Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Personal, Professional, International: Development and me in the Upper East

A blog that all future ICS volunteers should read.  Hala looks back on her placement with TradeAID and provides real insight into her experience:  

I have always been certain that I want to work for either an NGO or an IGO, and after garnering a few years’ work experience and volunteering in the UK and Middle East, I thought it might be useful to make sure I could actually cope with the realities of working in International Development overseas before I begin desperately air dropping copies of my CV across the world. As our group’s time with TradeAID draws to a close, this is an ambition that has certainly been fulfilled, and whilst many of the things I have felt were to be expected, a lot of my experiences have surprised me and challenged my assumptions.

Having been totally unfamiliar with Ghanaian culture preceding my placement, I did as much research as possible, poring over Bradt’s guide and reading this blog religiously. Perhaps somewhat predictably, perusing the internet from my comfortable flat in London could never have prepared me for actually living and working in the Upper East for ten weeks, attempting to make a tangible and sustainable difference to a project with a group of strangers each with a unique experience and outlook. 

Team Group Reflection on 'Youth and Development'

Needless to say, one of the challenges lies in how to bring these together to form a cohesive and effective team, and if I am totally honest, one of the things that surprises me the most is the simple fact that it worked. And that is ultimately testament to the fact that we all cared enough about the project to leave our own preconceptions behind and use our idiosyncrasies for good, as opposed to letting them get between us. Oh and Emily’s a bangin Team Leader and a beacon of effective management.

Barbecue with the Zurungu community and TradeAID
(Mr Nicholas is in the centre of the photo) 
Much as we would all like to claim that we were solely concerned with the loftier aims of our time here, the placement is equally about personal development. This was another thing that surprised me- at the very beginning of my time in Bolgatanga I was slightly frustrated by the fact that my exact role, what to do and how to do it, the exact aim of it, etc, wasn’t explicitly delineated, and I couldn’t see exactly where everything “was going”, what higher need was I addressing? And that brings me to perhaps the most important lessons that I learnt with regards this placement specifically and then international development in a wider sense. Firstly, things weren’t clearly outlined because you make of it what you want and what you can, and that is really precious; you are given a brief, and then a blank canvas upon which to make your mark, which is exciting and rare in the professional world. I know that this was due in no small part to the way we were treated by our partner TradeAID, Mr Nicholas (Executive Director and all round example of how to be good at being human) and his unending enthusiasm and openness to our suggestions. Secondly, that there exists a fluidity to working in development that I haven’t experienced before- things change at the last minute, and instead of having mini breakdowns or endless meetings about how to deal with it, people just get on with it. You look at something from a different angle, you ask someone who has a different perspective, and the project evolves in an organic way.

What is frustrating, ultimately, is not the feeling of one’s helplessness or inability to change the situation- in short, to “save the world”, it’s the mundane, everyday obstacles. It’s the lack of electricity, the internet, the crappy toilet (excuse the pun), the heat, and whether or not your sweat patches have made it look like you’ve wet yourself in your beige chinos. And whilst these are very real concerns that at the time can be infuriating, if your major concern is that you are temporarily hindered from giving your absolute best to a project that you believe in and care about, I think you’re probably doing pretty well. My advice, then, to anyone taking on this placement would be this: bring some intelligence, a good dose of patience, humour and a lot of heart and you’ll be grand. Now where are those CVs.­­

Taking a selfie of the group when we first arrived at TradeAID

By Hala

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