And no one freaked out, no one was visibly uncomfortable, – people were engaged and even curious. BOOP light bulb: in a culture where homosexuality is as taboo as it is here in Senegal, this training was the first time that most of the staff in attendance were able to discuss homosexuality in a safe and honest environment.

Opinions and questions started pouring out: “I don’t think you can choose if you’re gay or not,” and “but aren’t lesbian women just women who were abused by men and so decided to be with women instead?” The discussion turned into a fascinating critique of cultural norms, gender stereotypes, and sexuality, and as they day progressed I was more and more thankful that I’d agreed to help. It’s easy after 2+ years as a PCV to get lazy about the culture you’ve integrated into. Not necessarily because you “know it all,” but more that the frequency of surprising cultural moments diminish to the point that what was at first foreign is now your new normal. This training though, brought me back to my wide-eyed days; this training was letting me into a facet of Senegalese culture that I’d never ventured to face before.

One of the most poignant moments of the training was when me and the five other PCVs leading the training got up in the front of the room and read a series of PCV testimonials (some testimonials are included in this blog post). Background: PC’s Safezone training was originally developed in Panama, then made its way around the globe, throughout West Africa, into the Gambia and onto us. Along the way, it collected PCV testimonials. They covered topics about what it was like being a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps, how volunteers got kicked out when they came out to their parents in America, how it’s awkward to be a lesbian volunteer in a culture where women typically don’t wear shirts, and how painful it was to live with a family you grew to love to the bone during your service yet that you were still petrified to tell you were gay because of how their culture dictated their likely reaction. The testimonials were candid, written with clear voice, some funny, some honest to the point that they were difficult to read without tearing up, and as we read everyone in the room was entranced. It was one of those moments where when we stopped reading, the silence in the room seemed to vibrate in the air around until someone sniffed or scuffed a chair, breaking the trance.

The training ended about an hour later with the staff having the option to list themselves as Safezone “allies,” or people who are advocates for LGBT volunteers in Senegal. This is a big move for a Senegalese person to make – openly listing that they support gay volunteers (well not openly openly – the list isn’t published anywhere, we just disperse it among the PC Senegal community. It’s still a big deal though). To our delight, we had a few of the staff sign up. Awesome!

Believe it or not I have more to tell you about Safezone and diversity and such, but sleep has caught up with me now (almost 2, woops) so I’ll save those words for another day. As a parting gift, I leave you all with a cheer from my days as a Gender Focus FYSOP coordinator:

Gender 1, focus all, let’s all do the GF call.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 2, focus 3, let’s fight for equality.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 4, focus 5, let’s all do the GF jive.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 6, focus 7, boys and girls make out with Kevin!

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 8, focus 9 STOP: it’s GF time.

GO GF GO GF GO! GO GF GO GF GO!

Le sigh, I miss college sometimes.

How far will you go… Smash Williams? Anyone get it? Anyone?

“2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International, which began with one person and an idea — to protect the basic dignity and human rights of those imprisoned for their beliefs.” – AI YouTube video caption

http://www.protectthehuman.com/videos/50-years-of-amnesty-international

Amnesty International is one organization that I have often imagined working for and am constantly humbled by when witnessing the scale of impact they’ve had on the world community. AI has rocked countries and changed lives through their relentless efforts to stand up and speak out when most people find it more convenient to continue on with their lives and be content with the status quo.

It is seeing people like the ones in the video above, and learning about the work of organizations such as AI that keep me focused towards my future (nomadic and scattered as it seems to be) because AI epitomizes the kind of work that I could devote my life to.